Checking the Box
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 7:1–7:13
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 22, 2021
“Checking the Box”
Let’s see, I have my sharpened #2 pencils – check. I have notebooks and paper ready to go – check. I have my eraser – check. I have crayons, glue, and calculator – check. Here are my colored pencils and gel pens – check. I’ve got a ruler and scissors – check. I’ve got my lunch – that’s really important – check. And I have my mask that’s needed to keep me and others around me safe – check. So what does all of this mean? Back to school, of course! Schools throughout our area are starting up for a new year of learning. Some school districts have already begun; others start tomorrow; and others will begin in a week or so. After going through a very challenging year with remote learning, and then hybrid learning, this new school year kicks off with in-person classroom learning. There are lots of boxes to be checked as students, parents, and teachers get ready for the first day of school and the new school year. It’s appropriate for us, especially now, to ask the Lord’s protection, guidance and blessing upon all who teach and all who learn. As we think about checking lots of boxes at the beginning of a new school year, we see some box checking going on in today’s Gospel lesson as Jesus confronts the religious leaders over questions about traditions and commandments; about what it means to honor God. This becomes the theme for preaching today: “Checking the Box.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
The Pharisees had all kinds of traditions that weren’t actually written in the Divine Law as received through Moses (Pentateuch), but were part of oral tradition that had been passed down as interpretation of Moses’ teaching (τήν παράδοσιν). Included in this were purification rites, not for hygenic purposes, but to keep oneself ritually clean. Your hands might become ritually unclean while you’re out and about by accidentally brushing up against a Gentile, or a Gentile’s possession, or anything else that was ritually unclean. And so when you, as a Hebrew, returned home, you would ensure that you washed your hands according to the tradition of the elders to make yourself ritually clean once again. Jesus’ disciples were not doing this, and this became the point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders. We know from our own experience that tempers can flare when traditions are not followed or are disregarded. In quoting the verse from the prophet Isaiah (found in today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 29:11-19), Jesus called the religious leaders “hypocrites” (τών ΰποκριτών). That’s a strong accusation, and behind this word choice of Jesus is an interesting meaning. The original word relates to drama and theater in the Greco-Roman world in which actors on stage often wore a mask to represent their character on stage. That’s stage presence, but the actor’s real character is not visible to anyone. And that is what Jesus says these religious rulers have become; they are something other than what they represent themselves to be. They had substituted God’s Law with human tradition, and those traditions became so entrenched, so engrained, within the life of God’s people, that they took on a life of their own. So much so that the religious leaders came to believe that they were godly, that they had a right relationship with God, that they made themselves clean before God because they meticulously and scrupulously fulfilled the letter of the Law, including all of those traditions. Simple, heart-felt faith was obscured by the mountain of customs, rituals, and traditions. That is what we would call checking the box.
We’re different, though, right? We don’t check the box when it comes to faith, right? We don’t watch the clock to see if the sermon runs too long or the service goes over an hour, right? We don’t get upset if the service time that’s most convenient for us changes, right? We don’t confuse what is the main thing – the primary mission of the church – with things that are less important, right? We don’t do stuff like that, do we? Not much has changed with human nature over the centuries. We are strikingly similar to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Without even realizing it, we can start to displace God’s commands with our own wishes and desires; our own traditions. In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with traditions, but these cannot get in the way or obscure the kingdom of God. Then and now, traditions can become troublesome. Truth can be silenced in order to uphold tradition. So what is it in our own lives that Jesus would undo in order to set things right? A right relationship with God is not based on just paying lip service; going through the motions; doing external formalities, and checking the box. It’s more than some tradition that looks good on the surface, but does not address what is hidden beneath our mask; something that others might not be able to see, but the Lord sees and knows full well. Nothing is hidden from his sight, as the psalm for today makes clear: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3).
So what’s the good news here? The word that Mark uses to describe how God’s people washed their hands, pots, and pans is the very same word that the New Testament uses to describe how God washes and cleans us. That word is “baptism” (βαπτίσωνται). What our mere ritual washing could never do, God has done for us in holy Baptism: He’s made us acceptable and pleasing to him. He has made us godly. He has declared that we are his beloved children; sons and daughters of hope and promise through this washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) that unites us with Jesus in his own death and resurrection (Romans 6:1ff.). All of Jesus – his life and ministry; his innocent suffering and death upon the cross as payment for our sins; his glorious resurrection from the dead – all of this is freely given to us in the waters of Holy Baptism. It is God’s gracious gift that grants forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Baptism is not about what we can do for God – it’s the other way around. Baptism is all about what God in Christ can do, and indeed has done, for us. It’s not because of any merit or worthiness on our part. It is all about the free gift of God’s amazing grace that really does create in us new and clean hearts (Psalm 51:10); that makes us a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). All of this moves us away from checking the box to checking ourselves, affirming that we know where we stand before the Lord. We know who we are, and we know Whose we are. Our trust is not in ourselves and outward traditions, but in the power of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ that flows to each and every one of us through Word and Sacrament.
As students, parents, and teachers all check lots of to-do boxes at the start of a new school year, may the Lord renew in us all the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12). May our lips and our whole lives become a song of praise and thanksgiving to God who has bestowed on us the blessing of his saving love. Amen.