Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Matters of the Heart

James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-23

 Jesus, I really want to know.  What is the matter with washing your hands?!?  Honestly, I wish more people would do it?  C’mon, Jesus, couldn’t we all benefit from just a little more personal hygiene?  Have you ever had E. coli?  ‘Cause it is no fun!

 Well, that’s not what it’s about, fortunately.  This story is not about hygiene.  It’s about ritual and tradition.  Most Jews, and especially the strict ones like the Pharisees, by this time had adopted strict rituals for “cleansing.”  Now these were not things prescribed by the Old Testament.  In fact, Bible scholars say that they most likely came from the “unclean” culture of the Greeks.  

 The idea was that if you went out into public places, like the market, you would really have no idea what kind of “uncleanness” you had encountered.  Things you touched may have been touched by Gentiles or “sinners” of all sorts.  So when you came home, you had to cleanse your hands to remove impurity.  And there was a complicated ritual to accomplish this.  Literally, there were dozens of pages in the writings of rabbis called the Talmud, about when you had to do this, how much water you had to use, what kind of vessel the water was stored in, and how it was applied to your hands.  

 The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples follow our tradition?”  

 I don’t think Jesus’ answer pleased them.  First off, he called them a bunch of hypocrites!  They pretended to be the holiest of people, but the truth is that they were far more devoted to ritual than to God.  Isaiah faced a similar situation in his day, so Jesus quotes Isaiah: “You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far away.  You replace my commands with your own teachings.”  

 The Pharisees had chosen a good reputation over character.  They had chosen public appearances over private devotion.  They wanted the approval of other people more than the approval of God.  And we’re all tempted to do that!  

 Ritual and tradition, even religion itself, can all become idolatry when we are more devoted to them than we are to God.  Even our interpretation of Scripture can become idolatrous.  Especially, if we choose a narrow interpretation of it over the plain and obvious meaning.  

 Jesus gives an example of this, the Corban.  The Hebrew word Corban meant “devoted” as in devoted to God.  According to their tradition, if you declared that

something was Corban, then it could not be used for any ordinary purpose.  It could only be given to God.  It could not even be used to support one’s parents in their old age.  

 The fourth commandment, honor your father and mother, is the first of the commandments that deals exclusively with human relationships.  It was very important in Jewish piety.  But according to their tradition, if a son said to his parents, perhaps in a moment of anger, or even for revenge, that “Whatever you might have received from me is Corban,” then the son could not help his parents at all.  The tradition had taken the place of the plain and obvious command of Scripture.  

 The heart of the matter is the heart.  In Jewish thought, the heart, rather than the brain, was the center of human thought and will.  And it was out of the heart that came the evil things that made a person unclean.  It’s not what you eat or drink or touch that make you unclean in God’s eyes.  For out of the heart come sexual immorality, lies, hatred, greed, pride, violence, and more.  These are what make a person unclean in God’s eyes. Sin makes us unclean.  And sin comes out of the depraved condition of the human heart.  

 We’re not comfortable with that.  We don’t want to admit that we have a heart problem.  We don’t want to admit that we are sinners because we have sin in our hearts.  We’d rather focus on the external things.  

 Is there a contemporary relevance to this?  You bet there is!  Two months ago, we had those horrific shootings by a white man in a black church in Charleston, SC.  In the days after, we found out that this young man used the image of the “Confederate” flag.  And it renewed the call of many to take down that flag from the South Carolina capitol building and other places where it’s used.  

 By focusing on something external, a flag, we could ignore the problem in our hearts, racism and prejudice.  “That flag incites hatred.  Take it down!”  But prejudice and hatred come out of our hearts.  “Guns kill people.  Ban them!”  But murderous thoughts come from our hearts.  “Fast food and soft drinks are making people fat.  Ban them!”  But gluttony, the desire to “fill the emptiness in our souls” with food is a sin that comes from our hearts.  And I’m sure we could name more examples. 

 If we focus on the externals, then we get to pretend that we are okay.  “I’m alright.  I’m okay.  I’m a good person.  But that thing out there in the world is wrong.” 

The truth is that, “I’m not okay.  I’m not a good person.  I’m a sinner, and I need a Savior.  It is my heart that is wrong, and that is what needs to change.”  

 Should we take down the Confederate flag?  Maybe.  I think probably.  I think it has too many negative connotations.  But it won’t solve any problems.  At the very best, it would be a symbolic gesture of our desire to leave racism behind.  But pretending the past never happened will not make the future any better.  

 Let’s go to James, because I think his letter also has relevance to Jesus’ words and our contemporary situation.  

 James reminds us that we cannot get rid of the sin in our lives without obedience.  It’s not enough to hear God’s word or read God’s word or know God’s word.  We must obey God’s word.  

 Without obedience, hearing God’s word is like looking at your reflection in a mirror and then walking away without doing anything about it.  Now this is a place where knowing the cultural setting helps us to understand what James is saying.  Most people didn’t own mirrors.  They were expensive, so only the wealthy had them.  And so most people would only see their own reflection occasionally.  It would be foolish then to waste that opportunity without doing anything about your appearance.  It’s just as foolish to hear God’s word or read God’s word without obeying God’s word.  

 “Look steadily into God’s perfect law.”  Keep looking.  Keep reading God’s word.  Keep studying it.  It’s not enough just to read it once or hear it once.  It’s too easy to forget what we don’t want to hear, too easy to ignore the things that we don’t put into practice.  I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again, you need to be in the Word of God.  Regularly.  Preferably daily.  And you need to be studying it with other believers.  There is no substitute for a steady diet of the Bible.  

 “God’s law, his word, sets us free.”  Now we don’t often think it does, but it does.  It sets us free from sin.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to obey God’s word.  And we are set free from sin to do God’s will.

 And what is God’s will?  Well, James mentions three things in particular.  First, control your anger.  Second, control your tongue.  And third, take care of the widows and orphans, the most vulnerable people among you.  

 James was writing in a time and place, Judea in the 60s AD, where hatred and violence were on the rise.  The Zealot movement had taken off.  Many Jews were convinced that it was God’s will for them to kill the Roman occupiers.  Within a few years, it would erupt into violent revolution, and hundreds of thousands of people would die.  

 Again, I think this is relevant to us.  Hatred and anger and perhaps even violent revolution seem to be on the rise in our society.  What is God’s will in the midst of this?  Control your anger, control your tongue, and defend the cause of the powerless and oppressed.  

 Those things mean more to God than any ritual or tradition.

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