Brother Caterpillar and Sister Milkweed (photo Debi Edumnd Ellertsen).

Mark 7 [NRSV]. Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,[a] thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;[b] and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.[c]So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live[d] according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

[…] 14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”[f] 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

[Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. The portion of the quote above in regular Roman type is omitted from the pericope for the day.]

After a couple of weeks’ hiatus, our congregation’s bible study group got together Wednesday morning — over Zoom, due to the pandemic — to go over the gospel reading from Mark for Pentecost XV (according to the Lutheran way of numbering the Common Lectionary). As always, the Zoom session was a lifeline. Not only is it the main social activity of my week in this time of Coronavirus and voluntary self-quarantine, it lends a sense of discipline to my reading of scripture.

And reading the bible is pretty much where I’m finding the presence of God these days. Before the pandemic, I looked for it in the sacraments and in other people. Now, staying home and interacting with others mostly through social media, I tend to approach God through the New Testament and historical Jesus research.

So in our Zoom session, we discussed the themes in the reading from Mark — it’s pretty standard Lutheran law-and-gospel stuff, an argument between Jesus and some Pharisees over food purity laws — but what stood out to me was Jesus’ earthy simile: It’s not what you eat, what you take in from outside, that’s impure; it’s what comes out of you and goes into the sewer. Boom! So much for keeping kosher (or the first-century equivalent). It seems entirely typical of Jesus. Not only for what he said, but for the striking, almost unsettling way he said it.

In fact, the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, who attempted to sift out the authentic words of Jesus in Mark and the other gospels, think that’s why it’s reasonably likely that Jesus actually said it. Which is about as certain as they ever get. The same saying also appears in the Gospel of Thomas, which suggests it was circulating in oral tradition before any of the gospels were written. But just as important, they add:

As a simple aphorism, it may well go back to Jesus: it challenges the everyday, the inherited, the established, and erases the boundaries taken to be sacrosanct. If Jesus taught that there is nothing taken into the mouth that can defile, he was undermining a whole way of life. That, in the judgment of the Fellows, sounds like Jesus.

While this kind of parsing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s important to me to try to get in touch with the historical Jesus. For reasons I find hard to articulate, it’s how I deal with doctrinal abstractions like the incarnation, Christology and the Holy Trinity. And this figure of speech gives me a glimpse of the historical Jesus.

So I liked the passage already.

Then, entirely by serendipity, when I checked my email after the Zoom session there was a meditation by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, in my inbox. And, since I’d been thinking about the historical Jesus already, something clicked. Could this be a new way of dealing with the holy abstractions? I’ve read Rohr’s Universal Christ before, and I liked it. But I hadn’t quite connected it with the historical Jesus before. So I perked up Wednesday when I read:

We need both a Jesus and a Christ, in my opinion, to get the full picture. A truly transformative God—for both the individual and history—needs to be experienced as both personal and universal. Nothing less will fully work. If the overly personal (even sentimental) Jesus has shown itself to have severe limitations and problems, it is because this Jesus was not also universal. We lost the cosmic when we made him cozy.

Rohr is a Franciscan, and he has a quintessentially Franciscan way to thinking about Christ — he’s been known to call it an “alternative orthodoxy” — that I can’t define logically but seems to be centered on God’s love. Eliza Griswold, who interviewed him last year for the New Yorker, says “Rohr argues that the spirit of Christ is not the same as the person of Jesus.” I’m used to distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. but Griswold says Rohr goes one step further.

Christ—essentially, God’s love for the world—has existed since the beginning of time, suffuses everything in creation, and has been present in all cultures and civilizations. Jesus is an incarnation of that spirit, and following him is our “best shortcut” to accessing it. But this spirit can also be found through the practices of other religions, like Buddhist meditation, or through communing with nature.

Most of this was entirely new to me when I read Universal Christ, but some of it was deeply familiar. I grew up in an Episcopal parish named after St. Francis, and I absorbed some of the Franciscan charism without knowing what a charism was and knowing nothing about the Franciscans (other than a vague, and quite erroneous association with Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories.) But our church was just down the street from the TVA’s Division of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife, where my father was a research scientist; so we knew about Francis’ love for all creatures great and small, for Brother Sun and Sister Moon, all things bright and beautiful and all of God’s creation.

So when Rohr writes of God’s love infusing all of God’s creatures, as he did in Wednesday’s meditation, he’s preaching to the choir. Quoting Caryll Houselander, a Catholic mystic who saw “Christ permeating and radiating from all her fellow passengers” on the subway, Rohr says:

This is why I can see Christ in my dog Opie, the sky, and all creatures, and it’s why we can experience God’s unadulterated care for us in our garden or kitchen, our husband or wife or child, an ordinary beetle, a fish in the darkest sea that no human eye will ever observe, and even in those who do not like us, and those who are not like us.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but it gives me a whole new way of thinking about Christ — more importantly, of relating to the theological abstractions of Christology, the academic discipline that “studies Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity, and the relation between these two aspects; and the role he plays in salvation,” to quote the gospel according to Wikipedia.

Not that the theology isn’t interesting. I’ve long considered it one of my favorite indoor sports. But what Rohr brings to the discussion is something I can do about it. In Wednesday’s meditation he adds:

This is the illuminating light that enlightens all things, making it possible for us to see things in their fullness. When Christ calls himself the “Light of the World” (John 8:12), he is not telling us to look just at him, but to look out at life with his all-merciful eyes. We see him so we can see like him, and with the same infinite compassion.

I don’t think I’d want to call what we’re doing infinite or Godlike, but Debi has set out several milkweed plants to attract monarch butterflies — she got the bedding plants from her sister in Iowa City, where they’re more conscious of ecological niches than perhaps we are around here and you can buy milkweed from a nursery — and we’ve started a little de facto butterfly nursery of our own. The monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves, and the larvae eat the host plants. “Without milkweed,” says an online brochure on butterfly habitat put out by the U.S. Forest Service, “the larva would not be able to develop into a butterfly.” So we’re helping to fill a small, but important, niche.

The first caterpillar appeared a couple days ago, and more eggs are showing up on the leaves, so now we’re looking out for Brother Caterpillar and Sister Milkweed. I think St. Francis would have approved, and I know Dad and the other folks who worked in the TVA Division of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife and went to our parish church would.

“Franciscan spirituality,” says a webpage on the subject put up by the Franciscan Action Network, a joint enterprise of 54 Franciscan institutions, “has always involved both action and contemplation.”

This I interpret as a way to combine thinking and doing, of walking the talk. There’s a lot more to Franciscan spirituality, of course, and I want to read up on it. But after reading about God’s infinite compassion for all of God’s creation, it feels good to try to do a little something about it, too. I imagine Brother Caterpillar and Sister Milkweed would agree.


The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, ed. Robert W. Funk et al. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 69, 480-81.

“Franciscan Spirituality,” Franciscan Action Network, Washington, D.C.

Eliza Griswold, “Richard Rohr Reorders the Universe,” New Yorker, Feb. 2, 2020

Richard Rohr OFM, “Expanding Our Capacity to Love,” Daily Meditations, Aug. 25, 2021, Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, N.M.

[Published Aug. 29, 2021]

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