Back to school

Jesus is a teacher extraordinaire. He has not only mastered the material. He has mastered life.

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Back to school

August 30, 2015 – Mark 7:1-23


Kids go back to school this week.  Kids in some areas are already back.  Many colleges don’t start until after Labor Day. But kids around here will be going back this week.  Some will be going to different schools, but all will be going to different classrooms.  That means not just different grades and different subjects, but different teachers. 

            Teachers have a great impact on students.  It’s not just the subject they teach, but the passion they have for their subject and the passion they have for their students.  Although it’s been more years than I like to think, I can still name all of my grade school teachers from Mrs. Moore in kindergarten to Mr. Brannon in sixth grade.  Although I don’t know if I can recall by name all of my teachers in junior high and high school, there are a number that stand out – Mrs. Bauske, Mr. Wiser, and Mrs. Reno.  And then, of course, professors in college and seminary – Dr. Simmonds, Dr. Hanson, and Dr. Tiede.

            I can remember very little of the content of what they taught me.  (It’s been years since I felt like a philosophy major!)  But they are still very much in my mind and heart.  They each had an influence on me.  And I hope the way I am living my life is, in part, a confirmation of their work.


            Jesus was a teacher.  He had a small group of dedicated students – the disciples.  They follow him around.  They listen to him teach.  They witness how he relates to people.

            But not everyone likes what Jesus is teaching.  Jesus is confronted by some Pharisees and scribes.   They are concerned about observance to the oral teaching that has been handed down from teacher to student for generations, reaching all the way back to Moses.  Part of this teaching has to do with cleanliness – ritual cleanliness.  Some of these rules likely stem from concern about sanitation and disease.  Even today, the best thing that you can do during cold and flu season to protect yourself is to wash your hands regularly.

            Some of it also comes from wanting to prepare food and to eat in such a way as it honors God.  All food is a gift from God. To remind ourselves of this we pray before meals, but also to wash our hands.

            These may be some of the reasons why the tradition teaches those who are seeking to be faithful to God to wash their hands before handling and eating food.

            But this is not the only thing on the mind of the scribes and Pharisees.  They are challenging Jesus’ authority as a teacher.

            What are you teaching the people?  Are you actually teaching them to disobey the tradition?  Are you going against what our rabbis have taught for generation upon generation?  Are you allowing this behavior?  Are you encouraging it?  What kind of a teacher are you?  And you call yourself a rabbi!

            This is the challenge to Jesus the Teacher.  And his response is in three parts:

            First, Jesus fires back at the scribes and Pharisees, raising the question of their own faithfulness to the tradition.  He cites the prophet Isaiah who was critical of those who practices the law outwardly, but were far from God in their hearts.  Then, in the verses that are left out of the reading for today, he charges that they are using a loophole in the law to avoid practicing one of the main commandments – Honor your father and your mother.  They were able to dedicate their property to a special use by means of an oath.  They were able to consecrate what they had and set it aside so that it could not be used for any other purpose, in this case, supporting their parents.  It was like putting it in a commandment-sheltered annuity.  In this way, Jesus says, they are able to subvert the law.  This, he says, is just one of many examples of the way they make void the word of God, through their tradition. 

            Second, Jesus addresses the crowd.  It’s not what you put into your belly that makes you clean or unclean before God.  It’s what comes out of your heart.

            Now this is far more radical than it seems to us.  This is a completely new way of thinking to them.  And the disciples love Jesus, but they probably don’t want to offend the Pharisees leader, if they expect to get very far in the religious world.

            So, third, Jesus must explain to them again what he means. Anything you put in your mouth, he tells them, eventually comes out the other end.  But what comes out of you – that is, your actions – show what has taken up residence in your heart.  That’s what needs to be cleaned up!

            But Jesus is not merely a teacher – he is a teacher extraordinaire!  He not only talks the talk; he walks the walk.  He shows the disciples what comes out of his heart in the way that he teaches them, in the way that he cares for others.  For while the Pharisees and scribes are consumed by the fine points of rabbinic teaching on the washing of hands before meals, Jesus is feeding thousands upon thousands.  He is living as a servant.


            There is one teacher who had an effect on me who wasn’t a school teacher and I didn’t have over the period of a year.  I had him one-time in Sunday School.

            During our ninth grade year, our Sunday School class was a particularly unruly bunch.  We were at the end of the three years of lessons every Sunday, every Wednesday and every week at home.  We just wanted to be done.  That is why our regular teacher, Mrs. Paulson, took every chance she had to be away on Sunday morning. Even so, there were substitute teachers we had who swore they would never teach us again.

            One Sunday, our substitute teacher was Dr. A.M. Fink. Dr. Fink was a professor of history at Iowa State.  He had a round face, a curly black beard and thick black-frame glasses.  He carried a worn out old briefcase which I’m sure had suffered the weight of many tomes.

            On the Sunday he taught our class, we were studying the story of the people of Israel: how God had liberated them from slavery in Egypt, how Moses had led them through the Red Sea and into the wilderness, and how God, through Moses, set up a special relationship with them.  “I will be your God and you will be my people!”

            At one point, Dr. Fink needed to step out of the classroom.  He told us to read the laws of Moses in Leviticus 19, 20, and 21, and that we would discuss them when he returned.  (Obviously, he mistook us for a group of undergraduate college students!)  Then he exited the room.

            Ricky Torkildson and I weren’t interested in the laws of Moses.  We were interested in checkers. Ricky carried with him a pocket checkers set and, as soon as Dr. Fink was out the door, he pulled it out and we started to play.

            We were fully into the game when Dr. Fink stepped back into the room.  The room became extremely quiet.  I had a sense that he was standing next to us, but I was afraid to look at him.

            When I did finally turn toward him, I was surprised that he wasn’t glaring down at me.  Instead, he was staring off into space and stroking his beard.

            He said, “Boys, can you tell me the three rules of checkers?”

            Either we were so embarrassed at what we had done or so startled by the question, we said nothing.  So, Dr. Fink answered his own question:

            “First, you can only move forward and not backward. Second, you can only move one space at a time.  And, third, when we reach the last row, then you are free to move wherever you want.”

            He paused and then said, “This is what the laws of Moses teach us.”

            Ricky and I could only look at each other in puzzlement, much in the saw way that the disciples, I am sure, would often look at each other when Jesus was talking.

            So, Dr. Fink went on.  “First, always keep in mind the goal toward which you press.  Always move forward and not backward.  Second, don’t clutter your lives by trying to do more than one thing at a time. Instead, only move one step at a time.  And, finally, it is when you reach the last row, making yourself a servant of others, that you become truly free.”


            Jesus is a teacher extraordinaire.  He not only taught many.  He cared for many.  He fed many.  Jesus taught as a teacher.  He gave as a servant.  Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; to give his life, a ransom for many.” 

            Jesus gave for us that we might live for others, so that his love and peace and freedom might be born in our hearts and in our lives.