Thursday, August 30, 2018

Don't Forget Corban

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), we leave out a few verses here and there. On the one hand, that's not bad. The lectionary authors have done a good job of holding onto the principle behind the entire passage but cutting it down to manageable size, but there's one example that gets left out that I think helps us not only understand what's going on in the passage but also hear the passage in a way that is relevant to our context, and that's the example of corban.

If you read all of Mark 7, you see that in verses nine through thirteen Jesus offers a counterargument to the Pharisees' accusation. They have asked Jesus (perhaps accused) about his willingness to let his disciples, his religious students, ignore the traditions of their people. As I wrote on Monday, washing hands and cups and pots and saying the appropriate blessing is not merely a matter of fastidious hygiene or religious zealotry but a basic way of saying thank you to God. God is the one who gave Israel bread in the wilderness. God is the source of all blessings. Taking a moment to engage an inherited ritual act as a way of centering oneself and one's meal on one's relationship with God makes sense. Jesus was letting his disciples skip it, and the Pharisees wanted to know why, but, in Jesus' counterargument, we discover what was really going on.

"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!" Jesus said to them. Right away, before he offers any teaching on the subject, we see that Jesus is going to hit back. The Pharisees' question either touched a nerve or came with a self-righteous accusation, and Jesus wasn't willing to leave it alone. Turning to the ultimate tradition of his people, the Law of Moses, Jesus quotes the commandments and the law: "Honor your father and mother" and "Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die." Everyone can agree on that, but then Jesus exposes a contradiction in the part of his opponents: "But you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, "Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban"' (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down." As if this finished the argument with them, Jesus said, "And many such things you do."

Apparently, as best we can tell, individuals were excused from the obligation of caring for a parent if they had already promised that money to God. Maybe that's like saying to a dying mother, "I'd like to come and visit you and take care of you for a few days while Dad gets a break, but my pledge to my church is so high that I can't afford our family's vacation to Disney World and a trip to see you." Part of the problem with this verse is that we don't really know what "corban" is. This word is a hapax legomenon, a word that only occurs once in the Bible, and this is the only real context we have for interpreting it. In a circular way, therefore, we assume that "corban" means a gift promised to God because that's the way it's used here. But we get the point: allowing human religious traditions to stand in the way of divine precepts is not what God asks of us.

That little bit about corban helps me remember that this isn't just a dispute over whether washing hands and pots is necessary. As I wrote on Monday, it's easy, as a Protestant, "faith-alone" Christian to dismiss the Pharisees' question as a law-loving, ritual-prioritizing inquiry from the old covenant, but that over simplifies things. Jesus may have, as Mark adds in an editorial comment, "declared all foods clean," but the point Jesus wants to make is to call into question our priorities. When are we holding to human tradition at the expense of God's word? The answer is all the time, and the danger of it shows up pretty clearly in between the verses appointed for Sunday's gospel lesson.

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