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Holier Than Thou

Posted on 02 Sep 2018

September 2, 2018

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman


Scripture note: We like to think of Jesus as comforting and loving. We do not like to think of Jesus as critical or harsh, and yet Jesus is critical and harsh in this passage. Writing about the seventh chapter of Mark, Professor Elisabeth Johnson writes, “In the Gospels, it seems that Jesus saves his sharpest words, his most pointed criticism, for the most religious.” ( And sometimes, the most religious need to hear that pointed criticism so we can walk Jesus’ way more faithfully. I invite you to hear the good news of God.



What do the French Open, the University of Saint Joseph, and the Pharisees all have in common?

All are steeped in tradition; all prize their rich traditions; and each have had their long-standing traditions challenged. Each, though, has reacted in a different way to that challenge.


When Serena Williams wore a black cat suit to play tennis in the French Open this past year, she made quite a stir. While Serena says that wearing it made her feel like a super hero, it also had practical considerations – the prevention of blood clots, a serious problem she has been struggling with.

The French Tennis Federation had a different view. “I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” their president, Bernard Giudicelli, said as he announced the new dress code. “He specifically mentioned Williams’ outfit and declared: “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.” (


The French Tennis Federation sounds a lot like the Pharisees. “Why do you not live according to the tradition of the elders, but play in defiling clothing?”


This past week, the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford also encountered a significant change. They welcomed 99 male students to their historically female only campus. St. Joe’s did not undertake this decision lightly, and despite all of the reasons for the change, some of their alumnae are not happy about this change in tradition. Their comments in the Hartford Courant sounded very Pharisee: “Why do you not live according to our tradition, but allow in those creatures who defile?”

St. Joe’s president Rhona Free had a different perspective. In speaking on NPR’s “Where We Live”, President Free put it so nicely by saying that some alumnae were disappointed because they wanted future students to have the same experience they did.

When I heard President Free say that, I thought of the Pharisees and this scripture passage in a new light. What if the Pharisees were not hypocrites, holding on to human tradition instead of God? What if the reason they were insisting everyone live their way, their life, their truth was because they were disappointed or sad for others to not connect with God in the same way they did?


After all, their tradition was not a meaningless set of rules. It was the way the Israelites had built a fence around their people. These traditions were their witness to other nations that the Israelites were God’s people, and God had their total devotion – not just on days of worship, on every single day, in every single way, even in how they ate and washed.

This preserving of their identity and their ways of worshipping God were especially important in Jesus’ time when the Israelites were occupied by Roman and surrounded by Rome’s worship of many gods.

The Pharisees thought Jesus and his disciples were disrespecting God. The Pharisees were disappointed that Jesus and his disciples to not want to connect with God in the same way that they did, the same way that their ancestors had done for centuries.

It seems really understandable so why does Jesus call them hypocrites? Why does Jesus quote Isaiah 29:13 and say, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (Mark 7:6-7) If you go to Isaiah, this passage actually ends with “their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” (Isaiah 29:13)


Why does Jesus call them hypocrites? Why is Jesus so critical and harsh? Because these traditions have become idols to worship instead of ways to connect with God.


In her commentary on this passage, Professor Elisabeth Johnson writes:


The problem with the Pharisees and scribes, according to Jesus, was that they had become so focused on the externals of faithfulness that they neglected to examine their own hearts. Their efforts to live faithfully were putting up walls of alienation instead of drawing them closer to God and to their neighbors. The rituals they observed created a spiritual hierarchy between the “clean” and the “unclean.” Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty or contaminated.


While there will always be people who use God and faith to divide, to gain power, to put themselves in a superior position, I do not believe this was the intention of all of the Pharisees. They were religious, faithful, devoted people. And I wonder how many of them were struck to the heart by Jesus’ words that day. I wonder how many of them walked away from this encounter and re-examined their connection to God, re-examined their “religious pretensions” (The Voice Mark 7:6)


Do you ever take a moment to examine your “religious pretensions”? Your beliefs about the right way to worship God? Because we all have them, even if we are not conscious of them.

For those of us who grew up in a church, we were taught a certain way to dress for worship, act in worship, pray, read scripture, and be a Christian. The problem though is that depending on what tradition we grew up in, those absolute ways are different. And when you did not grow up in a church at all, as is the case with a growing majority of our society, those absolute ways are unknown to you. They aren’t even a way you know how to connect with and honor God.


In a previous church, one of the deacons grew up Baptist in the South. This church was not Baptist or in the south however the rest of the deacons adored and respected Shirley so when she suggested that the deacons begin wearing white gloves and sashes when they served communion, no one had the heart – or guts to tell her no. Instead, the deacons spent months and months researching and discussing sashes and gloves until the conversation became stalled and then forgotten.

Shirley’s suggestion was completely heart-felt. It was an important way she had been taught to honor God, just as the Pharisees had been taught to wash their hands before eating. It would not have been heart-felt for this New England church though. It just was not the way the rest of the congregation connected with and honored God.


Last week, we welcomed guests for a baptism. Next week, we will welcome guests for Fall Fun Sunday – and yes, I am going to call it that until you all call it that.

Every Sunday actually, we are blessed to welcome guests to worship, to know and connect with God. They do not always share our traditions though. They won’t always know our ways, or connect with God in the same way we do. They might bring coffee cups or their own Bibles to worship. They might stand for the scripture reading and sit for the hymns. They might be moved by the Holy Spirit to raise their hands and say Amen out loud during the time of prayer. They might wonder where the Apple Pay is for the offering. And they might be children, and children, all of our children, are children. They talk, make noise, ask questions, walk around, laugh. And it’s okay. They, we, are just being the people God created us to be, connecting with God the way we are called.

It’s wonderful to want someone else to experience God the way you do, to connect with God the way you do; however what’s most important is that they connect with God.

What’s most important is that we all authentically connect with God, living in God’s love, living out God’s love, and welcoming all to know the good news of God’s love in their lives.