(A Lection Reflection on Mark 7)
Some years ago, the denomination I was serving in was in the midst of a wrenching fight. One group was trying to take control of the denomination, and they were framing their tactics as “returning to the truth” — which meant, of course, that anyone who disagreed with them was automatically on the side of falsehood.
One day, the pastor I served with returned from yet another denominational meeting with yet more fighting. When I saw him come into the office, I could tell he was upset, so I asked what was wrong. Usually calm and easy-going, he replied with a strong amount of emotion, “I am so tired of people who feel called to be mean for Jesus!”
I’ve never forgotten that moment, or that phrase. Why? Because it perfectly captures a certain type of person of faith, one that many of us have had to deal with — and one that some of us may be.
Let’s talk about that person, and look in the mirror while we do.
In this week’s Gospel lection, we find the quintessential “Mean for God” group, the Pharisees, challenging Jesus on hand-washing. As in, why don’t you and your disciples wash your hands before eating? Instead of dealing with the hand-washing question, Jesus calls them out for their misplaced priorities, then sums up the problem he has with them, in a description both pithy and damning:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Wow. That cuts deep. The meaning of “Pharisee” or “hypocrite” or today’s “Mean for Jesus” crowd, wrapped up in a single phrase.
And they are still with us. You’ve seen them, I’m sure:
- They will pay for a new children’s wing, as long as none of “those” children attend.
- They pray for the missionaries overseas, but have no use for the poor and powerless on their doorstep.
- They complain if the cross isn’t in the exact center of the communion table, but don’t speak to the person with tattoos sitting alone in the service.
I could go on, but why? We could all give our own examples, probably by the tens or the hundreds: the self-righteous who measure their godliness by the number of rules they follow, rather than by the amount of love and grace they bestow. Their hearts are “far from God,” hardened by fear or hate or distrust. And worst of all, they don’t see it. They believe they are just “following the word” as they continue to be Mean for Jesus.
I could stop here, and we’d have a simple lesson: don’t be like that. Don’t feel like you have to be mean for Jesus. Don’t get wrapped up in the rules and forget the heart.
But there’s another piece of another lection that I want to bring in, to give this one extra fillip, one final plot twist. And that’s James. In our James passage, he says
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
So, let’s look in the mirror, really look.
What was the core sin of the Pharisees? What is the core sin of the “mean for Jesus” groups of our day? It is this: Their obedience to their religion blinds them to their shared humanity with the Others, and gives them license to hurt the Others in the name of their religion.
“I am religious in the right way, and you are not, therefore I am Good and you are Other. This difference is more important to me than whatever humanity we share. And, since my religion is Good, I am free to hurt you in order to get you to be obedient in the same way.”
At this point, I would bet that everyone reading this is thinking “Well, I’M not like that.” Here’s where the mirror comes in. Because being mean for Jesus is not limited to any one group, or any one theology.
Look in the mirror. Have you ever looked down on another person or group of people because their understanding of God didn’t match yours? Ever said to yourself “they just don’t get it” when talking with someone? Or let’s go right there: have you ever decided that someone’s faith was fake, even accused them of it, because they didn’t act the way you thought they should?
Let me be clear: there is a time and place to stand up for your understanding of the faith. There is a time and place to point out fruit that is out of line with God’s character. There is a time and a place to lay out differences and wrestle with implications.
But if, when doing so, you move from “this is how I see it” to “I’m more godly than you” or “I’m closer to God than you” you have moved toward that Mean for Jesus stance. And if you do it and don’t realize it, don’t catch yourself, then you are living in the James passage: you look into the Word and never see yourself.
Like that pastor I served with, I have long been tired of people being mean for Jesus. Lately, I’m also on guard against becoming like that without realizing it. Let’s see if we can find a way to be strong in the faith without being mean or blind.