Proper 17 – 8/29/2021 – St. Paul’s
Which would you prefer for a next-door neighbor: a person of excellent habits or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a good friend: a person of excellent habits, or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a husband or a wife: a person of excellent habits, or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a child: a child with excellent habits, or a child with a good heart?
It is wonderful to have a neighbor who conscientiously cares for his property while respecting your property. It is wonderful to have a friend who always treats you with consideration. It is wonderful to be married to a husband who always is thoughtful and courteous, or to a wife who always is gracious in her comments and deeds. It is wonderful to have a son or daughter who shows respect and uses good manners.
As wonderful as those situations are, none of them compare to having a neighbor, a friend, a husband, a wife, a son, or a daughter with a good heart.When you discuss good behavior, you are discussing the quality of a person’s self-control. When you discuss a good heart, you are discussing the quality of the person.
In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus confronts a group of Pharisees who accuse his disciples of getting religion wrong. Specifically, the Pharisees ask why some of Jesus’s followers eat their meals with defiled hands — that is, why they eat without performing the ritual hand washing expected of observant Jewish people before meals.
To our contemporary ears, the accusation might sound trivial. But the Pharisees ask an important question, a question that gets to the heart of what authentic religion is. Consider their context: the first century Jewish people among whom Jesus ministers is an oppressed minority, living in an occupied land. How are they to keep their faith viable against the backdrop of colonization? In the midst of religious and cultural diversity, how should they maintain their identity? Their integrity? Their heritage?
The Pharisees’ solution to the problem is to contain and codify the sacred. How can God’s people best practice their religion among the surrounding pagans? They can create and maintain a purity culture — a culture that clearly delineates who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, who deserves God’s favor and who doesn’t. They can practice the ancient rituals of their elders down to the last letter, as if tradition itself is the gateway to holiness. They can refuse table fellowship with the unwashed — the tax collectors, sex workers, and other morally compromised sinners. They can set themselves apart as God’s righteous and holy people.This is religion as fence-building. Religion as separation. Religion as institution for institution’s sake. And Jesus — never one to mince words — calls it what it is. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he rebukes the Pharisees, saying, 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.
It’s easy for us to look down on the Pharisees, as if we in our enlightened modernity would never make their mistakes. But honestly, are we any different? Don’t we sometimes behave as if we’re finished products, with nothing new to discover about the Holy Spirit’s movements in the world? Don’t we cling to spiritual traditions and practices that long ago ceased to be life-giving, simply because we can’t bear to change “the way we’ve always done things?” Don’t we set up religious litmus tests for each other, and decide who’s in and who’s out based on conditions that have nothing to do with Jesus’s open-hearted love and hospitality? Don’t we fixate on the forms of piety we can put on display for others to applaud, instead of cultivating the secret and hidden life of God deep within our souls?
It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t condemn ritual hand washing in this story. He doesn’t argue that all religious traditions are evil. What he indicts is the legalism, self-righteousness, and exclusivism that keeps the Pharisees from freely loving God and loving their neighbors. What he calls out is their elevation of rite over mercy, heritage over hospitality, ritual over compassion. What he grieves is the Pharisees’ compulsive need to police the boundaries of their religion, based on their own narrow definitions of purity and piety.
Jesus is warning us not to prefer creeds to deeds. I like the story about Queen Victoria who was at a diplomatic reception in London. The guest of honor was an African chieftain. All went well during the meal, until, at the end, finger bowls were served. The guest of honor had never seen a British finger bowl, and no one had thought to brief him before hand about its purpose. So he took the finger bowl in his two hands, lifted it to his mouth, and drank its contents–down to the very last drop!
For an instant there was breathless silence among the British upper crust and then they began to whisper to one another. All that stopped in the next instant as the Queen, Victoria, silently took her finger bowl in her two hands, lifted it, and drank its contents! A moment later 500 surprised British ladies and gentlemen simultaneously drank the contents of their own fingerbowls.
It was against the rules to drink from a fingerbowl, but on that particular evening Victoria changed the rules—because she was, after all, the Queen. It is against the rules not to wash your hands before you eat and on that the Pharisees called the hand of the disciples who follow Jesus. But Jesus recognizes their hypocrisy and he quotes from Isaiah, These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.
Our tradition should not kill our compassion. Whenpeople are in need and love is called upon we should set aside our human rules and act with a human heart. God prefers deeds to creeds, love over law, and hearts over habits. But we should be careful here. Jesus is not saying do away with creeds. Listen to how Jesus admonishes the rulers, he says, You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions. Now listen, the greatest creed, he says, is to honor your father and your mother. We should not set aside the greater commandment for the lesser one, especially when the lesser one is one we’ve created.
That’s Jesus’ first warning.
Secondly, Jesus is warning us not to look at the outside habits but rather the inside motives. It is interesting that the Pharisees chose to send a delegation all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee, a 60-mile journey. The delegation is not there for a spot of tea. They have come to observe for a while. How long we do not know but you can bet that their presence was not welcomed. And why is this? Because, as was so often the case, they were not on a fact-finding mission but a fault-finding mission.
Looking for any reason to hang Jesus they cease upon a minor infraction. The disciples are faulted for not performing the religious ritual of hand washing before they ate, an unclean act. Now what’s going on here? What does unclean mean? The obvious explanation, as you might have guessed, is dirty hands. But the practice of washing was not done for reasons of health; in that day, it was done for religious purity. It was thought that the normal activities and circumstances of every day living made a Jew unclean before God. Pouring water over the hands washed away this defilement.
It’s an interesting question: Can outside rituals make us inside saints?
It’s like the young man who came to a great rabbi and said, Teacher, I want to be made a rabbi. It was wintertime then. The rabbi stood at the window with his back to the young man, looking out upon the courtyard. The young man was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.
The young man said, You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete each days penance.
As the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.
Just look! cried the rabbi. That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?
Do clean hands make for a clean heart? To answer this Jesus called the crowd to his side and with the Pharisees and Teachers looking on he said, 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.’
Dirty hands do not make a dirty heart. From within, Jesus said, not from without. It is greed not grime, malice not money, deceit not dust, arrogance not alcohol that makes us unclean. Water will not wash away sexual immorality. Religious rituals will not cleanse us from envy, slander, and arrogance. All these evils, Jesus said, come from inside and make a man unclean.
God is interested in good hearts not good habits. He is interested in the inside not the outside. These are the two lessons we should take with us this morning. But there is one more point here and it is buried within the story. You have to think, slowly, through the story to get at it. Jesus is letting us know that God requires good Hearts and good Deeds but he is also saying—God requires good Creeds.
On first reading it sounds as though Jesus is condemning ritualistic religion. But he is not. Rituals are good things. If pouring water over our hands to remove dirt reminds us that we need daily, to wash our hearts, and practice generosity, kindness, faithfulness, humility, and fidelity to our spouses then that is a good thing. If, on the other hand, we think the simple act of pouring water over our hands makes us acceptable before God then that is a bad thing.
Traditions can be good things.
Let me also say a word on behalf of creeds. Creeds are good things. They are necessary. Most every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. The Church has been saying that creed for almost 1900 years. It’s one of our rituals, one of our traditions. Does saying it make you holy? No. Does memorizing it make you a saint? No. But if from your heart, you earnestly believe all that the creed teaches, then you are holy. You are a saint!
Frederick Buechner imagined a youngster learning to play the piano. The child holds her hands just as she’s been told…she has memorized the piece perfectly. She has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But her heart’s not in it, only her fingers. What she’s playing is a sort of music, but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping.
When it comes to faith and life, let me ask you a question: Are our hearts in it or only your fingers?
So what can we do? How can we discern whether our way of doing religion is life-giving or not? Jesus gives his listeners this advice: notice what comes out of you. Notice what fruit your adherence to tradition bears. Does your version of holiness lead to hospitality? To inclusion? To freedom? Does it cause your heart to open wide with compassion? Does it lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table? Does it make you brave, creative, and joyful? Does it prepare your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new? Does it facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?
Or does it make you small, stingy, and bored? Fearful, suspicious, withholding, and judgmental?
Like everything else Jesus offers us, his confrontation with the Pharisees is an invitation. It’s an invitation to consider what is really sacred and inviolable in our spiritual lives. It’s an invitation to go deeper — past lip service, past tradition, past purity, past piety. It’s an invitation to practice what this week’s epistle calls pure religion. A religion of love for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the outcast, and the enemy. A religion of trust in a surprising, innovating, and ever-creating God. The God of heritage and history, yes. But also the God of an ever-living, ever-changing now