14th Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 7:(1-13) 14-23
Exurge Domine, et iudica causam tuam! “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause!” These are the dramatic words at the beginning of the papal proclamation of 1520 threatening Martin Luther with excommunication if he didn’t recant his teachings. It goes on to say in a dramatic way, “Foxes are tearing down the vines…. An especially wild boar out of the woods is snorting about and rooting the vineyard!” The hunters are called to the rescue!
A wild boar indeed! Martin Luther is usually charged on two counts: too much bondage on the one hand, and too much freedom on the other. Too much bondage, because Luther wrote about the uselessness of the term “freewill.” Yeah, he said, if you’re talking about what to eat for breakfast, sure, we human beings have freewill. But when it comes to the things of God, our human will is not free…it’s a prisoner of so many forces—present circumstances, past consequences, and above all, our own sin. Citing St. Paul, “The good that I would, I do not; the evil I would not, I do.” There’s a man whose will is not free!
But then Herr Luther is also charged with allowing too much freedom. To his friend and colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, whose piety always had him tied up in knots trying to decide what God’s will for him was in any given situation, Luther told him bluntly (and famously) “Sin boldly! But…believe more boldly still!” In other words, do something, even if it’s sin! Reckless!
For friend and foe alike, there’s too much bondage, too much freedom. These contradictory charges just show how puzzled folks are about Luther’s vision which animated the Reformation.
Now you may be puzzled about what Martin Luther has to do with our text today. Today’s Reading from Mark 7 is the conclusion to last Sunday’s Reading. Last Sunday we got the Pharisees and some scribes bent out of shape because some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t observe the tradition of ceremonially washing their hands before eating. It’s not about healthcare. Even if they had washed their hands when they came in to eat, they weren’t doing the little ritual of pouring some water over their hands at the table.
So to these Pharisees, without that ritual, the disciples’ hands are defiled. And if their hands are defiled, so is their food. And if their food is defiled, so are they. Jesus snarled, “You hypocrites…you honor Me with your lips, but your hearts are far from Me.”
Now, today, we get the other half of that episode. Jesus now says to the people, “Nothing outside a person going into him can defile him.” The things that come from the inside out are what defile a person. And then later, to His Twelve, Jesus explains, “Out of the heart comes evil” and He names a whole list of foul things: pride, envy, slander, and all the violations of the Commandments. “These,” He says to them, “these defile a person.”
But you see, it’s not simply a matter of whether we keep the traditions or not. Nor is it a matter of controlling the words on our tongue or the thoughts of our heart. To come at the question that way makes it a matter of Law. But for Martin Luther…because he got it by way of St. Paul, who got it from Jesus…for Luther, freedom isn’t a matter of Law. It’s a matter of the Gospel! Which means it is of Christ. So what does that mean?
This whole text from Mark 7, last week’s first half and today’s second, is the sort of text which can be used for all sorts of mischief. One frequent misuse is to cite the text to condemn traditions. “Well look…the Pharisees are really big into tradition…and Jesus, well, He flaunts it. Not just here, but all over the place …healing on the Sabbath, touching unclean people, the lepers and the dead, associating with outcasts. Jesus breaks with tradition.”
And citing this passage, zealous Church innovators will throw out anything that’s older than two or three minutes ago. “Tradition? Bah!” And you get churches decked out like a nightclub, preachers in Hawaiian shirts, and the Lord’s Supper with a Coke and taco chips. “Tradition? We don’t need no stinkin’ tradition! We are free!” Except…that’s not what Jesus is saying.
Now, we could also misuse this text to create an artificial division in the human person. We could say that there is a difference between the inner man and the outer. And look-ee here in the Reading, Jesus is only concerned about the inner man, what’s in the heart. So He really doesn’t care so much what your hands find to do, so long as your heart is in the right place. “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right!” Faith, you know, not works. Believe in God and you can do whatever you want. But…that’s not freedom either. It’s just exchanging one bondage for another.
Argh! So what’s the solution? Tell us! Tell us which way to go! Keep the traditions? Don’t keep the traditions? Inner man? Outer man? Which is it? Ah…how quickly we find ourselves in bondage once again, bound by our choices. So much for freewill!
Martin Luther’s answer is Christ. He once wrote, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none.” To none, neither God nor man! Because Jesus Christ has died, the Law no longer has any hold on Him. Which Law? From hand washing to killing, from traditions in worship to having no other gods, from living fully in the world to living fully apart from the world…whatever Law you care to name. Christ died to it on the cross.
And we, in Holy Baptism, we have died along with Christ. We are free…with Him. Completely free. Is the question whether to follow a liturgy or not? We point to the cross. Is the question whether a soldier can take a human life or not? We point to the cross. Is the question about what is right or wrong? We point to the cross.
“Hey…you can’t do that! Human beings can’t handle that kind of freedom? Someone has to tell us what to do!”
So what usually happens here with Luther’s thesis on freedom, is to race, as fast as we can, to his second thesis on freedom. He wrote, “The Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” Whew! Like a trembling gerbil safely back in its cage, we slam the door with this second Lutheran thesis against the recklessness of the first. Ah, someone will tell us what to do…even if it means that the Pharisees win out once again!
But for Martin Luther, this second thesis is not a contradiction to the first. Free and dutiful are not mutually contradictory. The second goes hand in hand with the first. A person cannot truly be a dutiful servant unless he is truly free; and vice versa, he is not free unless he is also dutiful.
And of all people, it is only Jesus who is so completely free that He is the complete servant of all. He is so completely free of sin that He becomes the greatest of all sinners on the cross. He is so fully free in life, that He is so fully obedient in giving up His life. That’s freedom. So fully intoxicated with the promises of God that He is so fully obedient to the Law of God. And Jesus is so completely obedient, because He is so completely free.
But can this work? For us? We’re not Jesus! A-ha…and here we finally get to the heart of it all. This freedom comes only in Christ. Force or persuasion cannot set us free. (For that matter, neither force nor persuasion can make us obedient). Only Christ. Only Christ.
So here is Christ…for you…given in these words I now speak in your hearing. Here is Christ…for you…given in the Holy Supper you soon will eat. Here is Christ, who was first for you in your own baptism. Christ. And in Him, you have a new heart, free, flowing into new hands, free, making even the oldest of traditions, the strictest of laws, free.
Isn’t this too dangerous? Too risky? Don’t we need more rules…perhaps just some better Pharisees? Well…look at the terrible shape the world is in these days. Do we lack for laws? Do we lack for schemes and programs? Do vile things no longer come from human hearts?
Luther believed that what the world needs is more freedom, not less. Not a freedom of the Law, but of Christ. It might be interesting to see what would happen if we listened to Luther’s belief, from here inside the church building to the world outside.
Luther took it to heart like few others, and his heart beat with new life, the Christ life. So now it comes to us…to the heart of the matter. In Christ, we are free. In Christ, we are obedient. Obediently free? Freely obedient? Which one?! Ah…take it to Jesus!