Today, we return to deal with Jesus second point included in Mark 7:1-23. Last week, I spoke about how the Pharisees and Scribes were making human traditions that nullified the commands of God. Today, I want to talk about why those traditions were being made, how this is a problem for all of humanity, and what the solution is. I know that sounds like a big order, and it is. Hopefully it shouldn’t take too long.
Last week, I spoke about how the Pharisees and scribes were asking Jesus about why some of the disciples were eating with defiled hands–or unclean hands. I spoke of how the Pharisees were trying to make the entire nation of Israel holy–just like the priests were to be holy. I talked about how Jesus called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites because they were actually breaking God’s commandments by following those human traditions. I used the example of the practice of dedicating possessions to God while refusing to take care of parents which is in violation of one of the 10 Commandments: Honor your father and your mother. All of this is contained in the first 13 verses of Mark chapter seven. Now, we need to move forward and deal with the root cause of this hypocrisy.
Jesus calls the crowd together and says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Let me repeat this. It’s crucial. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Apparently, the disciples needed a bit more explanation regarding this teaching because a few short verses later, Jesus has to explain it to them, and He says this, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
I am going to take a quick tangent here to deal with something important–the issue of biblical interpretation. In our Old Testament reading this morning, we see a list of foods that are forbidden to eat. Among those foods are some favorites of at least a few of you here this morning: shellfish and pork. Shrimp and bacon. These were not kosher for the Jews to eat. Some folks say, “Well, the Bible says that you aren’t supposed to eat bacon or shrimp. It also says you shouldn’t get tattoos or body piercings. Yet, you do it, and no one blinks an eye. Aren’t you being hypocritical when you say that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry? Aren’t you being hypocritical by calling homosexuality a sin?”
There is a huge failure here to understand the interpretation of scripture. If Jesus is who the Gospel writers proclaim Him to be, He is no mere human standing up and giving out a particular philosophy. Jesus is fully human, but He is also fully divine. This is God on earth teaching and proclaiming and fulfilling the Law. And Jesus says right here, “Nothing from outside can come into a person and defile, but it is what comes out of a person that defiles.” This is God telling us something very important about the nature of sin: it’s not an external thing that causes us to sin. Sin comes from the depths of our hearts. It comes from hearts that are not tuned correctly. Tattoos don’t cause sin. Body piercings don’t cause sin. Bacon doesn’t cause sin. Shrimp doesn’t cause sin. Nothing from outside causes sin. It is the heart chasing after false gods that causes sin. So, we have God changing the purity code of scripture right here. We have the Word made flesh nullifying His own commands. Only God can change God’s commands, and that’s exactly what is going on right here. The question is: why? Why is Jesus, God incarnate, changing the purity code?
Remember last week, when I called your attention to Jesus’ quoting of Isaiah? Remember I asked you to pay particular attention to the place where Isaiah says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”? I told you this verse was important. It is important because it reveals the true problem with the Pharisees and scribes. It is important because it reveals the true problem with all of us. How so?
Martin Luther in his Large Catechism wrote the following, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your God.” I think Luther hits the nail on the head with this definition. No one is truly an atheist. Everyone trusts in something. Everyone believes that some particular belief system; some material possession; some person will bring about all good. Everyone takes refuge in some thing be it science, family, government, their own selves, philosophy, the law, the earth, money, or what have you. Each person’s heart is captured by this particular thing. No heart escapes being captured by something. It is a human condition.
I want to use this as our starting point because I think it’s important to realize what had captured the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes. If you read through scripture, I think you will see that the Pharisees’ hearts were captured by the Kingdom of God. You might wonder: what is wrong with that? Shouldn’t we want the Kingdom of God? Doesn’t Jesus even say in the book of Matthew, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added unto you.”? Yes, Jesus says that, but the question is how you define the Kingdom of God? For you see, the Pharisees and scribes believed the Kingdom of God was equivalent to the Kingdom of Israel. They believed that the Kingdom of God meant the rule of Israel over the world. The Romans would be overthrown. The rest of the world would be overthrown. A new king would ascend who would be God’s representative, and Israel would be a place of might and peace and prosperity. The Pharisees’ and scribes’ hearts were captured by this vision, and they believed they knew exactly how they could bring about this kingdom–by becoming very, very holy–very, very clean, very, very pure.
Remember last week how I said the Pharisees began demanding that everyone become just like the priests? Remember how I said the Pharisees made up the human tradition that every Jew should be as holy and as undefiled as the priests? I hope you do. If you weren’t here, I will happily give you the web address to my blog where you can catch up. :-) If you don’t remember, I am reminding you now. The Pharisees and scribes thought every Jew should be holy and pure and upright. The Pharisees and scribes thought that every Jew should be exactly like the priests who worked in the temple and were close to God. All the commands of scripture that were given to the priests should be given to all the Jews. It’s not actually a bad thing, right?
Wrong. Why? Well, let’s push this holiness thing to the extreme. If I have to be holy and undefiled, then I must stay away from anything–or anyone that might defile me. I can’t come into contact with any type of animal or person who has been defiled. If someone has eaten an unclean animal, then they are unclean. I must maintain my purity so I cannot associate with them. I can’t be near them lest they rub off on me. I have to maintain my holiness. I have to maintain my purity lest I fail and the Kingdom of God not be established.
Can you see what is wrong with this logic? Maybe not. Let me say two things here. First, if you
think that the establishment of the Kingdom of God depends upon your actions, then you will run yourself ragged trying to be perfect and do all the right things. You will eventually wear yourself out as you hold onto that burden. Second, and perhaps most important to this particular text, if the Pharisees and scribes cut themselves off from anyone who is defiled and impure–which by definition means cutting themselves off from all the other nations of the world; all the Gentiles; all of those who are deformed or sick or ill; how will they fulfill the covenant God made with Abraham; which was reaffirmed through Moses? You may ask, what is that covenant? Just this: God said He would bless the Israelites THAT THEY MAY BE A BLESSING TO OTHERS. Let that sink in a moment as I ask: how can you be a blessing to others if you will not associate with them because you view them as defiled and unclean? How can you pass on the blessing of God if you isolate yourself from others? And by isolating yourself are you not being inherently selfish by grabbing onto the blessing and refusing to pass it on? Can you see why Jesus says, “8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”? And they are doing it because their hearts are not centered on God–their hearts are centered on an idol–their own idea of what the Kingdom of God is and how to bring about that kingdom. If we were to really, really push it, we could say that the Pharisees are centered upon themselves. They want the blessings of the Kingdom of God. They want the blessings of bringing about the Kingdom of God, but they don’t want God. Their hearts are not in the right place. Their hearts are far from God.
But as I have said numerous times, so I say again. This isn’t just a Pharisee problem. This is our problem as well. You see, we still have our own purity codes that we abide by today. We still have our own thoughts on how to bring about utopia or the Kingdom of God on earth today. And if everyone were just as holy as I am... If everyone just believed just like me... If everyone put their trust in science, or government, or capitalism, or socialism, or the Republicans, or Democrats, or the Church, then everything would work out perfectly. And if you don’t believe what I believe... If you don’t trust what I trust... then I cannot associate with you. I can’t be your true friend. I will unfriend you on Facebook. Oh my. How our hearts are far from God. We are modern day Pharisees. Doesn’t matter if we are believers or not. We have written our own set of purity codes, and we are loathe to think that our hearts are the ones that need changing–it’s always that person out there, never me.
But Jesus calls each and every one of us to account. He says, “It is not the things from the outside that defile, but it is the status of the heart that defiles.” And show me a heart that is not corrupted. Show me a heart that has not come under the influence of sin. Show me a heart that does not chase after false gods–seeking to put its trust in something other than the God who created the heaven and the earth. All of our hearts are broken. All of our hearts need fixing. All of our hearts’ imaginations need to be captured by the true God so that we cease blaming others for the world’s problems; cease being selfish; and cease making division.
But the question is: how does a heart change? How does a heart turn away from all of these false Gods? How does a heart turn away from all the things that the world says will bring you happiness, peace, joy, comfort, safety, and stability?
Jesus says to each and every one of us, “Look to me.”
Well, why? Why should I look to you, Jesus?
Here’s why. Look at all the things that tend to capture your heart’s imagination. Think about how they view you. Think about how they see you in the big picture of things. Think about how many of those things will never disappoint you. Think about how many of those things will never let you down or make you feel small. Money doesn’t love you. Your possessions can’t care for you. The government only sees you as a number that pays taxes or votes to give it power. Your family loves you, but they will die–and they aren’t perfect by any stretch. Your friends will only go so far with you. The Church is full of broken people who can be just as mean as they are nice. Science doesn’t care one whit about you as you are only a passing collection of atoms that will one day be incinerated by the sun. None of the things that vie for our heart’s attention will love you with a lasting love.
But Jesus says, “I can. I will, and I did.”
“Where is the proof?” you might ask.
Jesus says, “Look at my hands. Look at my feet. Place your hands in my side. These scars are there because I was willing to die for you when your heart was far away from me. I was willing to go to the cross to pay for your sins. I was willing to endure separation from my Father so that you never have to. I was willing to be pushed to the outside so that you could be let inside. Nothing else in the world will ever be able to give you that kind of love.”
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 might be saved by Him.
Oh, and when this captures your heart–when Jesus becomes the God that you trust, you view the world oh so differently! You view others oh so differently! No longer do you see them as “those people over there.” You see others as made in the image of God–who are just as broken as you are broken. Who see things differently–but who still need the love and grace of God. You realize what Jesus did for you. You realize the tremendous blessing that has been poured out when you least deserved it, and there is nothing that will get in your way of seeking to share that blessing with others. You know that it is not your job to make people be like you, but it is your job to help them connect with the One who transforms them into His image and likeness. And it doesn’t matter if that person is Republican or Democrat; gay or straight; male or female; black or white or any shade in between; all have sinned. All need grace. All need Jesus. When your heart is captured by Him, you will go to anyone and everyone. Because you have been loved, you now seek to help others know that love. Because of Jesus, your heart is no longer far from God, you know that you have been blessed, and you now seek to be a blessing. Amen.