Preacher: Natalie Johnson
A surface reading of our passage this morning would suggest that things like religious rituals and spiritual practices have no bearing on one’s relationship with God. To support this claim, you might be like me and be quick to quote or paraphrase bible passages that speak about God not desiring outward conformity through ritual and symbol because, as the prophets all tell us, the heart of true religion is a matter of… well… the heart. While I believe that this is true, I think the story we have today is a bit more nuanced than a surface reading would suggest. So, I want to spend some time unpacking the passage before reflecting on its implications for us today.
The conflict, at first pass, is about how adherence to the “traditions of the elders” is indicative of where one stands before God. The question, posed by the scribes and pharisees, is not an innocent question, but is quite pointed and is meant as an indictment against Jesus: “Why,” they ask, “do some of your disciples disregard the traditions of the elders and eat without washing their hands?” By this, the pharisees and the scribes were not suggesting the equivalent to the parental voice we might hear in our heads to “go wash up for supper” when we’re getting ready to eat.
What the religious leaders are talking about here is a ceremonial washing. The clue to understand this is found in the adjective used to modify the word “hands,” which is typically rendered “defiled” or “unclean” in English versions of the bible. However, that word is more literally translated as “common, ordinary, or belonging to generality” and is used primarily in the context of ceremony and ritual to distinguish between what is common and what is sacred. In the context of our story, this indicates that handwashing was a spiritual practice done before a meal to signify a kind of movement from the realm of the ordinary and common to the realm of the holy and the sacred. In other words, washing one’s hands before eating was meant to symbolize one’s intent to bring every aspect of life, even the most common and ordinary activities like eating, under the canopy of God’s law. Though not commanded by scripture, the elders found theological justification for this practice in two places. First, in God’s command to Israel that, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2), and, second, in God’s declaration that Israel was to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The religious leaders took these commands seriously, grappled with the implications for communal life, and as a result, created a system of laws and rules – what we would call spiritual practices – that were intended to safeguard Israel’s identity as a holy nation, and to help the people of God live into their identity as a priestly kingdom. These became known as the “traditions of the elders,” codes of conduct that were meant to bear witness to the holiness of God and to preserve the distinctiveness of Jewish life and faith, which was particularly important during the time of Jesus when Israel was occupied by Roman forces. So, when the religious leaders accused Jesus and his disciples of not abiding by the traditions of the elders, their indictment was that the disciples’ disregard for practices like handwashing would threaten to undermine respect for God’s law.
Jesus’ response to this accusation unfolds in three stages, as he turns toward three different audiences: first to the pharisees and the scribes, second to the crowd, and third to Jesus’ disciples. The underlying assumption of each turn is the same, but each subsequent explanation builds on what was previously stated to draw us into a deeper understanding of the spirit of the law. It is important to note that the practice of ritual purity is never condemned in this passage – the things that we do that have symbolic meaning or that establish us in a particular identity are not, in and of themselves, what is at stake here. Instead, Jesus rejects the way these practices are used to determine who was acceptable to God and who was not. The first clue we have that leads us to this conclusion is Jesus’ use of Isaiah in his response to the pharisees and the scribes:
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.
This quote is the foundation of Jesus’ counter-indictment: the religious leaders have used the concept of ritual purity in a way that obscures the purpose, or the spirit, of the law, and to justify their neglect of God’s core concerns of mercy and compassion. Instead of functioning as a pointer to God’s holiness, the external marker of handwashing had become, for these religious leaders, a tangible way of distinguishing between those they assumed were worthy to enter into the realm of the sacred, and those who were not. But Jesus tells them that their practice in fact does the opposite of what they intend – instead of keeping the “defiled” from entering the sacred, the religious leaders practices end up “defiling” and alienating themselves from God and from others. This is not because the ceremony itself was a bad thing, but because the spiritual practice became a paradigm through which the religious leaders justified their judgment against those they deemed less worthy of God’s love.
Jesus’ indictment becomes a little clearer when he turns his attention to the crowd and tells them that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out. In other words, the practices we do, in and of themselves, are not what determine our relationship to God. We loose sight of the whole point of faithfulness if we allow our traditions and ritual piety to become barometers of faithfulness. If the entire law hangs on the commands to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, then the practices we engage in must always point to and assist us in living into these commands.
After the crowd had dispersed, we find Jesus alone with his disciples. I wonder, a little, if while Jesus had been talking to the religious leaders and to the crowd, the disciples had been sitting next to him, “knowingly” nodding along, grunting their agreement when Jesus emphasized certain points, only to be thinking, “What is this guy talking about?” It seems this question hung in their minds only to burst from their mouths when they were finally alone. This question prompts the turn to the third audience in our narrative, and one that seems to elicit some exasperation in Jesus as he asks them in return, Do you also fail to understand?
What truly defiles a person, what makes them “unclean,” Jesus explains, comes not from one’s adherence to ritual purity or lack thereof. Instead, it is the behaviors, attitudes, and actions that flow from the intent of the heart that have the capacity to defile a person. It is important to note that in Jewish thought, the heart is understood to be the seat of human will and desire. So, when Jesus explains that evil intentions – things like sexual immorality and adultery; greed, theft, and malice; deceitfulness, slander, envy and pride – flow out of the heart, he is saying that these all stem from the deepest and darkness desires of our hearts, desires that seek to consume and devour, to take and possess, to manipulate and control.
It is here that the real issue of the conflict for Jesus becomes apparent – if these desires are not examined and then rooted out, or purified, by God’s love, then whatever practices of piety we engage in will be grounded in desires that seek to point to our own, self-proclaimed holiness rather than to God’s holiness. I want to offer some implications this has for us today by reflecting on three points that might seem counterintuitive to what we’ve just discussed.
- Practices matter
- Desire matters
- Purity matters
Ritual and spiritual practices have the capacity for good; they can help form our hearts in ways that align our desires with God’s desires. Things like reading our bible, praying, fasting, serving, worship, and sacramental observance are all practices that both identify us as Christians and help us to live faithfully into that identity. They have the capacity to draw us into the presence of God and in that presence to sanctify us, to work their way into the core of our being and plant the seeds of God’s love within us, inspiring and calling forth our own love for God manifested in the way we love others. But when these things become marks of piety used to define who is spiritually superior or who is worthy of approaching the sacred, then they become weapons of hypocrisy, things we use to bludgeon those we think are less deserving of God’s love.
So, the desire behind our practices matters. If we engage in practices to make ourselves seem more holy, more spiritual, or more enlightened than others, then our desire is derived from what Jesus calls “evil intentions.” This means that we must examine our hearts and ask ourselves if we serve in the soup kitchen or read our bibles or pray because we think they make us look more “Christian.” In this sense, our desire to practice these things should not flow from a place of arrogance and hypocrisy, nor from purely a place of “ought.” Instead, our practices of meditation and study, of service and fasting, of worshiping and praying, should be founded on our desire to be held captive by the loving gaze of God. They should function as expressions of our own love for God and our love and care for others.
Purity, then, is not achieved because of the spiritual practices we engage in, though those practices have the capacity to expose us to the love of God that creates in us clean hearts. So, when we say that “purity matters,” it is not a purity wrought by our spiritual practices. Rather, it is because the purity of God’s love for us transforms us at the core of our being. God’s love, when we are open to it and responsive to it, purges those desires that arise from greed and pride, from selfishness and arrogance, from malice and deceitfulness in the same way that fire burns away the impurities of precious metals. God’s love cleanses us when we allow it to pour out of us into every aspect of our lives and our relationships until there is no room left for evil intentions, until our desires to control and manipulate, to consume and devour, to take and possess are replaced by desires to be compassionate and merciful, to strive for justice and equity, to use our bodies and our resources in ways that bring glory to God.
The implications of all of this is that whatever practices we adopt to help us live faithful lives, lives worthy of dwelling with God, then they must flow from the pure desires of God’s heart which flow into us through the transformative love of God. May the love of God so fill our hearts that all of our desires are aligned in perfect harmony with God’s desires.