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Tony's Reflection 64
Back in 2002, a BBC poll which attracted more than a million voters declared Winston Churchill the greatest English person who has ever lived, way ahead of both Princess Diana and Darwin.
I grew up with stories of Churchill’s greatness. Parents and grandparents would tell me, with awe still in their voices, even after all these years, how the whole family would cluster around the radio to listen to Churchill’s speeches. They would tell how he breathed hope and courage into their hearts as the bombs were falling and British forces being routed on every front. How his fearless determination turned the war around and saved our nation.
I still honour Churchill as a national hero. It is hard to find words to describe how I felt recently, to see his statue defaced amid accusations of racism.
Whether you think I am right or wrong about Churchill, I guess you can understand how it feels when someone tries to bring down your hero.
Jesus is walking on some very thin ice in this week’s episode from Mark (
Last week we saw him taking on the Pharisees over what was truly at the heart of the Old Testament rules about clean and unclean. This wasn’t just an academic theological dispute. It cut right to the heart of the religion and faith held dear by all of Jesus’ countrymen.
Jesus now goes a step further. In fact it is not just a step, more of a giant leap. Jesus is about to place a bomb under all his contemporaries hold dear and press the detonation button. That is probably why he went to hide away and lie low among the non-Jews, immediately afterwards (Mark 7:24). He was about to bring down their heroes.
I grew up with stories of Churchill’s heroism. Every child in Jesus’ day grew up with stories about the Jewish martyrs. Stories like this one, where the martyrs had refused a pagan ruler who was ordering them to defile themselves by eating pork. This was against God’s laws in the Old Testament on cleanness. Eating pork would make them unclean. So they refused.
“Antiochus IV Epiphanes arrested a mother and her seven sons and tried to force them to eat pork. One of the brothers said that even if they were all to die, they would not break God’s law. The angry king ordered the first brother to have his tongue cut off, the skin to be removed from the head and the ends of the limbs cut off – the brothers and mother just encouraged each other to resist. When the first martyr was inert and still breathing, Epiphanes ordered him to be thrown into a hot frying pan. Each of the seven brothers endured the same torture. The torment of the sons was watched by their tenacious mother, who bore it bravely and put her trust in the Lord.” (Wikipedia
Jesus will tell us what the meaning of clean and unclean really is. It wasn’t to do with eating pork or not. It would sound as if he was “trashing” heroes like the mother and her seven sons, who the people around him had venerated, from their mothers’ knees.
Jesus is utterly fearless, though. What he has to say, just has to be said… It is time for the people to learn what steadfastly fearing being made unclean is really all about.
The exchange with the Pharisees, in last week’s episode, where they wanted to catch Jesus out over the issue of being unclean, had been in private.
Jesus now has his high explosives to lay and detonate under the popular beliefs of his day and he wants to do it in public.
He calls the crowd to him, takes a deep breath and begins…
“How can what you eat make you unclean? It comes from the outside, it goes into your stomach and then into the toilet. How can that make you unclean? It’s what’s inside you and then comes out that makes you unclean.”
Jesus at first is speaking in a parable. Certainly to the crowd. How do you break the news that folk heroes like the mother and the seven sons died refusing to eat something that wouldn’t really make them unclean? You do it gently. You plant the thought in their mind cryptically. They probably won’t get it straight away, but it will take root inside and do its work of convincing about where true uncleanness comes from.
The disciples just don’t get it at all, though. Jesus’ subtlety and gentleness is totally lost on them. He can’t believe how dull they are. Surely anyone with an ounce of intelligence could work out what this means?
Jesus spells it out in words of one syllable. This truth was so revolutionary in its day Mark wants to be sure his readers don’t miss the point, either, so he spells it out bluntly, too: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (verse 19).
Remember the zeal the Pharisees had about staying clean? Think about the determination shown by that mother and her sons. Jesus wants us to be just as zealous and determined about avoiding what is unclean - except the focus is not on what we eat, but on what lurks deep down inside us.
Our own evil thoughts are what defile us and make us unclean, impure. Jesus gives us a list of examples - sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.
That list hits us all, somewhere. We are all defiled, impure, unclean and unable to come before God. The problem isn’t superficial, either. It’s not to do with what we eat, it’s all about the thoughts and emotions that well up, all by themselves, from deep within.
Deep down, we are defiled and can’t even come before God. It’s our very nature.
What can be done?
Mark will tell us later about the answer Jesus brings.
First, we need to know there is a problem.