Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018
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Substituting Religion for Faithfulness

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

 It’s usually easy to take Jesus’ side in his conflicts with the Pharisees.  But this is one of those times when I’m tempted to go with the Pharisees.  You see, I’m a bit of a “clean freak.”  I see people walking out of the restroom without washing their hands, and I think, “Does it really take that long to wash your hands?  Is your life so hectic, you can’t put them under the faucet for 10 seconds?  One thing’s for sure; I’m getting in the buffet line AHEAD of you!”  When I was in college, I had a roommate who was decidedly not a clean freak.  It made for a very long year, and I didn’t even think about asking him to be my roommate again.  

 I probably drive Sharon crazy.  Well, I’m pretty sure I do that.  But she’ll make a sandwich and leave six crumbs on the kitchen counter when she’s done.  I’ll come by a minute water with a paper towel and clean it up.  And don’t even get me started about the cats and the kitchen counters!  

 Fortunately, I’m getting better.  Having children does that to you.  If you’re a clean freak and you have kids, eventually you’ll just give up.

 But cleanliness is not what this passage is about.  The issue is ritual, not cleanliness.  The issue is tradition, not hygiene.  By the first century, strict Hebrews had taken to the tradition of washing their hands in a prescribed fashion after contact with Gentiles, non-Jews, or even just contact with less observant Jews.  Or even after “possible” contact with such people.  

 Now the Old Testament did have some laws related to ritual cleanliness.  For the most part, I think those laws were primarily intended by God to protect people from the transmission of disease.  For example, it’s common knowledge that strict Jews do not eat pork.  And it’s also pretty common knowledge that pork can contain one or more diseases.  Today, it’s not an issue because of improved techniques of raising pigs, but it was an issue in the Old Testament.  

 Aside from this very practical reason for purity laws, there was also a religious significance to them.  The practice of outward purity was intended to point to God’s desire for us to have inward purity.  

 But by the time of the first century, the general principles of purity in the Old Testament had long since been replaced by far more precise rules.  In the centuries

before the coming of Christ, the Jewish religious texts called the Mishnah and the Talmud were written.  The Mishnah was a “commentary” on the Old Testament Law.  The Old Testament Law was maybe 100 pages.  The Mishnah was about 1000 pages.  And then came the Talmud, which was a “commentary” on the Mishnah.  And it was about 4000 pages.  

 And there were endless pages related to the subject of ritual purity.  When it came to hand washing, it wasn’t enough to say, “Wash your hands when you come home from the market.”  It prescribed how one was to hold their hands, how much water to use, how to clean the hands, what kind of vessel the purifying water could be kept in, and so on.  

 This is what the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for failing to keep.  

 Jesus answered them, “You hypocrites.  You replace God’s teachings with human traditions.”  

 It would be easy for us to jump on the Pharisees here and say, “Yeah, you make your traditions as important as what God says!”  But let’s pause to remember that all religious groups, including us, have the very same tendency.  We’re all tempted to do the very same thing.

 For example, think about how we act in our churches.  Over the years I’ve met a number of people who believe very strongly that eating in the church building is wrong.  I don’t think you could find anything to support that in Scripture, in fact I think you’d find more support for the opposite.  But some really stick to that tradition.  It’s one thing to do it yourself as a matter of conscience, but it’s quite another to condemn someone else for not observing your tradition, and I’ve seen that too.  

 Or think about how we dress.  Some churches have a reputation for having a “dress code.”  I’ve actually had at least three people tell me that used to be true of our church here, that people who were “underdressed” were given the hint that they were unwelcome because of their appearance.  Again a tradition is being given higher priority than the calling of God to welcome all into the community.  

 Jesus went on to mention one particularly grievous example of how a human tradition was placed higher than God’s will, the Corban.  The word Corban meant dedicated to God.  And if a person said that something was Corban, it could never be

used for anything but God.  And that might seem good, but it was sometimes used punitively.  A child who was angry at his parents could say, “Any help you might receive from me is Corban!”  And from that moment on, the rabbis said, he could never give a penny to help his parents, even if they died in poverty.  They replaced the command to honor your father and mother with their own tradition.

 Later Jesus talked more about this with his disciples.  He said that a person is defiled by their actions, by the things that came out of their hearts, not by what they eat.  That was a pretty revolutionary statement coming from a Hebrew, given their long history of kosher diet, and so the disciples were curious to hear more.  

 Jesus told them that what a person eats does not affect their heart, spiritually speaking at least.  If you eat bacon at every meal, you still might die of a heart attack.  Rather, it is what comes out of our hearts that makes us unclean before God.  Cleanliness rules were only meant to point us to the need for a clean heart, not to serve as a substitute for a clean heart.  

 In the Hebrew way of thinking, the heart was not the center of emotion, rather it was the center of a person’s will and thought and decision making.  Essentially, when the Bible talks about our hearts, it’s talking about our minds.  

 Basically, what Jesus was saying is that things are not clean or unclean, our hearts are clean or unclean.  If they are full of sin, they are unclean.  Only if they have been cleansed by the forgiving power of Christ are they clean.  Till then, they are unclean because of all the evil things that come out of them:  Evil thoughts, greed, lust, murder, adultery, envy, pride, and so on.  These are the things that make us unclean to God.  And we are always tempted to substitute “religion,” the outward following of rules, for a true change of heart.  

 Often we are tempted to look down on that word, religion.  But religion doesn’t have to be a bad word.  It simply refers to the outward expression of faith.  If someone says, “so-and-so is very religious,” that’s not a bad thing.  But if what is outward is simply a show to cover up for a lack of a change inside, then yes, religion can be bad.  

 Let’s turn to James for a few moments before we finish.  James talks about some of the ways that we are tempted to substitute religion for faithfulness.  

 “You should quick to listen, slow to speak.”  That’s good advice.  A failure to listen can show that we have a lot of pride, and that we think our opinions are the only ones that really count.  

 “Be slow to anger.  Your anger doesn’t lead to God’s righteousness.”  Anger is not necessarily bad.  We can be righteously angry.  But if we’re honest, most of the time when we’re angry, it’s more about our own selfish desires than about God’s desires.  

 “Strip off all filth and evil and humbly accept God’s message.”  Literally, the language used here was the language of taking off one’s clothes.  We are to take off all the worldliness and pride that keeps us from accepting God’s message.  

 And once you’re received God’s message, don’t just listen to it, do what it says, obey it.  Listening without obedience is like looking in the mirror, seeing what’s wrong with your appearance, but not doing anything about it.  Most people in the first century didn’t own mirrors.  They could only occasionally see their own reflection.  If you could only see yourself once in a while, and you stood there, carefully examining your face to see what was wrong with it, but then you walked away and did nothing to improve your appearance, would that not be foolish?  Yes, it certainly would.  But is it any less foolish to hear the word of God and not obey it?  

 Yet we’re always tempted to substitute hearing for doing.  We’re tempted to substitute listening to the word for obedience to the word.  We’re tempted to substitute knowledge of God’s word for living God’s word.  We’re tempted to substitute going to church for being the Church.  

 Verses 26 and 27 are a contrast of true and false religion.  If we can’t control our tongues, if we can’t control what we say, our religion is worthless.  Ouch!  I’ve known too many “religious” people who can’t control their tongues!  And worse yet, too often I’m one of them!  But pure religion is to be free from the world’s influences and to care for the most vulnerable of society. 

 It’s like the prophets of the Old Testament said again and again, “You offer your sacrifices to God, but they mean nothing because you are greedy and you ignore the needs of the poor.”  An outward display of religion is no substitute for having your heart changed by God’s grace and for doing the things God wants you to do because your heart has been changed.   

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