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

Why Are You Afraid?

By Rev. Amy Butler

Life was still pretty chaotic under Roman rule by the time Jesus was born. While there was no doubt who had the power (the Romans showed it regularly with their legions of soldiers and carefully controlled leadership of the region), the Jews were a formidable force. At the end of the day the Romans could crush any Jewish revolt (and they did several times) but when Jesus was born the region was in a time of tenuous peace where the Jewish people were allowed to develop their own sub-society and live by the rules they had developed as a people.

And so, to control the chaos of living constantly under the threat of Roman power and influence, develop rules they did.

There were rules for eating, washing, working, praying . . . rules for going to the bathroom and for going to the temple, rules for buying and preparing food and rules for bathing . . . pretty much any daily routine had rules by which it was structured. From the time you were a little child you would learn these rules because your daily life was built within these structures, and once you learned them they became second nature to you–just another part of the way you lived your life.

Rules were part of the Jewish religious tradition, but by the time Jesus was preaching in Galilee, years and years of traditions had been piled up on top of the rules of the Torah so that the structures by which the Galilean Jew lived his life were firm, strong and non-negotiable.

There were good reasons for this, of course. Practical reasons regarding the safe preparation and consumption of food in a day and time when little understanding of disease and sanitary standards existed . . . certain laws kept the people healthy.

Beyond the practical, though, there were psychological reasons for the rules. Living under oppression and occupation as the Jewish people were, the rules they followed helped define them as different from the people around them. The rules helped them clearly and easily discern who was “in” and who was “out” in a society where they were not in charge. The rules set boundaries and control in a larger world in which they had no boundaries and very little control over their lives at all.

The rules gave order and structure and comfort, because without the boundaries of the rules, things could get out of control. If everyone knew the rules and followed them then everything would be fine. And the rules gave the leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, lots of influence and power; the rules were how they kept the people in line: cross the boundaries, though, break the rules . . . well, then you might end up in very serious trouble.

We lived in the same house from the time I was about 7 years old until I was 15. I kissed my mom goodbye for my first day of third grade at that front door, and I also left on my first date from that door, anxious to get as far away from my parents as I could.

I remember distinctly how exciting it was when my parents bought that house; it was their first and the whole family participated in budgeting and belt-tightening so we could buy the house. One of the house’s appealing features was that it backed up onto a large and wild jungle, filled with all kinds of wild tropical plants, animals and opportunities to explore. We knew that we were allowed to go to the edge of the yard, where the wild mystery of the jungle would occasionally reach into our yard–mysterious vines or the occasional wild animal would stray over–and we’d get a taste of what was right over the fence.

We couldn’t go over there, though.

Those were the rules.

It wasn’t clearly stated what would happen to us if we ever jumped the fence, but we knew it was something bad. Very bad. We knew this because once when there was a hurricane the rabbit hutch in the backyard was blown over and our pet rabbit disappeared. Into the forest. Never to be seen again. Speculations were bandied about–I remember even hearing the words “rabbit stew”–but we never found out what happened to our pet rabbit.

I don’t recall my parents actually sitting down with us to tell us that something horrible would happen if we went into the jungle, but somehow we knew that if we chose to hop the fence and explore the jungle, well, the same thing might very well happen to us.

That was enough to keep us safely in the backyard–that fear that if we ever dared to climb the fence, whatever it was in the nature preserve that devoured rabbits might potentially do the same to us.

The politics of fear kept us in line, and by the time Jesus walked through the dust of Galilee, the same was true. The Jews were a people who lived under the occupation of the Roman government and needed to have carefully defined rules, guidelines and boundaries to keep the tenuous balance they’d manage to create, to keep things moving along at a relatively smooth pace, to keep the status quo in place.

And all was well until this strange rabbi Jesus showed up on the scene and started breaking the rules.

Some were big ones, like pulling up a cushion to share a meal with tax collectors, touching women who were unclean, or healing the sick on the Sabbath–a day when you were supposed to be resting. Some were small, like the one recounted in our gospel passage today–Jesus’ disciples were not following the rules about washing their hands. Big or small, though, Jesus soon set a pattern and that pattern was a rule-challenging, not a rule following, pattern.

And so, the chaos surrounding this strange man Jesus grew. And grew.

It wasn’t so much that Jesus and his gang weren’t washing their hands correctly. It was that, with the breaking of the rules they threw the carefully constructed boundaries of Jewish life in Galilee into chaos. Without the boundaries . . . without the rules . . . well, then, how would the people know who they were? With the loss of that little piece of control, the Jewish leaders got scared. And for the people? Well, the uncertainty of life without the structure made them deathly, horribly afraid.

This big wide world they lived in—we live in—is hard for us to manage, you see. And so we build for ourselves mirages of control. When these structures are breached we lose power and we are afraid. Just as they were then.

In this country over these past five years we have experienced the very same thing. Five years ago next week all our illusions that we lived in the safest, most secure and peaceful country in the world were shattered when we watched airplanes crash, one after the other, into buildings we’d thought impenetrable.

The result was fear. Bone chilling, life-altering fear.

And the fear we felt resulted in a shutting down, a closing off, a hardening of the rules. We put up the walls and reinforced the fences. We took off our shoes for airport security and left our sewing scissors at home when we traveled. Our world became smaller and smaller and we started looking at each other, not with the optimism of possibility and the celebration of diversity, but with cold, hard suspicion, with the thought that if your skin is darker than mine . . . if you speak another language . . . well then maybe when I come into contact with you, I should be AFRAID.

Our politicians noticed this trend and they grabbed onto it, just like the Jewish leaders did in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

The Pharisees and Sadducees themselves were afraid. They were afraid of Rome, afraid most of all of losing their power over the Jewish people. Roman kept them in line by feeding their fears, fears that they would lose power, fears that the Jewish people would be destroyed. The leaders of the Jews watched the Roman guard keep THEM in line with fear . . . why not jump on the bandwagon and do the same thing in their own community?

The leaders knew, you see, that if the people were afraid, they would begin to view difference with suspicion. And if they could find a way to mandate compliance, to set an order that couldn’t be violated, well, then, they could get the people to do anything! They knew that if they could get the people to view each other with suspicion, they could effectively eliminate the possibility that they would organize to object to anything the leaders were doing. And the Pharisees knew, you see, that they could get the people to believe things they would never have believed before, things like entire religions and ethnic groups are evil and dangerous, so policies and laws had better be enacted to limit the influence and presence of these different groups.

You establish and keep power, you see, by finding out what it is that people are afraid of . . . and then you feed those fears.

And the Jewish leaders also knew that fear can be very powerful when it is planted and nurtured, cultivated and tended carefully. And so, they did. Quickly they saw that when people are afraid they can be motivated to do things they’d never think of doing before, things like starting wars; killing innocent people; enacting laws that oppress and exclude; taking prisoners of those who are different and horribly abusing those prisoners. Because they are afraid. Afraid.

And so it was that the message of Jesus was seriously cramping their style. While they were busy planting seeds of fear and making sure they took root among the Jewish people, it wasn’t helping them at all to have someone telling people they didn’t have to be afraid. And so it became critical for them to limit the voices of anyone who would dare to suggest that instead of making and enforcing rules, instead of reinforcing fences and building more walls, that people break them down.

Those people who would preach such a message, who would tell the people that they might embrace people whom they feared unclean, that they could boldly act in faith to include everyone and to open themselves to change by loving people, not by shutting them out . . . the people who made trouble by telling the people those things, well, because they were afraid they knew: they would have to get rid of them.

What better way could you think of to stir up apprehension and instill fear than to suggest to the people that Jesus was trying to . . . (gasp!) break the rules? That would really throw them into a panic; that would stir up lots of right-under-the-surface fear.

But Jesus wasn’t so concerned about the rules, you see. No, his message was so much bigger than specific guidelines about what should be eaten when and how we should spend our time on the Sabbath. Jesus came instead with a message that we don’t need to be afraid anymore—and that was a message sure to undermine all the fear planting and tending those Romans and Jewish leaders had been busy doing.

Jesus was preaching this radical message that we don’t have to live our lives shackled by the fear of things that are different and the dread that embracing something different will hurt us or, worse, endanger our relationship with God.

In fact, one of you said it best to me this week as we were discussing this passage: Jesus recognized that love, not rules or power, is what binds us together and that we’re stronger and safer together than we are ripped apart by distinctions and differences.

Yes, Jesus came to teach us the law of love, and perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love casts out fear. There’s no need to be afraid.

This was not new for the Jewish people, this idea that they didn’t have to live in fear. But under the specter of Roman oppression and the desperate attempts to define their world, they’d forgotten the very basis of the Deuteronomic law. We heard it this morning in Moses’ mandate to the People of Israel:  “For what great nation is there, that has a god so near to them, as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him? What great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:7-8).Why are you afraid, people of Israel, when you are in relationship with the very God of the Universe?

But they had forgotten for a moment that they were the people of God, and upon forgetting they began to live lives of fear. We do that too. And what happens when we start living lives of fear instead of faith? The same thing that happened to them: people start to look different to us. We start to become concerned for exclusion of those who are different rather than inclusion. We close ourselves down to the possibility of new ideas and new opportunities. The limits of our little world begin to close in and get smaller. Life becomes limited in its possibilities.

Jesus said no. That’s not what a life transformed by God is. When we are in relationship with the God of the Universe . . . guess what? We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

Last year in February I traveled home to Hawaii to perform my brother John’s wedding. One of the days we were there we had the opportunity to drive back into the old neighborhood to show the kids the house where I lived when I was their ages.

It looked so much smaller than I remember, I have to tell you. The front porch was tiny, the backyard like a postage stamp of grass. And over the back fence there was no more wild and untamed jungle anymore. Instead, there were grids of sidewalks and street corners, all marked with rows and rows of subdivided houses. There was no more jungle overgrowth, no more huge trees and riotous vines, no more scurrying animals or buzzing insects. It was no longer a vast unknown; it was clearly delineated, simply mapped and easily GPS-navigated.

Judging from the size of this easily-navigable new neighborhood, I got to thinking that the jungle in my backyard probably was not as big and unmanageable as I’d originally thought, and very likely there were no scary monsters or ominous ogres living in the forest behind my house. What would have happened if, instead of living in fear of the jungle, our whole family slathered ourselves with bug spray and spent a Saturday morning hiking through the wild? What would we have found? Gorgeous, tropical flowers that didn’t grow in our cultivated backyard? Beautiful exotic birds of the jungle who would never venture into the eaves of our house? Hidden streams and ponds? Our lost rabbit?

I’m sorry I missed the jungle in back of our house–and I checked with my sisters–they are too. I am sorry of what I missed because we were all scared of what we didn’t know, what we couldn’t predict and what we couldn’t control. Didn’t we know the God who guided our carefully manicured, subdivided lives was also the God of the whole entire jungle? Didn’t we know?

Perfect love casts out fear, and the most perfect love of all, the love of Jesus, has claimed our hearts and offered to rule our lives. Do we not trust that God is in control? Do we not know that we have a God who is so near to us? Why are we afraid? We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Amen.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006 Amy Butler. Used by permission.