The Secret to Purity audio (4MB)
I wonder how many of you have been watching the series “Meet the Amish” on SBS over the last 4 weeks. It’s been fascinating to watch a group of Amish young people experiencing the wider world after living a very sheltered life surrounded by a family and community dedicated to maintaining a complete purity of life.
There’s much to admire in the principles they’ve grown up with in their community. They have good reasons for doing things differently from the rest of the world. Yet at the same time I wonder whether the lengths they’ve gone to, to keep themselves pure, are actually necessary or, for that matter, enough.
Of course, God’s people through the ages have always looked for ways of maintaining their purity of life by external structures and rules. The Jews developed a whole range of rules and regulations to govern everyday life, to help people be sure they were being faithful to God in every circumstance. But it didn’t stop with the Jews. The monastic movement in the Medieval Church developed various rules of life to help Christians structure their lives around the worship of God. So in one version, the day was broken up into periods of work or rest separated by times of prayer - not unlike the Muslim prayer times in fact.
In the reformation many of these practices were abandoned because they were thought to promote religion rather than faith. But then they were replaced by other rules that were there to help people stay away from temptation and to remain faithful to God. The Amish come out of that period of time.
In more recent times evangelical Christians have created other rules of life. The daily “quiet time’, reading the Bible and praying, at one stage became a law rather than simply an encouragement to faith. Certain behaviours were considered to be not acceptable: gambling, swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol - particularly beer; even dancing and going to the movies was considered questionable by some when I was growing up.
If you’d met someone who did these things you would have wondered whether they were really a Christian. I remember meeting some Dutch Christians at St Jude’s in the 70s and being appalled by the fact that not only did they smoke, but they drank gin! And enjoyed it!
Well, in today’s gospel reading we find the Pharisees and teachers of the law coming from Jerusalem to seek out Jesus in Galilee. This is perhaps an indicator of how seriously they saw the threat that he provided. They weren’t prepared to leave it to the local synagogue elders. They wanted to confront him themselves.
The issue that they chose to confront him with is telling in itself. It was the issue of washing hands before eating. Now this wasn’t just a carryover from their days in kinder. Rather it was one of those things that was meant to help them in their desire for purity in all things. They figured that if you’d been to the marketplace, you’d almost inevitably have had to have touched someone who was a gentile, and therefore you’d be ceremonially unclean. In fact these people were so concerned about the impurity of Gentiles that they even considered that the shadow of a Gentile falling across their plate would make it unclean. So there was a real concern about washing their hands after being somewhere as tainted as the market. But the thing was, none of this had come out of the Scriptures. It was all a human invention. Sure, it was an invention with good reasons behind it. The intention was good. Like suggesting that smoking is bad because it damages your body. And in a sense it was a helpful provision for the people because it made up for the fact that they had no choice but to live in a multicultural, multi-faith society. Had they been able to live in a land without foreigners, as God had originally instructed them in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But that hadn’t happened, so their ancestors had come up with this compromise. But it wasn’t what God had told them, and in fact went beyond the things God had told them to do.
But as with many of their rules and regulations, the original intent had been lost and the rule had become an end in itself.
So the Pharisees object when they see the disciples start their meal without first having the ritual hand washing.
But Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. He doesn’t comment on the question of washing. Rather he focusses on the heart of the matter. He jumps straight to the real issue at point. What matters isn’t whether you’ve fulfilled all the regulations that people have thought up. What matters is whether you honor God with your heart as well as with your lips.
So he takes a current example where they observe human traditions, but in so doing deny God’s law. They had this tradition known as Corban. It literally meant to bring near. It referred to an offering that was brought to God and therefore was holy, set apart for God’s use only. So a man might promise to dedicate his entire estate to God, so that on his death it would go to the temple. A bit like me suggesting that you leave part of your estate to St Thomas’ in your will. It’s a good thing to do. But in this case if he did that his property was considered to be Corban; that is, holy, dedicated, and therefore couldn’t be whittled away on daily needs - like caring for his parents.
And even if he were to change his mind later, the Scribes would have said, ‘No! Once you’ve made a vow to God you can’t go back on it.’ And so they effectively prevented him from doing anything to help his parents.
But Jesus says, look at what you’ve done by this particular tradition. You’ve set aside the fifth commandment. In fact you’ve condoned what in a sense is equivalent to placing a curse on your parents. Your fine tradition of encouraging a person to give generously to God’s work has been corrupted so that it actually nullifies the word of God. In fact, he says, this happens all the time. There are all sorts of traditions that do the same thing. Elsewhere he criticises them for worrying about tithing insignificant things like mint, dill & cumin while forgetting big issues like justice and mercy.
The problem was that they’d got so concerned about all the rules they’d set up that they forgot what was behind them. It’s a bit like us being so concerned about people taking drugs that when we meet someone who’s a drug addict we immediately dismiss them as being a lost cause rather than seeing them as someone Jesus died for. If they claimed to be a Christian would we believe them? Or would we think they couldn’t be if they lead that sort of lifestyle?
And of course as Anglicans we have all sorts of traditions that we think are important. I was talking to someone the other day who was shocked that some churches don’t have communion every Sunday. [We regularly use prayers of the day that are written in language that’s virtually unintelligible to modern hearers unless I translate them first.] Some people want us to go back to using the Book of Common Prayer because the language is so beautiful, but of course the language, in all it’s beauty, no longer means what it used to. For example in the old prayer book we prayed that governments would show indifference in administering justice. We now use the term impartial because indifference means something quite different these days. I could list lots of other examples but you get my meaning.
What about our worship traditions? Does it actually matter that people be baptised before receiving communion? Do we really need to consume all the elements from the communion in this day and age? Will we be unfaithful if we just pour the wine down the sink? No, of course not.
And that’s the point Jesus is making as he goes back to the issue they first raised. That is, of ceremonial cleanliness. He makes two statements, one negative, one positive.
First he says, nothing outside a person can make them unclean simply by going into them. Secondly what comes out of you is what makes you unclean, or at least expresses your state of purity.
Let me ask you, what sort of person are you, when it comes to godliness? How do you see yourself? What sort of picture do you have of yourself? How do you hope others see you?
Here’s a good test. Ask yourself these questions. What sort of things come out of your mouth? What sort of thoughts fill your mind? Do they fit with the picture you have of yourself? Are they words and thoughts that express love for others? Are they thoughts and words that express a purity of mind? Or are they thoughts and words that perhaps reflect a bitterness of heart, or an anger with God or with the world? Are they words of compassion or are they words of criticism? Are they words and thoughts of one who has faith in God, an assurance of his goodness towards us, of the sure hope of eternal life, or are they the words and thoughts of a cynic? I ask myself these questions at the same time as I ask you. Does what I show by my words and thoughts indicate someone of faith and integrity or someone who’s simply play acting?
And once you’ve asked yourself those questions ask yourself what you’re doing to ensure that it’s the godly, positive things that are coming out of you.
Jesus says it doesn’t matter what you eat or drink. They’re just externals. If you smoke or drink it won’t make you any better or worse than the next person. It might make you less healthy, but it won’t make you less pure. There’s nothing essentially different between a teetotaller and an alcoholic as far as God’s standards are concerned. That’s because what matters isn’t what goes into you but what comes out of you. It’s what’s in your heart that matters. It’s the evil thoughts that come from your heart that make the difference. Then he lists 12 vices that in a sense sum up human sinfulness: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (Mark 7:21-22 NRSV) These all come from inside. These are what makes us unclean.
I guess Jesus didn’t have to add that his hearers needed to do more than just wash their hands to rid themselves of this sort of stain. What was needed was in fact a change of heart. The only way we can rid ourselves of this sort of uncleanness is if we have our hearts renewed; if our hearts are cleansed from all unrighteousness. The only way that could happen was through Jesus’ death on the cross and through faith in his name. As the writer to the Hebrews says, (Heb 10:21-22): “since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
That of course was what the Pharisees had missed. They couldn’t see past Jesus’ flouting of their traditions to what his coming could mean for them and their status before God. They continued to pursue him because they refused to believe that he was the promised Messiah. That in him was the salvation of the world.
The issue for us today is to ensure that we never act like the Pharisees. That we don’t become so focused on externals that we can’t see the deeper spiritual issues at stake. That means we have to be especially careful that we don’t look at the behaviour of other Christians and begin to judge them on the basis of our own traditions rather than leaving it to God to decide what’s in their hearts.
And for ourselves we need to make sure that we feed our hearts and minds with those things that promote godliness of word and action so that having had our hearts cleansed by Jesus we can reinforce that state of purity that he’s given us. When Jesus talked about things outside going in he was talking about food and drink. But of course there are other things that we can take in that affect our minds and hearts aren’t there? The things we read, the shows we watch, even the radio programs we listen to, all have an effect on what in the end comes out of our bodies in words and actions.
We need to filter out those things that will affect our thinking and then we need to make sure we test our thoughts and motives against the highest demands of the Kingdom, that is, inner purity and godly love. Because in the end what will show us to be pure will be the things that come out of our mouths and the things that come out in our behaviour.