No one likes to be told they are wrong. I mean, really, I don’t think I have run across anyone who when confronted with wrongdoing says, “Well, geez, I am so happy that you told me I am wrong. Thank you so much for correcting me and pointing out my flaws. I just don’t know how I could have missed being so wrong about this stuff.”
Anyone ever heard such commentary? Anyone ever said such a thing? Perhaps you have at some point, but most of us don’t really react in such a fashion. Most of us become defensive. Most of us become more entrenched in our points of view. Most of us, when confronted with someone who points out a flaw or tells us we are wrong, seek out someone else who will give us confirmation of our own particular beliefs and understandings.
I thought about this a lot this week in light of the events in Ferguson, MO. As this story unfolds, there has been much finger pointing and blame. There have been many accusations of wrongdoing. Each side says the others is wrong, and each side seems to have difficulty understanding why the other side is so worked up. There seems to be an endless cycle of anger because of the mounting accusations. It's a problem which is not new to our time. It was around even in Jesus' day. There were just different groups. The Pharisees are the classic example which appear in our Gospel lesson.
It is little wonder the Pharisees took offense to what Jesus said regarding what defiles a person. Let’s set the scene for a moment. Jesus tells the crowds following Him, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
The disciples come up to Jesus and say, “You know, what you said just ticked off the Pharisees.” I’m not exactly sure why the disciples came up to Jesus and said this to Him. Maybe they thought Jesus needed sensitivity training. I mean, maybe even at that time you were supposed to be tolerant of others’ beliefs. You didn’t want to go around insinuating someone might be wrong in what they taught. I mean, what works for you works for you, but what works for someone else works for that person. You shouldn’t try and impose your beliefs on anyone else. Oh, wait, that’s the way many folks think today, and we’ll discuss such matters in a minute or two. But for the time being, let’s move away from why the disciples might have brought this to Jesus attention and think about why the Pharisees were offended.
Jesus had just stepped on their toes in a major way. The Pharisees taught over and over and over that the people of Israel should purify themselves. And if the people of Israel would purify themselves, God would look down upon their purity; their holiness, and be moved to action. What sort of action? Well, to establish the Kingdom of God–that kingdom where all of Israel’s enemies were overthrown, a new king who was a king of justice and wisdom would ascend the thrown and lead the people in righteousness, and the Israelites would become another world power growing in wealth and prosperity and power. The Pharisees believed that if they followed the holiness code contained in the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament–then God would be forced to act in such a fashion.
And so, the Pharisees lived and breathed and taught the holiness code. They ritually washed their hands according to what the Law proscribed. They only ate certain kinds of food. They abstained from associating with certain types of people. They very much became Biblical literalists according to the Laws of Moses. They were trying to do all the right things. That’s important to hear, so let me say that again, they were trying to do all the right things according to the Laws and Commands of God written in the Bible. And those commands were intended to make a person holy and pure before that person came before God.
So, do you find it as interesting as I do that when Jesus receives word from His disciples that the Pharisees are offended, Jesus isn’t contrite? He isn’t understanding? He isn’t tolerant? He doesn’t say, “Oh, the Pharisees have their way of doing things and believing things, I have my way. They are both different paths to the same place.” Jesus doesn’t apologize. Instead, Jesus blasts the Pharisees. I mean, read what Jesus says, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
If Jesus was around today to say such a thing, He’d be sent to sensitivity training! How dare Jesus be so closed minded and offensive! Why would Jesus say such a thing? Why would He be so confrontational?
We get an indication as Jesus explains to Peter the meaning of what He said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Here is the point Jesus is making in regards to the Pharisees: they are doing all the right things externally. They are following the Law to a tee. They are following the holiness codes and being good examples of people who follow the Law. Externally, they are clean, but internally, they are filthy! Externally, they follow God’s commands, but internally, they are sinful and broken. And they don’t even realize it. How is this the case?
Let me pull another story from scripture to illustrate the point. The story comes from Luke chapter 7. 36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’
Do you see what is going on in this story? Do you see why the Pharisees were considered the “blind leading the blind?” With all of their attention paid to purity and the holiness code, with all their attention given toward following the Law to perfection, they became self-righteous. They thought they were spiritually and morally better than other people. They felt like they could look down their noses at others and judge them as inferior; loved less by God; as sinners. They felt like they could hold others in contempt and say, “I am following the Law, and with effort this person could too. They should work harder to be as holy as I am.” In their hearts, the Pharisees had no compassion; no love. They held many of their neighbors in contempt. They were breaking God’s Law by doing so, for as Jesus pointed out, the two greatest commandments were loving God and then loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. You cannot hold your neighbor in contempt and love them. The two are antithetical. And because the Pharisees were contemptuous, out of them flowed spite and anger and division. And they were absolutely blind to this. They thought they were being holy.
Let’s return for a moment and talk about sensitivity and Jesus’ lack of it. You see, Jesus was insensitive because He refused to kowtow to hypocrisy, and the Pharisees were full of it. While trying to be holy on the outside, they were sinful on the inside. Jesus points this out. And while many cry for sensitivity and tolerance today, it turns out such folks are oftentimes just as hypocritical. How so? Ever known a person who preaches tolerance to freely embrace a bigot? You see a “tolerant” person oftentimes cannot stand someone who is “intolerant” and thus by refusing to be tolerant of the intolerant, the tolerant become intolerant. I’ll pause for just a moment because that can be a little tricky to wrap your head around. The reality is, we are all intolerant at some level. We all are a bit blind. And we don't like it. Can you see why there is such trouble in Ferguson?
Now. Hopefully, you’ve gotten your head around this, and hopefully you understand why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees. Hopefully you see why He says they are the blind leading the blind. Hopefully you see why Jesus says it’s not what you put into a person that defiles, but it is what comes out of a person that defiles a person. For if someone is broken and sinful inside, they will produce broken and sinful fruit. If a person is holy inside, they will produce good fruit.
But that begs the question: how can I make sure I am good inside? How can I make sure I do not hold my neighbors in contempt? How do I avoid falling into hypocrisy? How can I love my neighbor when I don’t agree with them about religion, politics, or whether to root for Bellville or Sealy? How can I make sure that I am producing the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control?
The answer is believe in the Gospel. Believe in what God has done for you. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him. And God did this not when you were perfect; not when you were following His commands; not when you were holy, but precisely when you were none of these things. Jesus died for you while you were sinful. He clothed you with His righteousness when you were wearing the rags of sin. He covered you when you were least deserving of it.
And when you understand this deep in your heart, you are humbled. You know you can’t hold someone in contempt because they don’t follow God’s commands. You weren’t and still don’t follow them completely either. You can’t blame them for being intolerant because you know you are intolerant too. You can’t say they should try harder at being a better person because you know you can’t be a better person without the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Your salvation and redemption was not achieved by you. It was achieved by Jesus on the cross. You have no reason to boast in your efforts, but you have every reason to boast in Jesus’ work. And that work changes you. It changes your heart. People were head over heels this last year about the Disney movie Frozen, and the classic line from the story is, “An act of true love melts a frozen heart.” Christ’s act of true love on the cross not only melts our hearts, but it changes them–it makes them good, so that out of us flows that which is good. Amen.