Keep the Light Switch On
We bid a fond farewell to our five-week sojourn in John’s Bread of Life Discourse and return to Mark’s gospel. We take up where we left off five weeks ago, sort of. We heard Mark’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:30-44), his Walking on Water (Mark 6:45-52, which was omitted by the lectionary), and his Healing the Sick in Gennesaret (Mark 6:53-56). It might be necessary for preachers to briefly re-orient our hearers – at least the ones who weren’t on vacation during the Bread of Life sermons.
The lectionary folks have chopped up the first half of Mark 7, omitting verses 9-13 and 16-20. Put them back in. Yes, these verses have some challenging and concerning statements and ideas. But that’s why we get the big money, right? Seriously, the omitted verses are important to understanding the text as a whole. Even if we omit them in the public reading for this Sunday, an honest interpreter needs to take them into account.
The gospel of Mark is overflowing with the marks of oral communication and presentation, including the use of chiasms. I think the section of Mark’s gospel that includes chapter seven is an example of such usage. I’m not pointing this out to show off, and I don’t think you will probably mention this in a sermon or homily. The reason to go after this technical issue is twofold – to see the parallels built into Mark’s description of the events, and to identify the “center” of the section, which has the theme for our reflection.
I begin by reading the text with this structure.
A= Mark 7:1-5, eating with defiled hands
B=Mark 7:6-13, having backward priorities
C=Mark 7:14-15, the central theme
B’=Mark 7:16-19, having God’s priorities
A’=Mark 7:20-23, what really defiles a person
I think the structure should probably be expanded to include Mark 6:53-56 and Mark 7:24-30. These healing stories parallel one another and illustrate the central point in Mark 7. In the earlier healing story, Jesus responds to all (presumably Jewish) comers in the land of Gennesaret. In the later healing story, Jesus initially rebuffs the request of the Syro-Phoenician woman but acquiesces to her superior humility and theology.
The healing of the deaf man in the Decapolis is an inclusio, I think, that caps off the arc of the story which began in chapter 2. The punch line in Mark 7:37 is such an obvious applause line if one is thinking about oral performance of the gospel story. Chapter 8 begins with an obvious reset, “In those days again…”
We will address the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman – one of my favorite gospel accounts – next week. We then jump, (unfortunately for a sense of continuity) straight to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8:27-38. I understand that the lectionary folks see some duplication of themes in the early parts of chapter 8. But we as preachers need to have those passages in mind and perhaps can refer to some of them as illustrations of themes that Mark wishes to highlight.
Before I return to the chiasm, I want to highlight what appears to me as another rhetorical strategy in Mark’s gospel. It seems that every time Jesus has a big “moment” (like the Feeding of the Five Thousand), Jesus’ opponents push back with equal and opposite resistance.
Jesus hits a home run with his feeding miracle, and how do the opponents respond? They launch into a critique of the handwashing etiquette of the disciples. In fact, one of the ideas that ties this section together is “food.” Just as Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath earlier in the gospel account, so here Jesus is clearly the Lord of the Bread as well. His opponents immediately call his authority into question by pointing to the “bad manners” of his followers.
This dynamic reminds me of the antiracism/racism tug of war described by Ibram X. Kendi and others. Every advance in antiracist policy and practice is met by an advance in racist policy and practice.
The gains of Reconstruction were destroyed by the terrors of Jim Crow. The flourishing of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa was met with the inhuman destruction of the white riots of 1921. The advances of Civil Rights legislation were derailed by stupid Supreme Court decisions. The promise of integration was met with the privatization of white spaces. The election of a black man as president of the United States provoked Donald Trump’s reign of terror.
I appreciate Jemar Tisby’s encouragement in how we white people can respond to the rigors of this tug of war. In How to Fight Racism, he encourages us to “keep the light switch on.”
Tisby puts it this way. “There’s a big difference between a light switch and a smoke alarm. A light switch can be turned on and off. A smoke alarm is always on. Racial justice for white people is often like a light switch. You can turn it on or off whenever you feel like it. But for people of color, racial justice is more like a smoke alarm. It always has to be on just to keep safe and avoid danger” (page 185).
Tisby makes two points here. On the one hand, for people of color there is no “light switch.” The reality of racism performed as white supremacy is always “on” for people of color. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy for most of us white folks to “turn the switch off” when things get a little hard, or we lose interest, or we get distracted.
He urges us to develop structures and routines – what I would call practices – to make sure that this isn’t just a matter of willpower. Those practices include budgeting time for racial justice activism, giving sacrificially to support racial justice work, watching our language so we don’t give positive press to racists, using our own platforms to work for racial justice, supporting minority-owned or led businesses, supporting political candidates working for racial justice, being intentional about where we send our kids to school, where we shop, where we work, and where we play.
I mention these practices because they can take us back to Mark’s account. Could it be that Mark’s gospel is structured to remind those early Christians to “keep the light switch on”? The path of least resistance for many, if not all, of those Markan Christians was probably to give in to the cultural pressure to return to paganism. The more “success” the Christian movement experienced, at least in the first three centuries, the more pushback there was from the larger culture.
Unlike people of color, the early Christians could have turned the light switch off. But if they chose not to and to resist the challenges to their faith and life, they needed practices to keep them faithful. It’s no accident that this section of Mark’s gospel is about the proper practices that identify one as a member of a community of faith.
This is not an excuse to “bash the Jews” for being legalists as opposed to being people of faith. That’s not what this text is about. Jews had died for those cultural and religious identity markers as a matter of faith any number of times over the previous five hundred years.
“Purity in matters of food was as important as anything in postexilic Israelite practice,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “though what is under discussion here is the Pharisaic expression of Israelite custom rather than the Law of Moses. Here Jesus rejects the former in favor of the latter” (page 221). While the customary actions were practiced primarily by city elites, they note, the demands were made upon everyone who wished to be called a faithful Jew.
There is as well, therefore, a class dimension to this clash of customs. “Keeping purity laws was a near impossibility for peasant farmers,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “who may not have the required water for ritual baths, or for fishermen, who came in constant contact with dead fish, dead animals, and the like. It was also very difficult,” they note, “for people who traveled about such as Jesus and his disciples” (page 221).
The primary practices Jesus advocates in this text do not focus on external purity. Instead, the first practice is to honor the full intent of God’s commandments rather than blurring that intent through the vagaries of case law. Exceptions and equivocations can multiply to the point that the heart of the commandment no longer matters. When self-interest drives that process, there is no limit to the possible abuses that can ensue.
The second practice is to focus on relational holiness rather than physical purity. Jesus focuses on the filial relationship to parents. He then expands that to an examination of the human heart, the source of “evil intentions.” Many of these evil intentions result in the breaking of community, the exclusion of the stranger, and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Defilement has more to do with maintaining (or transgressing) community integrity than it does with maintaining bodily purity.
The places this text can take us are manifold. I think of all the church-dividing issues that resolve down in one way or another to differing commitments to “purity” – for example, the war within parts of the American church over whether LGBTQIA+ people should have the same places in the pews and at the table as non-LGBTQIA+ people. Of course, this “purity” battle is also being waged in bathrooms and on athletic fields across the country at the expense of transgender children and adults.
We would be well-served as Christians to place such conversations within the framework of the debate here in Mark 7. If we did that, we might get closer to getting those issues right. I am grateful that those for whom such issues are not a “light switch” continue to press the Church to be faithful to Jesus rather than imprisoned by culture.
Of course, even Jesus didn’t get it all right without such a push. But that’s a conversation for next week. Next time, we’ll look at the text itself in greater detail.
References and Resources
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.