The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


External Rituals of the Elite

The isolation of privilege.

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading:  Mark 7:1-8, 14-5, 21-23

For Sunday, Sept. 2 , 2012—Ordinary 22

How many of us will preach this text with the assumption that we and our congregations are the rebellious followers of Jesus who upset the uptight fundamentalist Pharisees?

Question of Exposure

But it’s more a question of exposure. A person becomes ritually unclean by being exposed to that which is unclean, being subject to the presence of a certain illnesses, a dead body or improperly grown and prepared foods.

Ever since the pink slime revelation of earlier this year I have not eaten a hamburger that I didn’t know where the meat came from. I want to know the source. Is it grass fed, raised in humane conditions, no hormones—I practically want to see the steer’s bedroom and meet his parents before I put catsup on him. I feel the same way about dairy products and lettuce. In an era of factory farming and agribusiness behemoths you can’t even trust a spinach salad.

Can’t be Too Careful

This pericope starts with the Pharisees noticing the disciples eating with out washing their hands, but then goes on to narrate that the Pharisees do not eat anything from the market with out washing it first.

This makes obvious sense to us to clean off in residual dirt or pesticides (which are not supposed to be on my organically grown fruits and vegetables, but you can’t be too careful), but of course it is completely different thing with the Pharisees. They are not worried about dirt or pesticides (they just sprinkle them with water, they don’t submerge or scrub them), they are worried that the grower might have planted the crop on the Sabbath or in a field with other plants that are not supposed to be mixed in the same plot; they might have been handled in some unclean way, by some unclean person.

You can never be too careful, lest you expose your self to something that might defile you.

First World Options

Luckily for me, I can limit my exposure to actual harmful chemicals and farming practices, because I am able to pay the two to four dollars extra for a pound of ground beef or a gallon of milk. I can avoid possible exposure to lead or who knows what else by paying more for products not made in giant Chinese factories (except Apple products, an iphone is worth the risk). I can avoid exposure to all kinds of nasty diseases simply by being privileged to live in a first world country.

This is what Jesus is reacting to—the isolation of privilege. The Pharisees can use the wealth of the law to isolate themselves from what is unclean. They can limit their exposure to the people that would defile them—and in the name of righteousness. Most people don’t have that option. When Jesus says it is not what you are exposed to, have access too, or can afford, cheap food or Chinese made children’s toys that defile you. It is what is in your heart. Do you keep things pure for you and the elite members of your sect or do you work to keep things safe for those with no options.

The Hardest Question

How may of us will preach this text with the assumption that we and our congregations are the rebellious followers of Jesus who upset the uptight, fundamentalist Pharisees? The gospel cannot support that reading.

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Roy says:

    I was at a gathering on the Biblical understanding of immigration. It was excellent! Following one of the plenary sessions there was a time for Q&A. One of the topics discussed was finding ways to enter into solidarity with immigrant people in our communities. Where do we find them? How do we meet them? Where do they hang out? In an effort to flesh out practical ways of building relationships with immigrant people there was a barrier – most of the places immigrant families hang out do not fall under our categories of acceptable social / political convictions. I shared with the group – if you want to hang out with immigrant families you need to go to Walmart or McDonalds! I could sense as soon as those words left my lips an odd silence – and unspoken judgement “unclean”! In southwest Florida, most of our immigrant families work long hard hours and make very little money. When they have time they are usually busy caring for their families – buying food, clothes and other household supplies. They shop at the places they can afford! They don’t have the luxury of shopping with “clean hands”. There are groups working hard to lift the conditions experienced by many immigrant farming families. Low wages, poor working conditions and even modern slavery still exist in our world today. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is one of the best – seeking fair food agreements with many national companies. They are also asking companies to support a penny more a pound of tomatoes for farm workers to receive a livable wage. Check CIW out!

  2. Paul Sundberg says:

    Jesus isn’t concerned with those who can’t or don’t observe the dietary/cleanliness laws as expanded and amplified by the Pharisees. He sees no need to make them feel better, or feel okay about their place in the social structure…no need to protect them or lift them up from their place either. They don’t need affirmation…there’s nothing wrong with them. They aren’t people without the opportunity to address an important need…there’s no need to address.

    I’m not saying solidarity with the un/der-privileged in our time and place is a bad thing (there are ways in which the poor of our time are at a greater disadvantage than the poor in Jesus’ day)…it’s just not the issue here.

    Rather, it seems to me, Jesus is gutting the notion of privilege itself. “Privilege” doesn’t allow the Pharisees an unfair advantage and freedom from the challenges of real life. There’s simply no advantage to be had. Rather, it is a delusion isolating them from the depth of their own lives with the result that they only have judgment as a way of engaging others.

    But, just as dangerous would be letting our sense of privilege lead us to distributing pity where it is not needed. That usually is just another way of maintaining a system based on falsely identifying the haves and have-nots.

    Perhaps the challenge for those of us who think we are privileged is to admit that we aren’t. Whatever we may have to share in the way of resources, time, wisdom or practice is only a tool with which we have been gifted…not a possession, much less a conduit to God.

  3. Kelsey Plummer says:

    When I was 7 my family took a vacation to South Dakota–to the Black Hills. At one point during our trip we visited a cave where they taught us how to mine for ‘gold.’ At 7 years old I was thrilled. I remember my brother telling me we would be rich if we found enough of this stuff, kept is safe for a long time–say, 10 years–then we could sell it and it would be worth millions.

    So, I went nuts trying to put as many golden rocks in my little bucket as I could carry… it wasn’t until later my Dad finally convinced me my brother wasn’t serious–that the golden rocks were just that– rocks.

    [The term fool's gold is today used to describe anything that initially appears valuable but eventually turns out to be worthless. In particular it is used when someone has put considerable effort into attaining the worthless "prize".]

    I agree, the gospel cannot support that specific reading… anymore than my dad supported my get rich quick scheme in the hills of South Dakota. At some time or another–whether it is through our own realization, or more often than not, someone pointing it out to us… we admit that we are holding tightly to fools’ gold. I wonder if this particular reading is an invitation for us, like the Pharisees to let go of what we thought was initially valuable, but turns out to be worthless….

  4. Hi Paul,

    I think the word “privilege” means something different to you than it does to me, so I’m trying to understand your perspective.

    When you say, “Perhaps the challenge for those of us who think we are privileged is to admit that we aren’t,” are you concerned that a sense of being privileged may lead to arrogance? I’m guessing this based on your statement that we don’t “possess” but are rather “gifted” by the resources, time, wisdom, or practice that we have. Also, your statement that the privileged may “distribute pity” where it is not needed makes me think you’re concerned about the privileged claiming some kind of superiority.

    If this is what you are saying, I can see how you’d be concerned about the “privileged” reinforcing (clinging to?) an essential identity which is distinct from the identities of the under-privileged. This would create a false distinction between the haves and the have-nots, when in fact we share a common identity as children of God. This is what I believe.

    Am I mis-understanding you? I don’t want to miss your point.

    I also value Russell’s point that people with greater resources can use those resources to isolate themselves from the messiness of human life, and from other human beings, whether that means the ritually unclean in biblical times, or the physically unclean/contaminated in an age of pesticides and salmonella in agribusiness, and unsafe labor practices.

    I like the invitation to consider that we may be the Pharisees in this story, instead of the followers of Jesus. If we are the Pharisees, then how is Jesus calling us to change our lives?

    I’m going to be contemplating that and how to talk about that as I prepare to preach. It seems to go well with the lectionary text from James this week.

How do you read?