Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018 Lectionary B, Proper 17
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Rector Scripture: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Jesus plays hardball.
Let us pray.
Mark 7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
6 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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)– 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
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.” 16 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.”
In today’s gospel from St. Mark Jesus asks us to look a little deeper at what we present to the world as ourselves (who we are) and what in fact is going inside of us. Appearances can be deceiving as the saying goes, especially when it comes to the human heart. We all know this about others and, yes, about ourselves. Is there a secret sin we are hiding?
We also know that no matter how hard we try to control these evil intentions, in the words of Jesus, it is an uphill battle if not impossible. The human heart has a mind of its own. St. Paul’s words from Romans 7:19 come to mind: “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.” While we are perhaps dismayed about some of the disclosures which the #Me too movement has highlighted, believing this is something new, we know it is not. Should we pass judgment on the Roman Church? Pope Francis has been indicted, not legally at least not yet, but none the less indicted. It would appear that he has conspired to cover up the evil intentions and actions of some of his clergy. How far do we go in acknowledging that our children have been wounded? It is easy to point a finger at the horror of sexual abuse, but what of that abuse that is less obvious. Who here does not carry wounds, even after so many years, that a parent might have inflicted? Even now we may hear the voice of that parent, scolding, belittling, and harming. By the same token, what wounds have we inflicted on our own children? If we have the self-honesty to acknowledge our shortcomings, have we apologized and tried to make amends with them?
Of course, the political arena is fraught with all sorts of evil intentions. Jesus words from this morning’s gospel are terribly apt in that regard: “fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Tell me those words don’t describe to the “T” the world of politics. While we may be repulsed or revile those who have been found guilty of those evil intentions, we would do well to remember Jesus’ words to the woman, caught in adultery and brought to Him.
“And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst. 10 And straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 And she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more” (John 8:8-11).
Notice that it was the older men who first left. Sure, this might have been a matter of some etiquette protocol; it also suggests, however, that as we get older we come to realize the fickleness of the human heart. This should alert us. If we hear someone or some group being particularly vehement in their condemnation of whomever or whatever, watch out. Are they themselves hiding something equally as bad if not worse?
We are not to believe, however, that Jesus is letting the woman, caught in adultery, off easily. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus says to His listeners, “that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” What Jesus is saying here not only applies to adultery. It applies to all those other sinful thoughts and emotions we feel, yet do not act upon. We have sinned by the very fact of having those thoughts and emotions. It is a sobering reality, but gets at the heart of sin itself. Yes, acts of sin do harm, seriously harm, but they begin in our hearts. The heart is the culprit. What are we to do?
One thing we have tried to do is change the rules as to what constitutes sin and what does not. Jesus hits that approach hard when He says in this morning’s gospel, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” Oh sure, Jesus was speaking to the scribes and Pharisees of His day. What they had done was create their own rules based on their own reasoning rather than that as prescribed by God in scripture. Yes, they had put it into the context of devotion to God, but at the expense of twisting God’s law. Listen again to how Jesus describes their twisting of God’s law.
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)– 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” Is this not what we have seen and do see in the church today—making up its own rules about what is right and wrong by twisting scripture and God’s law?
As much as anything, in today’s gospel Jesus is telling us to be honest. None of us are any better than the rest. Sure we can try to justify ourselves, even presuming to say that God made us this way. God, though, did not create a fallen world. The Genesis account of creation is quite clear on this. Where then does this leave us sinners? Oh, I know we don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners. It hurts our sense of self-worth, especially in this culture where children are affirmed for merely showing up. Has it not crossed our minds that there is a causal relationship between this affluence of affirmation and the growth of violence and crime in our society? How is self-control being taught and modeled if everyone receives an A grade regardless of his or her effort? Where does that leave us?
In this morning’s gospel Jesus has laid out some basic facts about us. First, He tells us that we can be religious. Such was the example of the Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus’ disciples for eating with unclean hands. Being religious, however, is not the same as being godly or doing what God would have us do. Again, the Pharisees illustrate this. Indeed, they have made up their own religion. Jesus then goes to the heart of the matter. It is the heart that is the problem. “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” His words weren’t only true then; they are true now. Are we not guilty as well at least at times?
What then is it that makes us unclean if it is not eating with dirty hands or not following the rules? Jesus tells us, “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.”
We might be inclined to believe that in this morning’s gospel it is the Pharisees and scribes who are the bad guys. We can point our fingers at them. However, this is not what Jesus is saying. St. Paul puts it this way: “. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is a sobering thought, and I would suggest a liberating one. Let’s call something for what it is; surely that is part of the solution. Still, we are left in the muck of our evil intentions. Maybe, for some that is okay. Yes, we do have to live with ourselves, but is that enough? Is it enough to say, “Yes, sometimes I am a sorry so and so, and sometimes I think and do bad things, but that’s just the way it is!” Is that enough?
I think deep down we know that it is not enough. Let the specter of death come near us and we might have more apprehensions than the fact that our lives are getting ready to end. What will happen to me after I die? Okay, perhaps that is an unfair question or too heavy handed. Though we do have to live with ourselves, can we do a better job of it? Does God, does Jesus call us to be more, have more?
We have heard it so often that we perhaps have become a little deaf to it. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:16, 17). We cannot save ourselves from the evil intentions of our hearts, but Jesus can if we believe in Him. We are not just talking about eternity, but the here and now. What does that look like?
St. Paul describes it. “. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-24).
The answer to whatever ails the human heart is always the same, is it not? The answer is Jesus. Before we pass that off as the default setting, perhaps we should reconsider His promise. He says in John 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” Don’t we want abundant life? If so, Jesus is the answer. Whatever else we may treasure in this world—health, money, spouse, children, grandchildren, or football, either we or they will pass away. The abundant life that Jesus offers will not. The decision is ours. Now is the time to ask Him into our lives even more; not only ask Him, but follow Him in the way we live our lives on a daily basis.
Surely, each of us has some idea of what that means (following Him) and how we can begin to put that into practice. How might our days and nights be re-ordered and how might that re-ordering include following Him more? The change in re-ordering need not be a big one. Any change in the direction of following Him will be a right one. And, yes, our lives will feel more abundant for doing so.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.