Wholly Holy, or Deceived?
Week of Sunday September 2
Bible: James 1:17-27, Mark 7
James 1: 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. 18In fulfilment 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.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore 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.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves- in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But 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.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion 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.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,- thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;- and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘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.’
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘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.’
You can listen to this sermon here.
I’m guessing the people of Jesus’ time were into visual, practical hygiene, a bit like my friend Alan. At the church barbecue, when some lemon pie came past on a plate, Alan helped himself. Out of good manners and concern for the rest of us, he wiped his knife on his elastic sides before using it to serve himself some pie. His new wife, Glenda, fresh from the city, was mortified; “Oh... Alan!” she cried in despair.
“Don’t worry love. I haven’t worn these boots down the cow yard for weeks.”
Like Alan, the people of Israel were unconcerned about bacteria and the like. In an era when not having a bathroom at least as clean as an operating theatre is a major social sin, according to some TV advertisements, it is crucial to see this. The reading from Mark 7 has nothing to do with cleanliness or hygiene.
It has everything to do with holiness, and what holiness is not.
Being holy and close to God was dependent on following the correct ritual. It had nothing to do with germs. There were people around who essentially said that as long as you followed the correct rituals, you were holy and acceptable to God, even if you were a completely lacking in compassion and decency.
Not all people believed that. It is not fair to say this is what Jewish people believed; it is how some people in Jesus time acted, just like some people act like it today.
So in our reading, Jesus has just fed 5,000 hungry people, and healed the sick all over the country side; which is a fair indication that he has got his life right with God, but these particular scribes and Pharisees are saying that he is not right with God because the disciples don’t follow the right rules about washing hands. (This is nothing to do with hygiene, remember.)
And what Jesus says, is that the old rules don’t count. What food you eat has nothing to do with how holy you are. Food does not make you unholy. What’s inside you makes you unholy. He is telling these people who are sure they are the ones who are holy, that they are deceiving themselves. They are not holy at all.
What does this mean in our time? What is holiness about? –and unholiness?
Well, we have these rituals too.
There are churches where if you do not wear a suit, you are not holy.
There are churches where if you do not vote for the Liberal party, or Labor—it depends on the church—you are not holy.
There are churches where if you bring bought biscuits, because you don’t have time to cook, you are not holy;
where if you are a mother who works because otherwise your family won’t have enough to live on, you are not holy.
One of my friends notes how in the Barossa, in her husband’s church, it is good and holy to drink wine, but a sin to smoke tobacco. In the church of her minister father in North Carolina, tobacco was fine, and wine was a sin! Drink makes you unholy.
People left my first congregation because they converted one pew space up the back into a play area for the littlest children. This was unholy, even though putting a sound desk on the other side at the back was somehow holy!
Sometimes here, we’ve been annoyed that the floor is not washed to the level of shininess that our mothers taught us. And instead of remembering that the floor washers are busy and tired people like us, we’ve come close to suggesting there is something lacking in their holiness.
Now I understand this. Doing things properly, and keeping the rules is a sign of our commitment to God. What kind of people would we be if we didn’t care about doing things properly and well?
When I was much younger, I spent a whole Easter weekend hand writing a 40 page letter on baptism in the spirit to a friend. I wanted to do it properly! But it did not make me holy. It meant I ignored my new wife’s need for companionship and support way out in the desert because I was too busy doing things right to see what was really needed.
What makes people un-holy in the sight of God is not what they eat, not the way they pray, and not whether they do things the way we think is the right way. What makes us unholy is what comes out of us; who we are.
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.’
If our devotional practices, and our spiritual disciplines, and the ways we run our congregation, are not addressing the content of our heart then they don’t count for anything.
What Jesus said to those Pharisees who were so careful to do things the right way so that they would be holy with God was that everything they did was worthless. It is still true. Everything we do in this place is totally worthless if we are still full of “fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”
If I work my butt off in the Op Shop, and then knick a pair of trousers, all my work does nothing. It does not serve God; it is theft and makes me unholy. If I mop the floors for Joyce, and dust all the pews in the church, and all the while gossip about someone; that’s slander, I am not being holy. I am not pleasing God. I am dragging down the whole church. If I preach up here about being holy, but spend my time at home looking at porn on the internet, my preaching does nothing. I am unholy and evil because I exploit desperate women, or men.
The letter from James is right on the money: But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. And he says: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion 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 if we are truly loving and caring; if we are really practically caring for the widow and orphans and anyone else who is in distress, then we can worry about things being done right. But if we are not doing that; if we are not truly loving and caring, we are deceiving ourselves. And we are not holy before God. Our religion is worthless.
It is always worth checking up on ourselves occasionally. Are we doers of the word, or merely hearers who deceive ourselves?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!