A Matter of the Heart

Mark 7: 1-8; 14-16; 21-23

I will never forget when I was younger my sister and I, who were occasionally prone to bickering and fighting, were in quite the heated altercation. I can’t even remember what it was about. But in a moment of anger, pure white-hot rage, I yelled at the top of my lungs,
“GO TO HECK!!!”
Now my sister thought little of it. In fact, she was probably reveling in the fact that she had clearly gotten under my skin. But it’s at that moment when I heard the dreaded sound. Like a fierce warning. That loud, rhythmic clip clopping of high heels colliding with hard-wood floors.
My breath tightened. My sister and I both knew what this meant.
The moment seemed to hang in balance. Neither of us saying another word. I dare say we barely moved.
The dreaded sound drew closer, the heavy pounding of hard wood floors shifting to the muffled, progressive stomp ascending the stairs.
In an instant, my sister’s door threw open and there in the doorway was my mother.
All red hair and fury, glaring at me.
“Justin Brook Seaford. What did you just say?”
In a panic, I responded, “I said go to HECK, Mom! I didn’t even say the word!!”
“But you MEANT it,” she responded. “Which is just as bad. Now go to your room.”
I slinked off in shame, baffled at how my strategically edited verbal assault on my sister had backfired.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, so props to my mom for some effective parenting! And although different in scope, it illustrates one of the messages in today’s Gospel.
In the passage, Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, Pharisees, and even us, that it’s the meaning behind the purity laws that are important, not just the rote adherence to them. The motivations of the rituals.
It’s what they mean.
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and legal experts at the time who are calling him to the carpet, wondering why he and his disciples are not living according to the “tradition of the elders”, by not purifying their hands with water before eating.
Jesus lashes out, quite forcefully, accusing them of being hypocrites by quoting Isaiah 29:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me.
To Jesus, it is apparent that the Pharisees and legal experts aren’t concerned with hygiene, they’re more concerned about making sure people are publicly following of the rules.
Because this was a big deal at the time. And before we get too judgey, it’s important to note that the intention of the officials was mostly sincere and devout. The observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them; to give glory to God. In the midst of Roman occupation, these laws were seen as a way to protect and preserve the Jewish faith.
But in execution, well, let’s just say the intention was lost. These rituals or traditions had devolved into legalism, where the intention was no longer the driving force. Legalism takes into account outward actions, but not inward feelings.
There’s an old story about this criminal who was a devout Muslim. As you know, a follower of Islam is required to stop everything and pray at certain times during the day. As a result, they have to carry prayer mats with them at all times. Well this story has this man chasing someone, knife raised in the air, ready to pounce and murder him. Just then, the bells ring out signaling him to pray. So immediately he stops, pulls out his mat, says his prayers as fast as he could, and then rose to continue his murderous pursuit.
Legalism can make what were once devout, meaningful rituals into meaningless external exercises.
The focus becomes more on appearances than honesty.
It’s sort of like when you catch your kids breaking a rule and you call them on it and they passively snap, “Sorry” and then continue on, without truly expressing regret or remorse.
Jesus is announcing that he isn’t concerned about the outward appearances as much as what originates from the heart. Jesus is more concerned with what’s animating the ritual. What’s behind it. Jesus is more interested in what it means.
Because rituals and traditions, in and of themselves aren’t bad as long their meaning is sincere. This is why Jesus doesn’t reject the Mosaic Law or reject the issue of defilement. What he’s rejecting are the interpretations of these laws, referred to as “traditions of the elders.”
Some background:
Originally for the Jew, the Law meant two things: first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and also the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Old Testament. Now it’s true that in the Pentateuch there are a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions. But in the matter of moral questions, they were content with Jews interpreting and applying these moral principles for themselves.
But in the 4th/5th century before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts known as Scribes. These folks needed definition. The needed these principles expanded and detailed into a thousand little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation. Life was no longer governed by the principles, but by these rules. Originally known as the “Oral Law”, eventually these were written down and became known as the “tradition of the elders”.
And to Jesus, these interpretations—these “traditions” had deviated from their intended meaning.
They no longer served their intended purpose, to draw us closer to God.
Depending on the tradition, many of us grew up having to don our “Sunday Best” when we went to church. Any of you remember that? Now at my church in Elkin growing up, you didn’t set foot in that place unless, for guys, you had on a sport coat and tie, and for ladies, you had on a dress and perfect hair. That was just what was expected.
Now if the intent for dressing up is to demonstrate respect and reverence for God, then dressing up is perfectly appropriate. Should maybe even be encouraged. But if its real intent is to show off and bring attention to yourself, well then, Jesus would maintain that its missing the point.
It’s all a matter of the heart.
It’s sort of like volunteering, serving, doing good deeds not for the service itself, but so you can be seen as a “good person”.
Let’s be honest. We are all occasionally guilty of this, aren’t we?
In this passage Jesus is imploring all of us, really, to focus on the heart. Jesus has rarely been about the externals. He urges us to be mindful of our motivations. Not to do things just for appearances, like a ritual whose meaning has been manipulated. But to behave in a way that is an authentic expression of a pure, loving heart.
His heart.
And that is available to us through Christ.
Because as a result of our Baptism, we are indeed joined to Christ. His heart becomes our heart. His purity becomes our purity. In doing so, Jesus is able to work through us so that our actions are HIS actions- pure and sincere.
Each and every day.
I really mean it.
Amen.

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