Pentecost 14/Lectionary 22B, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel reveals some of the classic problems with religion.
First off, there’s the tendency in religions – all religious traditions – to be preoccupied with purity. The Pharisees and the scribes, that is, the professional religious authorities, noticed with grave concern that some of Jesus’ disciples ate food without first washing their hands. Of course, we know this to be best hygienic practice, but it’s also true that Jesus’ disciples were violating religious purity laws by eating with defiled, that soiled, hands. “For the Pharisees, and all the Jewish people, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:3)
A religious preoccupation with purity has caused untold damage to humanity. Because if you maintain a notion of what is pure, you necessarily also define what is impure, unclean, defiled. The pursuit of purity quite easily devolves into a rooting out of impurity, of those who are deemed unclean. Then you get heresy trials and inquisitions, witch trials, and tragically also, at the most extreme, genocide.
Given the gravity at what is at stake, Jesus was very good at confronting purity preoccupations, for example, when he routinely ate with tax collectors and sinners, that its, those considered unclean, impure. Here’s what Mark reported he said in response to the religious leaders’ objections: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Mark 7:6-7)
This brings us to another set of problems with human religiosity: the tendency to pay lip service to faith traditions and rituals, thus revealing a hypocritical disconnect between that which is taught and that which is lived, as well as the common human pitfall of mistaking human traditions for divine law. Because of our tendency to mess it all up, religious faith is ever in need of reform and renewal.
Every attempt at reform in Christian history has something to do with trying to retrieve true religion from the human tendency to pay lip service thus rendering our religiosity superficial, and making religion corruptible. Most all of the monastic movements and religious orders that developed through the centuries sought to reform corrupted spiritual practice. The Reformation in Europe that birthed our own Lutheran tradition was a movement seeking to recover true theology. And the list goes on and on.
But we humans never get it right, at least not for very long. Even reform movements end up needing reform. True religion always loses – hence the ongoing attempts at reform that have driven the story of Christian history. There’s a Latin saying that expresses this dynamic, this reality, appropriately: Ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church must always be reformed.
As usual, Jesus cuts to the heart of the problem. And the problem does indeed have to do with the heart.
The reality, as Jesus observes in Mark, is that the human heart is corrupt. That’s the law, the rule, when it comes to human nature and religion. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7:21)
In biblical understanding, the heart is the core of who we are, the seat of our will, the organizing and integrating principle of our energies and passions. And alas, as Jesus rightly identifies in Mark’s reporting, the human heart is stained by sin and thus gets us into trouble. So it is that Jesus offers a long list of sins of the heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly….
Because the sinful human heart gives rise to so much trouble, even within the church, the author of the letter James devotes the bulk of that letter to the call to practice what we preach. Here’s how it is stated in today’s second reading: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Great counsel to address the problem of religious hypocrisy.
But how do we become faithful doers of the word when the sinful heart always cuts off at the pass our efforts to do good, to be faithful to religious precepts in our actions? That’s the problem with the letter of James for Lutherans – the author doesn’t explore the dynamics of how sinful humans can be doers of the word. The author only instructs that this should be so.
What James doesn’t talk much about is Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh who comes from outside of ourselves to redeem what is inside of ourselves. That there’s very little of Christ, and virtually nothing about the cross and the resurrection in James, is one of the reasons why Martin Luther was tempted to exclude the letter of James from the canon of scripture.
When it’s all said and done, in order for there to be any movement toward faithful and true religious thought and practice, our hearts of stone need to be broken open. That’s what Christ does.
In fact, Christ breaks our hearts. That’s what the cross does. That’s what the divine word does to us in revealing our brokenness. When that happens, God in Christ has something to work with.
With broken open hearts, God in Christ draws us in the power of the Spirit more deeply into God’s word in communal worship and the sacramental visible words that the divine word may dwell with us, abide in and among us.
That’s the communal, sacramental, word-soaked, word enriched environment in which we can learn the sacred word by heart. When we learn holy words and stories by heart, when we memorize them, for example, we incorporate those texts and stories into the very core of who we are, that is, in our hearts, which also means in our bodies. Then, in the power of the Spirit, we can draw on these words and stories in the heat of our lives when the going gets tough, thus opening up greater possibilities of practicing what we preach.
In this, in Christ, dwelling, abiding with the word, is our only hope of being doers of the word and only in the power of the Spirit emanating from the means of grace.
Thus, we Lutherans commonly sing our prayerful song at the time of the offering, when we present our gifts, ourselves, quoting Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”
Thus, in fits and starts we continue in the Spirit-led work of reformation of human hearts. Always forgetting, ever corrupting. But in Christ, remembering baptism, being fed at the table each week with Jesus’ very self, ever starting anew again every day.
This is crucial work when it comes to the integrity of the witness of the church to the world. For the human capacity to corrupt religion drives people away in droves. The failure to practice what we preach is the anti-evangelism strategy that keeps many from even considering church.
Thus, seeking to be doers of the word in and for the sake of the world is central to the mission that God has entrusted to us. That’s part of the divine wisdom revealed in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy: “You must observe [the statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
May it be so among us in our imperfect ways, that others may see some consistency between what is preached and what is practiced – for Christ’s sake and for the healing of the people and nations. Amen.