Sheespcott Community Church August 30, 2009
Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-9
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
God Knows the Heart
God knows the heart. That fact can provide us the greatest comfort in a world where we often feel misunderstood; or, it can be the scariest thing we can think of, knowing ourselves as we do, and what is in our hearts.
What is in our hearts? That is the deeper question in today’s gospel and what I want to spend time on with you this morning because we are community together, and what is in our hearts will determine exactly the kind of community that we are and will be. It may be that by the end of this message, we will all want to think carefully about how we are who we are before God, and if the message does prove scary, rather than comforting, perhaps we can make amends where necessary to be the people God is calling as his own.
Our friend and Redeemer Jesus is having yet another toe-to-toe with the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel. This time it’s about the disciples’ neglect to wash their hands before they ate. They inquire of Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with “unclean” hands?”
Before I quote Jesus in his exasperation, let me give you a bit of background about the ritual of hand washing. We ourselves know our mothers’ mantra before we could sit down at the table to eat––either, “Did you wash your hands?” or, in households like the one where I grew up, where there was less concern for the child’s psychological development, the simple declarative, “Go wash your hands,” that without inspection of the presumably offending hands. That admonition to wash had everything to do with cleanliness and the elimination of germs, which were only discovered in the nineteenth century. Let’s hear it for Louis Pasteur, who was ridiculed from every corner but persevered in his theory, and we all benefit from his brave science and scientific approach. Thank you, Louis.
In Jesus’s time the Scribes and Pharisees were not concerned with the cleanliness of the hands in regard to those as yet undiscovered germs, but rather, it was a ceremonial cleanness that was at stake. Let me briefly describe the hand washing ceremony of observant Jews of the period. The hands had to be free of any coating of sand, mortar, gravel or any such substance. The water for washing the hands had to be kept in special stone jars, so that the water in itself was clean for ceremonial purposes. Nothing can have fallen into it or been mixed with it.
In the first step of the washing, the hands were held with fingers pointing upwards, and water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrists. The minimum amount of water was a so-called “log,” which was an eggshell and a half of water. While the hands were still wet, each hand was washed with the fist of the other. Now the water was unclean because it had been used to wash unclean hands. It was discarded and the next step in the hand washing began. The hands were held with fingers pointing downwards, and water was poured over them in a rinsing action that began at the wrists and ran down over the fingers. Only then were the hands considered clean.
Note that the Scribes and Pharisees commented on the tradition of the elders. Significantly, these are not the elders of the synagogue of the day, as we have de facto elders in our church, but they were the ancient legal experts of the old days. What was the tradition of those elders and in essence the Jewish law? For the Jew, the Law meant two things: preeminently the Ten Commandments, and of those, preeminently the first two: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your whole understanding, and your neighbor as yourself for the love of God. Secondarily, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, called the Pentateuch. While there were some rules and regulations in the Pentateuch, mostly it was the statement of great moral principles, which a person was to interpret in and for his or her life. It was an oral tradition.
But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, a whole new class of legal experts came into being, who were known as the Scribes. They were all about the classification of these moral principles into thousands and thousands of rules and regulations governing every aspect of a person’s life. Depending on the everyday Jew’s observation of these rules and regs, he or she was worthy or not worthy in the sight of God. In the case of the disciples’ unwashed hands, these followers of Jesus, who, to the scandal of the Scribes and Pharisees, was not demanding that his followers observe the Law and wash their hands in the ritual manner, these followers of Jesus were not dirty in the hygienic sense but in the sense of being unclean in the sight of God.
To shed light on how important this washing rule was to those Scribes and Pharisees, there was a story of a Rabbi who once omitted the washing ceremony and was buried not with the traditional ritual, but in excommunication for the violation of that one rule. That to the Scribal and Pharisaic Jew was religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, with regulations like the washing rule, which they considered to be the essence of the service of God. That is what Jesus was up against whenever he encountered these men of the Law. In a real sense, Jesus and they spoke different languages. There was a fundamental division: religion as ritual, ceremony, rules and regulations, and religion as loving God and loving other human beings.
On the particular day in the particular encounter recorded in today’s gospel, it is clear which side Jesus came down on. True cleanliness arises from the purity of one’s interior inspiration and not from soap and water. He is reported to have quoted the prophet Isaiah to them, when he said, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.
Jesus was not cowed by the learning or position of these greatly revered men in the Jewish community, and when addressing them, he did not mince words. He called them hypocrites. Let’s look at the word a little more closely. Hypocrite. It comes from the Greek hypocrites, meaning simply, one who answers. It goes on to mean one who answers in a set dialogue or a set conversation, that is to say, an actor. Finally, it means one who is not simply an actor on a stage, but one whose whole life is a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all. We can understand that anyone who believes religion is a legal thing, and that religion means carrying out rules and regulations, observing certain rituals and keeping certain taboos, a person like that is by definition a hypocrite.
Which reminds me of an experience I had back in the ‘70s, an interview, a conversation with a woman who was purportedly interested in bringing together the different elements of Christianity in our town in order to be a sign of unity rather than division among Christian denominations. That sounded like a good idea to me, at that time when I was a practicing Roman Catholic. She and I were talking tentatively, and she raised some issues about Catholicism that she disagreed with, and she was off and running, unstoppable. It was as though a curtain or veil dropped and communication stopped.
When she was speaking out of her own idea about Catholicism as contrasted with her religious expression, she guaranteed that I and others like me were on the road to hell and I had better do something about it while I could, which was to say, join her church, which had the truth. I understand this as hypocrisy in the way Jesus was using the word. A set dialogue or set conversation with knee-jerk assertions and responses, based on legalism. It’s kind of ironic, really, because if there’s one church in the whole panorama of Christian churches that is identified with legalisms, it’s the Roman Catholic Church. We concluded our interview that day with my telling her that I would rather go to hell with the Catholics up on the hill than be in heaven with her. That was a long time ago, but I did remember that when I read about the meaning of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy that springs out of legalism takes account of a person’s outward actions, but it takes no account at all of inward feelings and thoughts, which is where the good or evil begins. The person may well be meticulously serving God in outward things, and bluntly disobeying God in inward things, and that is hypocrisy. While it is good to make religious observance as in scripture reading, worshipping together as a church, praying, all of these observances are subordinated to the fundamental question I began with: What is in our hearts? As Jesus told his listeners, “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ’unclean.’”
Of everything Jesus said that day, that was probably the most radical and troubling, as far as the Scribes and Pharisees were concerned. Why? Because what he was declaring that day would have included and perhaps especially meant kinds of food that an orthodox Jew would never ever eat. Remember Peter refusing the order he heard when he saw the vision of a large canvas dropped down from heaven, which contained many animals that he as an observant Jew would not eat? The voice accompanying the vision told him to get up, kill and eat. Won’t happen, was his first response, and then he saw the vision twice more. He eventually understood that the animals he had been calling unclean and refusing to eat represented the Gentiles, to whom, through Cornelius the centurion, he began to minister to the very next day. It’s a great story. If you want to read it, it’s Acts 10: 1-48.
After making his startling statement about nothing that came into a man from the outside was unclean, Jesus went on to say that if in our hearts there are evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly, these evils that come from inside, these are what make a person unclean. In effect he was saying that things cannot be clean or unclean in any religious sense of the term. Only persons can be defiled , and what defiles a person is the actions of that person, which are the product of his or her heart. This was new and has to have raised fury to a fever pitch with the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus was certainly consistent in how he dealt with them .
You know how when you watch a horror movie, and the ingenue is heading up a creaking staircase in the dark with a flickering nub of a candle, and you the viewer know there is something perfectly horrible behind the door because you’ve been prepared for it in a way the ingenue has not, you might call out involuntarily, “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Well, sometimes I feel like that about Jesus, even though I know how the story ends. Like Peter, whom Jesus sharply rebuked with a “Get thee behind me, Satan,” when Peter said, “God forbid that these awful things should happen to you,” after Jesus prophesied his end in Jerusalem. When Jesus does get into it with the Scribes and Pharisees, it’s one of those, here-we-go-again situations. He sure knew how to get them going, but that wasn’t his purpose, clearly. That was simply collateral damage in the popularity department, and Jesus never was concerned about that. What he was concerned about was the truth that he, the Way, the Word of God, the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life, had come to show and tell.
Before I conclude I’d like to elaborate a bit on what Jesus enumerated as the unclean things that come out a man. He no doubt used the word “man,” but I think it’s worth noting that women are full-service sinners as well and fully capable of all of what Jesus enumerates. Most of these unclean things are self-explanatory, but I’d like to elaborate on two which stand out. The first in the list––evil thoughts. These are evil designs. Every outward act of sin is preceded by an act of choice––evil thought or design out of which an evil action comes. What do we think about on our beds at night?
Next, the one we are probably most familiar with: arrogance or pride, which sets itself up against God, puts a person on a par with God. Think of the poet John Milton’s figure of Satan in his epic Paradise Lost who is the classic expression of this type of overweening pride. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” he famously declared in the poem. To serve Jesus, the one who in the form of a man, sat at the right hand of God, Satan’s coveted place. This brightest of the archangels, wherefore the name Lucifer, meaning Lightbearer, refused to bend the knee in worship before a son of man, and as the story goes, he was instantly cast out of heaven to reign in hell for eternity.
In our less dramatic lives, we have the same choice or opportunity to bend, to worship, to surrender––or not––to cultivate the religion of the heart. God knows our hearts. Let us think about allowing God his way that those hearts may be of flesh and not of stone, unfeelingly bound in a straitjacket of legalism constructed by ourselves or others. Amen.