14th Sunday After Pentecost
Song of Songs 2.8-13
Psalm 45. 1-2, 6-9
Mark 7.1-8, 14-23
In our gospel reading today, we heard a passage, that is forever labeled in my mind as ‘the donut passage.’ This is thanks to the comment of one of my fellow theology students several years ago.
In this passage we hear Jesus announce that all food is clean. In doing this he appears to dispel the Jewish dietary laws of the time, essentially saying that food enters one end of our bodies, does its thing in the middle and comes out the other end. This is the analogy of donuts. Food doesn’t contaminate the body – it doesn’t really ‘touch‘ the body, the tract is like the hole in the middle of a donut – hence ‘the donut passage’.
What is Jesus really saying in this donut passage?
Perhaps the most obvious answer could be that all food is clean, and the Jews were a bit too obsessive about all the hand washing, cleaning food, bowls and cups. Perhaps we could also say that these observances were religiously encouraged safety measures, or even that there was a general improvement (relatively speaking) in animal care that made these measures less needed – and therefore Jesus could say that all food is clean.
We could perhaps liken this to a scene from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, were Bilbo intervenes – in an attempt to stall for time – telling the trolls that they can’t eat his companions (the dwarves) as they are just riddled with parasites and worms. They are not ‘safe‘ to eat.This scene from the Hobbit is an example of the need to be selective about what food you eat – after all you don’t want to get worms! And as recent events with COVID have shown, acts such as washing your hands (among other things) can significantly stop the spread of illness.
So if it’s not about hygiene and food safety measures, why is this passage so provocative? What are the implications?
Let’s take a moment to look at some statements;
Not all Jews at this time followed these dietary laws.
Not all Christians wear a cross.
Not all Christians say a prayer before they go to bed.
Not all Christians choose not to eat red meat on Good Friday.
But some do.
If you are one of the people who do these things, why? If you aren’t, why do you think some people might?
We may come up with a number of different reasons, but at the heart of it, part of doing these acts serves as an expression of our faith. These things help us form our religious identity. Likewise these dietary laws help to form the Jewish religious identity – for those who follow them. For us today sitting here as Christians in Australia in the 21st century, these dietary laws have minimal importance, but to the Jews surrounding Jesus, this was not the case.
This passage is provocative because it challenges a very visible display of religious identity. People were put to death for holding fast to these laws, just as people are still put to death today for various displays of religious identity around the world.
In the second book of Maccabees, we have the story of Eleazar who was tortured to death for refusing to eat pork. Stories like this would have been in the memory of the Jews of Jesus time, who yet again were living under oppression, this time it was under Roman rule. The Jews who held on to this practice and all the other observances and teachings of the Law and Torah, were doing so under a system of oppression, and may have viewed these practices as a chance to hold on to their identity, to hold on to that small symbol of freedom in the face of oppression.
Jesus is not saying that having a religious identity is the issue. It is not so much the external expression of faith the Jesus is challenging, but the internal workings. If we go back to our donut shape, it is not the hole in the middle or the food that passes through that hole. It is the bit between the hole and the outside world (the actual donut) that is at stake. It is the heart or mind. It is the issue of honouring with ones lips (or actions) while their heart is far away from the act. As Jesus said ‘there is nothing outside.. that can defile since it enters, not the heat but the stomach…. it is what comes out that defiles, from the human heart…’ seen in acts of wickedness and internal attitudes.
It is not a matter of hygiene, or religious identity but of religious scruples, morals, principle or standards. In this model, defilement and sin was not something to be caught like a germ or an infection. Instead Jesus was saying it was more like a cancer or tumour, a growth from within.
Likewise if we look further on in the the letter from James we hear that anger itself is not the issue, it is the outburst, the uncontrolled anger and quarrelling that is the point of concern. James points out that our actions are a reflection of the goodness of God. We are the first fruit of God’s works. For James, this is an example of pure and undefiled religion, where not only is God’s word heard, it changes us and compels us to act, to care for the most needy among us and not seek after worldly glory or wealth. If we allow our hearts (minds) to be open to God and in relationship with God, if we allow ourselves to be fruitful and in a right relationship with God. We mirror the goodness of God. This concept of purity and right relationship with God is about so much more than food, so much more than big visible actions. It is about our internal state that drives those actions.
If we eagerly seek and wait in anticipation for our beloved, our beloved will come effortlessly skipping over mountains and hills – no obstacle too great. With joy and enthusiasm we will wait to come out in the spring, the perfect time of new life and rebirth. Although at the moment we look around us and see so much heartache and unrest in the world – as if it is still winter, we can hold on to this hope of spring – for rebirth and new life.
This process of coming into spring is something we are already participating in, through our baptisms and also our confirmations. We enter into process of change that calls us to express love through our actions, as we mirror God’s word in our lives. Hospitality or rather love is central to this expression of changed identity. But in order to help, to love and be hospitable we must be able to listen, to be slow to speak, to seek the truth. At the centre of this is God’s presence and God’s word acting on our lives. Calling us not only to listen but to act. To love God and to love one another. To hold and care for those in need amongst us and also further away, as we seek to hear the truth. Seeking truth through listening and trying to understand the other – to try and understand from their perspective, to try and walk a mile in their shoes.
We may need to look at our lives to see if we can see examples of ‘the donut passage’ or maybe examples of donut moments, and for what it may look like to live out our faith acknowledging where our hearts truly are. This is not a passage about safe food practices and worms, or hygiene and washing hands. This is a passage about staying true to God and allowing God to work through us. To mirror God in a way that does not strip us of our religious identities, but to draw us closer to God. We cannot afford to become so lost in human ritual that we fail to see God or care for one another.
We may be God’s donuts, ultimately what we eat does not take us away from God, but what we do to ourselves and one another and how we do it or rather where our hearts lies can. This is the issue Jesus is calling out, just Isaiah and the other prophets had done before him. This issue continues to challenge us today. The issue of where our hearts lie, mirroring the goodness of God or far from our lips?