Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Practicality vs. Purity
Last Sunday morning, Terri and I were returning relaxed, restored, and rejuvenated from our cruise in the Caribbean. It was an awesome ship, with a great itinerary, exotic ports, and for the most part good food. With all of those people cooped up in one place for eight days, you can imagine the need to keep things clean. Cleanliness and hygiene is a big deal on cruise ships.
There was Purell gel hand cleansing stations at every turn on that ship and like everyone else on our cruise, we washed our hands religiously. Every time we touched a banister, elevator button, or door handle, and before every meal, we washed our hands. We did not do it merely for show to let others know how clean we were, we used the gel to avoid Norovirus and the other nasty bugs people can carry on ships. There was obviously a purpose behind the Purell.
Today you find hand sanitizers in hospitals, offices, and even here in church. I bet many of you even have a bottle in our pocket or purse right now. Our modern day obsession with using that refreshing alcohol based cleansing gel, may like ancient religious traditions that over time have become empty habitual practices. For some of us, we reach for the Purell out of habit, forgetting why we are even cleaning our hands in the first place.
The hand washing conflict we heard about in the gospel reading may seem to be a little absurd, because it was so practical. I mean washing your hands before you eat, washing cooking pots, and washing the food you buy at Publix all makes sense right. So, why did Jesus make a fuss with the Pharisees over smart hygiene? Well, the issue at hand (no pun intended) was less about hand washing and more about heart washing.
Washing hands, cups, and kettles: Identity Markers
Among Israel’s priestly clan, outward washing served as an outward sign of being in right relationship with God. A good cleansing on the outside revealed a cleansing of one’s heart. Therefore, the washing of hands before eating, cleansing kettles and pots, and washing food purchased from the market became a frequent religious practice of the uber-righteous. Over time though, this religious practice lost its original purpose and meaning, kind of like when we thoughtlessly reach for that Purell bottle, and we forget why we even use it.
This religious practice became an outward show in public that was used by some to draw praises, and holy accolades from the crowds for self-righteous piety. In other words, what was meant to be a response to God’s grace became a way for the so-called holy ones, to put up religious window dressings for all to see. These outward actions also became exclusionary tactics used to make others feel as if they were less than, unworthy, or not as good as those who were faithful to the law.
I wonder if we are honest with ourselves, how many of us unconsciously put up religious window dressings like that? Maybe in the dark areas of our hearts we entertain the thought, “With all I do for God, all the ministry I do, and I must be doing this Christianity thing better than everyone else.” Maybe in those self-serving crevices of our psyche (that we all have) we think, “Others don’t pray as often as I do, nor study scripture as much as I do, or are not as well versed in theology as I am and thus, they are not as good a Christian as me.” The Pharisees Jesus rebuked for their pious practices, thought like that, and puffed them up like that, and divided the community up like that.
In his article Pharisees among us, by John Ortberg, he writes, “All groups of human beings have a tendency to be exclusive; they want to know who is inside and who is out. So they adopted legalistic identity markers—visible practices of dress or vocabulary or behavior that serve to distinguish who is inside the group from who is outside.”(1)
The Pharisees’ religious practices no longer served as a response to God’s transformative power in their lives, but their piety became a way to show others how good they thought they were, by trying to earn their praise, and thus foolishly trying to earn favor with God. Jesus saw through the ruse and he called them on it. He said, ‘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.” Devotion was no longer about God and responding to God’s love, it became about a need for ego inflating self-righteousness.
John Ortberg writes and I quote, “There is a self-righteousness in me that does not want to die. There is something inside me that is not bothered when others are excluded, that wants others to be excluded, that feels more special when I’m on the inside and somebody else is not.” (1) Like Jesus’ detractors, we may want to be perceived as in the “holy in crowd,” and thus the purpose of our ministry becomes merely putting up religious window dressings. To be “doers of the word and not mere hearers of the word,” as the Apostle James writes, our lives must mirror a heart filled with God’s grace, which acts merely to respond to that grace.
Following Jesus: Why we do what we do
A preacher asked her congregation, “If you were arrested and put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Our lives, our actions, our ministry should project the heart change, whereby Jesus washes us clean of our desire for self-righteousness, misled by a false “pay to play” idea of grace.
The so called “prosperity gospel” out there tries to convince us that God’s grace is somehow economic and transactional. “The prosperity gospel is an umbrella term for a group of ideas … that equate Christian faith with material, and particularly financial, success.” (3) Consumer culture would have us believe that the way to God’s grace is through working hard, doing ministry, being a committed doer, and all to try and earn grace. The notion of earning God’s grace has hijacked the Good News of the unearned favor of God and thus, some would have us believe that if we do the right things for God, God will do the right things for us. Grace is a gift we merely receive and not something we can purchase, negotiate, or earn through what we do. It is something we receive.
Clean your Hearts
Have you ever had someone give you an unexpected gift, and in response to the generosity you say, “Oh you did not have to do that, or I cannot accept that?” Why is it we struggle to accept a gift from someone? An article I read in “Psychology Today” offered four reasons why we may struggle to believe God’s grace is a free gift we mere receive and for which it cannot be earned. First, maybe we reject the free gift of God’s grace as a defense against intimacy, fearing we may get too close to the holy. Maybe we reject the free gift of God’s grace because we cannot let go of control of our relationships. Maybe we reject the free gift of God’s grace because we fear that strings are attached, and God may use the “gotcha now” tactic. Maybe we reject the free gift of God’s grace because we feel a pressure to reciprocate, and God may want more from us that we can give. Grace is not something we can stay away from, control, or negotiate. It is merely something we accept. God loves us and that is it. God loves you and that is enough.
If we are honest and folks, and I am being honest with you, I too fall into the trap of being that person trying to please God and seeking to earn grace. Clergy can sometimes be the worst at this issue, and so can all of us. Consider simply why we came to church today. We all woke up this morning and made a choice about whether to come to worship or not. Hopefully, we are not here out of some sense of guilt, or some misconstrued sense of duty, or even a desire to earn God’s favor. Hopefully, we are here responding to the great love God has poured out on us this week.
My sisters and brothers God does not desire our gestures and work in order to love us. Our ministry service does not earn grace, but our ministry becomes how we respond to God’s grace. Our lives, our gifts of time, talent, and treasure are offered to God every single day, not to earn favor, but as a response to God’s love that we have internalized, received, and accepted in our hearts.
Despite our tendency to try and measure up by religiously washing our hands, or doing other religious things, or acting in ways so others might believe we are good enough, God just keeps saying I love you this much. So, this journey of faith is much easier than we make it sometimes. Honestly, all we have to do is receive God’s love with open arms. All we have to do is give thanks to God and let our life shine through all that we do, all that we say, and especially through all that we are. We are beloved, forgiven, and transformed friends of Jesus, whose hearts have been washed clean by the “no-strings attached,” non-transactional, unearned, and certainly un-complicated gift of Jesus’ Amazing Grace.
(1) Ortberg, John C Jr. “Pharisees Are Us.” The Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 17, 23 Aug. 2003, p. 20.