|*** by Petras Gagilas. Creative Commons image on flickr|
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 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;
‘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.’
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’8 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.”
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.”
I used to think that the greatest challenge of a kosher diet was the prohibition of certain foods.
My perception changed when a Jewish friend explained that the greatest challenge is the preparation and storage of food.
The most basic law of the kosher diet is the strict separation of meat and dairy products. They cannot be stored, prepared, or eaten together.
Ideally, a kosher kitchen contains two of everything—including pots, dishes, utensils, sinks, countertops, and even major appliances like the refrigerator and range.
She went on to explain that her dining room contained a special sink for the ceremonial washing of hands—and not just before eating, but in between the eating of meat and dairy.
I couldn’t help but think of how complicated and time-consuming this must be. But it has been part of the Jewish way of life for millennia. In Judaism, eating isn’t just something you do—it is a sacred act of thanksgiving and devotion to God.
But in our Gospel, Jesus is calling out the religious leaders who criticize him for not holding to this tradition. We need to be clear here: Jesus isn’t condemning the ritual and tradition. After all, it finds its roots in the Law of Moses. Jesus is condemning their abuse. The ritual and tradition weren’t being used to bring people to closer to God—they were keeping people away.
Though we can hardly blame the religious leaders for their concern. In Jesus’ day, God’s people were immersed within a corrupt and unjust society that was anything but Godly. In a big way, the purity laws functioned to bind the Jewish people to God and one another as the world threatened to tear them apart.
Things are a little bit different for us. Christians remain the religious majority in our society. Our constitutional democracy and freedom of religion and speech protect us from persecution. That’s not to say that the world we live in isn’t constantly “throwing acid” on the Christian way of life.
The media isn’t “the main menace.” You can pull the plug on “the vast wasteland” of moral filth at any time.
In reality, we’re polluted by the stuff that escapes our concern: the stuff we reach for and cling to that makes us happy; the stuff that makes us feel in control; the stuff that reinforces our pride and self-righteousness.
That being said, Jesus says that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles:
“Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”
If you don’t hear your favorite sin here, you can most certainly add it in.
All these things come out of the heart, and defile the whole person as we commit evil against God and neighbor. Much of the time, we’ll find no fault in what we’re saying or doing. In fact, a person can do all the right things for all the wrong reasons.
What’s more, is that there is nothing any human being can do to purify their heart. You can withdraw from mainstream society and live in total isolation—but that won’t change your heart. Try as we may, you can’t legislate a moral and just society into being. History teaches us that attempts to do just that will always end in tyranny.
Thankfully, Jesus gives us another way. Moral purity and justice begin where forgiveness and God’s unconditional acceptance begin: at the cross. Our hearts hunger desperately for the comfort and strength only Jesus can give—and thankfully, Jesus gives us what we need. His blood purifies us of our sin and frees us from sin’s deadly grip. His body comes alive in our body, so that we may come into new life in him. Not only that, Jesus gives us the gifts of prayer the written Word, so that we can be in conversation with God. Faith begins in the heart, but it doesn’t stop there…
Christ comes out of the heart as action—because faith is a living thing that will suffocate if it is not expressing itself. Religion is the best word to describe how we live out our faith—and a big part of religion are the daily acts of thanksgiving, worship, and everything we do to cling to Jesus. But personal piety isn’t everything.
As James writes, religion is worthless if it builds up the individual but does nothing for the neighbor.
Ultimately, God isn’t building up the Kingdom with people who maintain rituals and traditions, all the while thinking that they can win God’s favor. God builds the kingdom as the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ comes alive in imperfect people like you and me. This is the essence of our Lutheran “religion”—that Jesus Christ is claiming and purifying the hearts of his people; coming alive in the people of this Body in order to draw near to the poor, the broken, and the lost. This is religion the world needs in a time such as this.