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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 "Listen to me, all of you, and understand...” Up until the coming of pandemic, lockdowns, and quarantines a year and a half ago --it sometimes seems like an eternity -- it had been the custom here at Saint Margaret’s to occasionally offer the sacramental rite or ritual of healing anointing on Sunday mornings to those who were perhaps feeling under the weather for any reason or anticipating a medical examination or procedure of some sort. After prayers for the healing presence of the Lord in our lives, I would anoint with blessed oil the foreheads of those who came forward. The oil used in this rite by the way is typically pure olive oil, sometimes suffused with an aromatic resin or herb of some sort. On one such occasion years ago and in a moment of inadvertance during the anointing ceremony, I accidentally dripped a small dab of the blessed oil on the beautiful, and probably costly, silk necktie of one of our members -- a council-member no less -- much to my embarrassment and his chagrin. I feared my time at Saint Margaret’s might be shorter than originally anticipated. I apologised profusely after the service and even offered to pay for dry-cleaning, but our fellow parishioner graciously reassured me that all was well and reported later that the stain had indeed come out in the cleaning process. All was indeed well. Still, it occurred to me that in some perverse fashion I had made dirty the handsome – and clean – necktie of our parishioner not with dirt but with our blessed – and clean – oil of healing. But how was it possible that something as clean and precious as blessed oil could make a clean article of clothing dirty...? A stupid little mistake on my part to be sure but also an illustration of the importance of custom and social norms, for nobody goes about consciously wearing a necktie with a large grease spot in the middle of it. What makes something dirty is often not dirt. What sometimes makes something „dirty” or unacceptable is that which does not belong together or fit, as we or our society sees it. Dribble a drop of oil on someone’s tie or suit and suddenly, as if by magic, you have created dirt. You have created a problem for them and for yourself. It occurs to me that this little vignette from years ago might in some sense provide something of a key to understanding a passage such as the narrative from the Gospel of Mark which we have before us this morning. For, this passage is all about ritual and purity, custom and tradition; elements of everyday life in ancient Israel which are still with us today. The Pharisees and Scribes of the account are, it seems, taken aback and given offence by the fact that Jesus’ disciples are not observing the ancient rules of purity. The Evangelist Mark in fact here goes out of his way to explain in detail Jewish washing rituals and traditions to his predominantly Gentile readership, most of whom no doubt had their own social norms and customs, but who would have been unfamiliar with those of ancient Israel.

Some of you may be familiar with Mary Douglas’ now classic work on ritual and purity called, Purity and Danger, first published in 1966. In it, among much else, she emphasizes the importance of incongruity in the ancient world’s understanding of what is good and pure and holy. And, sometimes it has nothing whatever to do with morality or for that matter hygiene. Washing for instance becomes a means of restoring order in something vital to maintaining human life, eating. To maintain purity, different types or sorts of food were either avoided altogether or at least washed and prepared separately. While we may today nod in approval of the Pharisees’ insistence on clean pots and pans, their concern was not so much germs – of which they knew nothing – as it was with the outward manifestations of ritual and law, things which had come to take on a life of their own. A blind adherence to the rituals of purity had blinded the Pharisees and others to the deeper meaning and roots of all law and ritual. It is this which our Lord today seems to reject in his dialogue with the Pharisees – ironically the representatives of the more liberal, if you can believe it, understanding of the law in ancient Israel. In a sense, our Lord turns the accustomed norms and rituals of his society on their head. „Listen to me,” he says. „There is nothing outside a person that...can defile...” Customs and traditions in other words which had perhaps originally been meant to bring people together into a cohesive community and unite them with the divine had come to do just the opposite. They no longer reflected a deeper truth of good and evil, right and wrong. Empty rituals, like their first cousins the conspiracy theories of today, become nothing more than dangerous superstitions. It is after all as our Lord says, the things that come out of a person’s heart that potentially defile and bring harm. The Pharisees of course knew all of this as well as did Jesus. But then as now it is sometimes easier to go with the flow and maintain the status-quo; to lose track of the person – with all her or his complexities and needs and desires and loves and hatreds -- in a blind attempt to do things as we have always done things simply because we have always done things just that way. Rules which had been meant to bring congruity with the divine law had come to bring only dissonance and discord. The Pharisees of old are of course not alone in their blind adherence to shibboleths and empty gestures. It is always easier live at the surface than to delve into the dark, and sometimes murky, depths of the human heart, of human motivations. Ethnic and religious hatreds and prejudices persist simply because they have always persisted. Wars go on for decades simply because they have gone on for decades. Gay people are shunned because they have always been shunned. But the Gospel of Christ is clear. It is only the ritual and rite of God’s immeasurable love which heals us and brings us together – a Gospel ritual filled with repentence, acceptance, and mercy. This is a ritual and law we as followers of Christ can all embrace, for this is a ritual and way of living which once again unites us and makes us one, no matter who we are or where we are coming from. We may alas here at Saint Margaret’s shun the anointing with oil just when we seem to need it the most, during this time of pandemic and social distance, yet it has always been the inner anointing of the Spirit which matters, the inner anointing of God’s love which brings us together and incidentally never requires no dry-cleaning. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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