The Family Talk
It did not happen often, but when it did, I would cringe. I would hear my dad’s booming voice calling us in from something like the “the Neighborhood World Series of Kickball” with the cryptic two-word code: “family talk.” My older brother, Dale, and I would glare at each other, each absolutely convinced that the other was to blame for the upcoming “family talk.” The meeting never lasted long and my father was the only one who talked at this “family talk.” At the meeting’s end, Dale and I would leave with a list of changes in behavior that dad expected to see from us and see soon.
In our text from Mark, the Pharisees and scribes come from religious headquarters in Jerusalem to have a “family talk” with the young Jew, Jesus. They have one long “family talk” that is more aptly described as a family squabble. And you know how messy and awkward they can be – the long silences, the sudden stabs, the faux civility. Who wants to sit down right in the middle of a family squabble, especially over who is and who is not washing their hands before eating?
Jewish history shows that these religious leaders raise no trivial concern. “The Mishnah will later report that a rabbi who challenged a ruling of the sages on cleanness of hands, Eliezer b. Hanokh, was excommunicated (m. ‘Ed. 5:6), and the revered rabbi Akiba ate nothing while imprisoned rather than renounce the ritual washing prescribed by tradition” (Boring, ark, 199).
At first glance, it seems that these esteemed religious leaders from Jerusalem have a heartfelt passion for hygiene. But, this “talk” is about much more than hygiene. Something far more fundamental to the family is at stake than clean hands. Joel Marcus argues: “Although handwashing was not universal . . . it was widespread and was probably a ‘boundary marker’ by which Jews both identified themselves and were identified by outsiders as being set apart from neighbors” (Marcus, Mark, 441).
The issue here is less about hygiene, you see, than who belongs in the family and who does not. And, in this instance, the NRSV translation does not help us as much as it could. In verses 2 and 5, the NRSV translates a key phrase in effect that the disciples were “eating” with unclean hands. In Mark’s Greek, though, he makes the point in both cases to say that they were not only eating with unclean hands, they were “eating bread.” As Brian Blount argues: “For Mark . . . bread is always associated with . . . boundary breaking . . . Throughout the Gospel, broken and eaten bread symbolizes the openness of God’s imminent reign to all people” (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, 120-121).
Now, unlike the family talk of my childhood, Jesus can be silent for just so long. He has something to say to his aunts and uncles and cousins from Jerusalem after he has heard his fill from them. They remind Jesus who belongs in the family by using the family hygiene code and Jesus reminds them that cleanliness before God is not an exterior issue. No amount of hand washing will make the human heart clean. It is the worst form of hypocrisy, says Jesus, to honor God with our lips and worship practices (in this case, with ritual washing before meals and abstaining from unclean foods), when the heart is far from God. Lovely and inspirational worship while neglecting basic justice does not warm the heart of God.
In the book, Dwelling Place, Erskine Clarke tells the true story of Presbyterian minister and plantation patriarch, Charles Colcock Jones, whose family owned more than 100 slaves in the pre-Civil War years. With faithful regularity, Jones, a slave master, entered the slave colonies each week to preach the Gospel. “A lone candle and the fire from a clay hearth lit each dwelling,” writes Dr. Clarke, “The sick lay on crude beds whose mattresses were made of the gray moss from the surrounding swamps. Standing beside these beds, with the shadows and light dancing around him, Jones reminded the sick of the gracious promises of the Gospel, asked them if they put their trust in Jesus, and offered a prayer for their health and salvation” (147). To his credit, Jones went where other slave owners avoided.
Sadly, though, despite his benevolent impulses, Jones could never bring himself to release his slaves or to preach against the horror of enslaving fellow human beings. He was never quite able to see that preaching and worship are important but preaching and worship that do not challenge injustice and establish God’s just reign on earth simply grieves the heart of God.
In his part of “the family talk,” Jesus insists that God’s family includes those people, koine folks, common folks, Jews AND Gentiles, those who wash their hands before eating and those who rarely do.
Maybe it is time for us to worry less about clean hands, about who’s in and who’s out, and to engage in a new “family talk”? What would it be like if you and I spent less emotional energy worried about them. You know who they are – they do not think like us, they do not look like us, they do not work and pray like us, they do not love like us. What if we worried less about keeping them out and more about following the One who breaks bread and welcomes us AND them into the family of God?
In her book, Operating Instructions, Presbyterian elder and novelist, Anne Lamott, tells about the first year of her recovery from addiction. She writes:
When Sam was six days old, I took him to my little church in Marin City, the church where I’ve been hanging out for four years now . . . I got in the habit of stopping by the church on Sundays but staying in the back, in this tense, lurky way, and leaving before the service was over because I didn’t want people to touch me, or hug me, or try to make me feel better about myself. After I got sober and started to feel okay about myself, I could stay to the end and get hugged . . . Anyway, the first Sunday after Sam’s birth, I kind of limped in . . . and everyone was staring joyfully and almost brokenheartedly at us because they loved us so much. I walked, like a ship about to go down, to a seat in the back. But the pastor said, Whoa, whoa, not so fast – you come up here and introduce him to his new family. So, I limped up to the little communion table in the front of the half circle of folding chairs where we sit, and I turned to face everyone. The pain and joy were just overwhelming. I tried to stammer, “This is my son,” but my lip was trembling, my whole face was trembling, and everyone was crying. When I’d first started coming to the church, I couldn’t even stand up for half the songs because I’d be so sick from cocaine and alcohol that my head would be spinning, but these people were so confused that they’d thought I was a child of God” (Operating Instructions, 26-28).
What if our family talks were to worry less about who has been washing their hands and more about noticing and welcoming the Annes of the world who are hanging around just outside? What if we were to find ways to hold them steady until they come to know that they are treasured, cherished, children of God?
What if we had family talks about how to welcome them who have too long been kept out of or run off from the church? What if we had a family talk about how to welcome our L,G,B,T,Q sisters and brothers in the church until the day that those who fear their participation finally come inside to join in the celebration?
What if we took our family talk to the halls of power? In chapters 6 and 8 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus refuses to accept the disciples’ calculus that there is not enough bread to go around. He employs the God’s calculus where everyone is entitled not to all they want but to enough. Enough decent health care. Enough humane housing. Enough good food. Enough fine education. Enough true security and safety. Throughout Mark, Jesus makes it clear that when it comes to healing and hope, in God’s divine calculus, there is enough to go around.
What if our new family talk refreshed our common memory that on the cross God busted down the door of division between Jew and Gentile, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor, the well-educated and those who cannot read? What if we did not waste one more minute trying to rebuild a door that God has already demolished? What if we got up from these pews to take the family talk to the streets, until every living soul knows that they are forgiven and loved and welcome in the great family of God?
Time to come in now!
Time for a “family talk!”