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


The last Sunday in August the gospel text shifts from the Bread Sermon in John to Mark, picking up where the July texts ended. The Mark texts leading up to the Bread Sermon had to do with who Jesus was. Through teachings, miracles, and the reactions of others—both those who believed and those who did not, the gospel began to show that there was more to Jesus than met the eye.

After the Bread Sermon, the Markan Secret begins to be more evident, especially in chapter eight, two Sundays after this, when Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. The passage for today begins with more questions. The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples did not follow the ritual cleansing before eating. This leads to Jesus’ explanation, to both the Pharisees and then later, more fully, to the disciples, that it is what is within that makes one unclean.

The preacher might focus on how this text adds to the picture of who Jesus is by showing that Jesus is concerned not with external practices but with what is within the heart. This is one of those passages where we should take care so that the sermon does not have an anti-Semitic overtone. Rather than taking the easy path of saying that the Jewish people were wrong by focusing on rituals, and Jesus was right by pointing to the heart, we need to think about what this passage says about the identity of Jesus, and what, therefore, Jesus expects from his followers.

In his commentary on Mark, Lamar Williamson suggests different themes for sermons on this text, depending on the needs of the congregation. If the congregation is dealing with lifestyle issues, he says, the focus of the sermon could be on how the lifestyle of the disciples was different, because of what Jesus considered was most important. Williamson said, “We are called to examine our lifestyle lest through it we ‘leave the commandment of God’ (v. 8) and make ‘void the word of God’ (v. 13).1
Williamson points out that many churches today are struggling with worship rituals, patterns of language, and what is socially acceptable. Thus a sermon might focus on how this passage shows that formalism in and of itself is not a thing to be valued. The sermon might help a congregation understand that a style of music or worship, a particular prayer book or hymnal, or even what kind of attire is acceptable for worship are not inherently good or bad. “Jesus’ two part answer to his opponents levels two charges against formalism,” says Williamson. “It majors in minors (vv. 6-8) and it masks avoidance of the word of God (vv. 9-13).2

Another major point a preacher might focus on is “the tensions between traditionalists and innovators.” Williamson correctly says that neither tradition nor innovation is always good or always bad: “This text is hard on traditionalists (the Pharisees and scribes), but it does not promote innovation.”3 Jesus’ correction of the Pharisees was that their tradition was not consistent with the intention of God’s word. Tradition that promotes and upholds God’s way is good. Thus, the preacher may help the congregation see beyond old versus new to discern what will best help them love and follow God.

Another aspect a preacher might highlight is that what matters is not outward appearance but inward obedience. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because they were not following the law they claimed to uphold. They criticized others for not following rituals, when they disobeyed significant commands like honoring father and mother. They were more concerned with how others perceived them than with truly doing what was right, more concerned with accolades from others than with righteousness before God. There are numerous modern-day examples a preacher might lift up: worship attendance, holding a church office, ostentatious giving, appearing pious. The sermon could challenge the congregation to examine their lives to see if what is in their hearts is congruous with what they claim to believe and with the appearance, they present to others.

Another element of the passage Williamson suggests for a sermon theme is the issue of caring for aging parents.4 With the graying of our nation, this issue will become more prevalent. Studies show that in the coming decades, there will not be enough skilled care facilities for those who need them. Many already are at capacity, and some states will not allow additional nursing beds to be added because of lack of funding. How will Christian people obey the command to honor father and mother, when the care options are limited? Will we take parents into our own homes? Hire outside caregivers? Where will the money come from?

In addition to the command to care for biological family members, individuals and churches must also wrestle with how to care for those within the church family, many of whom will have no other family to care for them. In traditions where congregations make baptismal vows to nurture and care for God’s children, the preacher may remind the people that those baptismal vows do not end when God’s children are in their senior years.

This is a text that has many possibilities for preaching, depending on the needs of the congregation. Whatever the context, the shape of the sermon should be faithful to the intent of the passage to encourage believers to live with a right heart toward God.

Rev. Dawn M. Mayes

1. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1983), 135.
2. Ibid, 135-136
3. Ibid, 136.    
4. Ibid, 135.  




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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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