Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scriptures: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 & James 1:17-27
What are some traditions that we have, either as individuals, or as families, or as a congregation? There are often family traditions associated with different holidays. When I was a kid we always had Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house, Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle’s house, and Christmas at our house. On Christmas Eve we always exchanged joke or gag gifts of some kind.
A couple of my traditions as a pastor or worship leader are to start the service by saying, “I welcome you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and to end it by saying, “Go with God and go in peace.” Growing up at the Middle District Church of the Brethren in southern Ohio, our pastor Marion Petry always said Matthew 6:19-21 just before the offering: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Is it important for me to do or say those things? Well, in some ways yes. Most congregations have kind of a standard order of worship, most congregations tend to do things in the same order Sunday after Sunday unless there’s something special going on. It can seem a little monotonous or like too much of a routine sometimes. On the other hand, there is some comfort in knowing what to expect when you walk into or sign on to a worship service on Sunday morning. If we’d started this morning with the sermon and then had the children’s time at the end and instead of one somewhat longer pastoral prayer did four or five shorter prayers throughout the service it might have seemed confusing to people. After the service was over you might ask me what that was all about.
And of course I have to say something to start the service. I could just go, “Hiya!” at the top of the service and “See ya!” at the end, but that would probably cause a little confusion too. So I have some traditions in the way I conduct a typical worship service. They may not be for you – one person’s tradition is another person’s boring rut – and that’s fine.
The Pharisees – they have some traditions too. It’s easy to look at passages like this and think that the Pharisees must be bad folks. They’re not, though. The Pharisees are trying to protect the religious traditions of Israel, of the Jewish people. It’s reasonable to say that from their point of view, the Pharisees were trying to protect Judaism itself and to ensure its survival. The Pharisees were more in tune with the common folks of Israel as opposed to the Sadducees, who represented more of the priestly classes.
The Pharisees are in general folks with good intentions, doing their best to live out of their religious teachings, and some of them – like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea in other Gospel passages – even believe in Jesus. So why is Jesus so hard on them here? Why does Jesus call them hypocrites?
It’s because Jesus interprets the important things in the Jewish religion differently than the Pharisees. Jesus thinks the important things are inside a person, while the Pharisees think the important things are on the outside.
Of course that’s an oversimplification, but it reflects a little bit about different views of God and the law. For the Pharisees, the law is about what you do. The law is external. The law is the Ten Commandments, written on stone tablets. The law is what you read in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. The law is about ritual cleanliness, and not eating pork or shellfish. The law is about whether you work or not on the Sabbath, and what exactly it is that counts as work. The law is about all of these external things.
For Jesus, the law is an interior thing. This view of the law is expressed in one of my favorite Bible passages, Jeremiah 31:31-34:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
This is the entire point of verses 21 through 24 in our reading from Mark’s gospel. Listen to it again. Jesus says, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
For the Pharisees, true religious faith is something that we do on the outside. We wash our hands, so that the food we put in our bodies is clean. We eat the right kinds of food, we do the appropriate kind of physical labor at the appropriate time, we use the correct pots and pans to cook with. For Jesus, true religious faith is something that’s on the inside, something that comes out of us. True religious faith comes from the heart and is made real in our actions. True religious faith isn’t about our pots and pans, but about our attitudes. It’s about our actions as informed by what is within our hearts.
All the good things we do start with God. As James puts it in chapter 1 verse 17, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, comes from God and is written on our hearts with God’s law, placed into our bodies, closer than our own breath, with God’s Spirit.
James says again in verse 21, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” The word is implanted within us. God’s good gifts are things that we put forth from inside us.
James 1:26: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” This goes right back to what Jesus said: “…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” God’s law is written on our hearts. When we do not deceive our hearts, we speak truth. We speak peace. We speak love and compassion and mercy and justice.
Rituals and traditions are fine in their place. Let’s be sure we know their place. Let’s be sure that the rituals and traditions we have are things that come from the law of God, the law of love, written on our hearts. Let’s be sure our traditions and rituals aren’t external things that defile us, but internal things that speak God’s truths. Let’s be sure that our religion is a religion of the heart. Amen.