Psalm 15; Deuteronomy 4:1-9; Mark 7:1-23; James 1:17-27
As the adage goes, “you are what you eat.” And there is of course wisdom here, even if those who take it as a rally cry for their New Year’s resolution forget it by January 2nd. We heard it growing up, mostly in regards to nutrition, but perhaps regarding violent video games and cursing in movies and music. Most of us probably still find ourselves siding with this way of thinking, if not as a source of wisdom, then as a source of guilt.
In Jesus’ day, this was a central idea for the Pharisees, a school of through among the elite scholars of the Jewish faith. For them, righteousness before God came with upholding the Jewish Law. When we hear, “The Jewish Law,” many of us are probably quick to think of the Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston, and an a string of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” (though not necessarily in that order). The reality is, however, that the Pharisees thought of much more than that. Over the centuries, much more had been added to the Law by tradition – clarifications, exceptions, understandings, but-what-do-I-do-ifs. So much more, in fact, that many of them felt that the only way to be righteous before God was to spend a lifetime studying and upholding this law – not because it was a beautiful dedication of a life’s work to God, but because you might miss something if you didn’t (anyone know how long it takes to get through law school, study, and pass a bar exam in any given U.S. state? I don’t, but take whatever it is and multiply it by, what, 75 years). But Jesus comes along and begins to upset the status quo because, according to the Pharisees, he’s evidently undermining and disregarding the Law. So really, how could he be sent from God? It’s a fair question, in all honesty.
But the hard truth was this: Jesus was peeling away the rust and callouses of the added tradition that had encased a very old, very beautiful, and very hard truth. This was the law of God. And this law was something of which David – the poet, shepherd, king – referred to as such:
Your law is the theme of my song in the house of my pilgrimage. (Psalm 119:54) The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing, reviving, renewing the soul. (Psalm 19:7)It is refreshing? It revives and renews? It is to be sung about with joy and longing? Wait. Hold on – is he talking about, you know, the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” and all that Cecil B. DeMille jazz?
Says Jesus to the Pharisees in this week’s Gospel reading:
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition… Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile them – instead, the things that come out are what defile.This might seem a little weird to us today, but a whole lot of what the Pharisees saw as being “against the law” had to do with which foods and drinks you could or could not consume. In other words, if something external had been deemed “unclean” or “against the law,” and you ate it, you had put that unrighteousness within you. If you abstained, you could be righteous in that regard as long as you maintained this. In other words, “you are what you eat.”
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart, but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean. NOTE: This is one place where the early Christians went for assertion that Jews and non-Jews, who had different diets, could all follow Jesus and be righteous.) It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.
It’s what comes from within that defiles. In other words, what comes out of us – what we say, how we think, what we do, and how we do it – is what defiles us. The heart is what matters. Where does what I do, say, and think come from? The heart. If my heart is fearful, fear will come out. If my heart is hateful, hate will come out. If my heart is selfish, selfishness will come out. And I don’t know about you, but my heart is all of those things. But Jesus is in the heart-reviving business. By the God’s grace, restoration is possible, not just restoration of my reputation before God, but actual restoration! By God’s Spirit, the heart is repaired over the course of the average of 75 years we have here. That is a life of dedication to God that most of the Pharisees simply could not see, so they did the only thing they thought they could: try to get it right.
If you’re a pitcher with a busted UCL (I apologize for the shoddy sports analogy – although, you can learn a lot about the virtues of patience hope by rooting for the Seattle Mariners), practice won’t improve your game. You need Tommy John surgery. And once you get surgery, you’ve got to go through rehab and training.
What comes out of you is what you are, on display for everyone to see. St. James turns the focus around again, essentially responding to the question of “what to do after surgery:”
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. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.Let’s read that one more time: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
So what does that mean for me? Well, at least I’ve got until Monday to process that…