Feast Day: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27
“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
In our gospel reading this morning we are listening in on a debate between Jesus and the religious leaders that concerns cleanliness. The religious leaders are concerned with clean hands, not to mention pots and pans as well. But Jesus, knowing what is truly at stake invites us to press deeper. The problem isn’t unclean hands, the problem is unclean hearts. Friends, Jesus knows your heart. He knows it better than you do. And he, and only he, can clean it out if you will welcome him to.
Our reading begins with the Pharisees and the scribes who have come to see Jesus. Some of them, in fact, have come from as far away as Jerusalem and here they are now “gathered around” Jesus. However, noticing that some of his disciples were not observing the traditional purity codes they accuse Jesus of going soft on the tradition of the elders, that is, the complex web of oral traditions and teachings that had built up around the Law of God: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
A fair question. What is going on here? Does Jesus think the Law is unimportant? Is he disregarding tradition in favour of innovation? No. In fact, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees seems to be that their more recent traditions have undermined the eternal and foundational Word of God. The same challenge could be put to us today: does everything we do and teach grow out of Scripture?
How does Jesus respond to the question? “Boy was Isaiah ever right about you guys.” He accuses them of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of honouring God with their lips even while their hearts are far from him. Recall, for example, how our reading began. Here are men that have come from afar to see Jesus. Here they are presently gathered around him. Yet they notice others. They are in the presence of Jesus Christ but their heart is elsewhere. They have come to Jesus and yet they have not really come to him at all.
Are we so different ourselves? Are we not much quicker to notice the sins of others than we are to notice our own sin? Is it not easier to justify ourselves than it is to confess? Do we not prefer to judge others rather than serve them? We fall into these hypocritical patterns when we do not see ourselves as lowly and needy and requiring God’s mercy. You see, it is much easier to ignore my own defiled heart when I am busy looking at someone else’s defiled hands.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks a question that we are inclined to resist: can you consider yourself to be the greatest of sinners? Surely I cannot be the greatest of sinners! This must be an exaggeration! It cannot be true! Yet even Saint Paul says this of himself. Shortly after Bonhoeffer poses this question comes my favourite passage in all of his works, at once haunting and hopeful: “There can be no genuine acknowledgement of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.” If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.
Perhaps that is why the Pharisees and scribes were scanning the room rather than gazing at the one they had come to see? Perhaps they knew that if they fixed their gaze on Jesus Christ then the divine light that comes from him would search their own hearts and reveal what lies therein. And yet this very fear is what prevented them from knowing the mercy of Christ. For when we contemplate the mystery of Christ’s passion yes we are confronted with the reality of our sin but we are confronted even more so with the reality of God’s love that covers our sin. It is only when I personally experience Christ’s mercy for me, the greatest of sinners, that I can let go of judging others and aspire to serve them instead. Because that is what Christ has done for us.
This brings us to the crux of the matter—what Christ has done for us. You see, the religious leaders presume that they can keep themselves pure before God by observing a set of ritual laws. They think that the cleanliness that is required of them is something that they can manipulate and control. But what does Jesus say? “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
What prevents us from being made clean is not out there but rather in here. It’s not that unclean things defile an otherwise good human heart, it’s that the unclean human heart defiles otherwise good things. Christian teaching affirms that the world and everything in it is good because God is good and he made all things. Therefore, there are no bad things only bad uses of things. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” says Jesus.
Consider the list of vices that Jesus mentions at the end of our reading. Are not all these things a consequence of the bad use of good things? Take sex, for example (and everyone sat up in their pews). Sex is good but when you use it badly what do you get? Fornication and adultery, among other things, not to mention more nefarious consequences such as abuse and assault. Likewise, material wealth is a good but when you use it badly what do you get? Things like greed, envy, and pride. “Understand this,” says Jesus. “The rot starts from within not from without.” What we need, therefore, is an internal cleansing of the heart not simply an external cleansing of our hands.
Precisely this is what Jesus Christ has come to do. He has come to cleanse our stained hearts by his blood shed on the Cross and to dwell in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that not what James says in the second reading we heard this morning? The perfect gift from above that has come down from the Father is Jesus Christ, God’s word of truth. And this word of truth has been planted in our hearts by faith making us new creatures.
What then can you do? What does James say? “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” God has already planted his word in your heart by faith, welcome it. Get out of the way and let the word of God go to work on your heart. Welcome it with meekness. Not with pride. Be teachable, be patient, submit yourself.
The absolute best thing that you can do for you today—and for your families and neighbours by the way—is to learn to love the Word of God. Husbands and wives, what is the best thing you can do for your spouse? Love God’s Word. Fathers and mothers, what is the best thing you can do for your children? Love God’s Word. Single people, what is the best thing that you can do for your friends, your family, your community, and your self? Love God’s Word.
“But the Bible is so boring.” So what? “But I have a hard time understanding it.” Buy a commentary to help you read. Attend a Bible study and read along with others. “But I’m so busy I just can’t find the time.” Really? How much time have you spent just staring at a screen this week? How many hours this week have you just wasted doing things that are of zero eternal benefit? Never mind the time that we spend on things that are actually harmful for our souls.
So if you don’t already, learn to love the Bible because when you learn to love the Bible you learn to love Jesus. It may be a tough go at first but remember this: reading the Bible has to be a discipline before it can become a desire or even a delight.
Friends, the risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and through him God is able to cure the deep-seated impurity in our hearts. Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts but rather welcome him with meekness and allow him to do what only he can do. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 96.