SJF • Proper 17b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”+
There is an old story — you have probably hear it — about three women who departed this life on the same day. All three were active in their respective churches. And one was a Southern Baptist, and one a Roman Catholic, and the third an Episcopalian. And as they were waiting in line at the gate of heaven to find out if they would be admitted or not, all three of them looked very nervous and unhappy. Finally the Baptist, who was first in line, turned to the other two and moaned, “I don’t think I’ll be let in to heaven. I was the treasurer of the Shiloh Baptist Ladies Club — and I embezzled the proceeds from the church fair.”
The Roman Catholic woman then sighed and shook her head, and said in a resigned voice, “I’m not looking for any better treatment. When my husband was on a business trip I had an affair with the cable guy.”
Finally, the Episcopalian, who sounded as if she might have perished from a case of what they call “Scarsdale Lockjaw,” looking back and forth and lowering her voice, confided, “I’ve been hiding this secret for years, and I know it will come out now that Saint Peter opens the book and reviews the ledger of my life. Once, at a dinner party, I ate my entree with the salad fork!”
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That may seem a far-fetched joke, doesn’t our gospel today looks just as odd when you read it seriously and carefully. Here are the Pharisees and scribes getting all upset about Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before dinner. And it isn’t sanitation that they’re worried about. The Pharisees, following the traditions of the elders, believed that washing your hands, and following all of those complicated rules for washing cups, pots, and metal vessels, were not just matters of cleanliness, but literally of Godliness. For them, failing to wash before eating wasn’t just bad manners, or poor hygiene; it was downright immoral. For the Pharisees, eating with unwashed hands, as for our poor imaginary Episcopal Churchwoman eating her entree with the salad fork, was a deadly serious matter. And for the Pharisees it was serious enough for them to come to Jesus and say, “Look at what you’re disciples are doing!”
And Jesus, well, he had little patience with that sort of attitude. He laid it right on the line, and called their concerns lip-service and hypocrisy, abandonment of God’s commandments in favor of mere human tradition. That is strong language. And if any doubt remained, Jesus called the people to him and spelled it out. What comes from outside people and goes in cannot defile them. There is no sin in eating with dirty hands or dirty dishes. Hands and silverware and porcelain have no moral value, and have nothing to do with sin. It’s what’s inside people already that is the problem.
The problem is those inside “devices and desires of our hearts” that creep out when we are off our guard, the roaches and rats of the fallen human nature that come out of hiding, scurrying about when the lights are turned out. These are the things that defile; things that are the substance of sin: not dirty hands but dirty thoughts.
For it is from within the fallen human heart that evil intentions come, and Jesus gives us a whole laundry list or the soiled linens of sin hung out in the light of day for all the world to see — fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. These are the things that come from within, and these are the things that defile a person.
How easy it would be to purchase salvation just by washing your hands and your cup and your plate and your bowl. Even wiping your mouth is not enough: as Proverbs says, “This is the way of an adultress — she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” No amount of scrubbing the outside will make the inside clean. The stain of sin remains when the evil that is inside spills forth, and it cannot just be washed away.
Do you remember Lady Macbeth? After she murdered the old king she went quite mad — no matter how much she washed her hands — rubbed raw — they always looked bloody to her still, spotted and stained with the blood of a guest, and not just any guest, not just a any good and righteous man, but her king, murdered in his sleep. Lady Macbeth went mad, haunted and pursued by the evil she unleashed from her own prideful and ambitious heart, haunted and pursued until she took her unhappy life with those same hands, hands scrubbed raw in the futile effort to remove the stain of her guilt.
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So is there any hope? If washing our hands or our outside is of no use, and our inside is chock full of terrible and nasty things, what are we to do? Have you ever had an old favorite book that you’ve read so many times that it is starting to fall apart? When it reaches that state, the only thing that can be done to care for it, to save it, is a new binding: not just cleaning the outside, but putting on a whole new outside: a spine and covers, rebinding it carefully. Or what do you do when a building is in such bad state that it is in danger of falling down? You put up scaffolding and set to work on the walls and the roof! You know we went through that here five years ago: replacing our 143-year-old slate roof with a brand new one. It was tempting to just want to patch up the inside, to plaster over the holes where the rain came through, and then give them a lick of paint. But a lick of paint would not have solved the problem. We had to start on the outside first, and even there not just putting down a new layer of tar, but stripping off all that old decaying slate and wood and starting afresh. And we also had to build a scaffold so the workers could get to the roof and do their work.
So too when we look to our own moral and personal renovation, we need to do more than just try to think happy thoughts to drive out those darker thoughts in our hearts. There is nothing we can do on our own to change our inner human nature: it is part of our heritage, whether you want to look at it from the religious angle as the legacy of Adam and Eve, or take the secular view that the drive to self-preservation, the source of success and survival, is also the source of selfishness and competition, and all the evils that dwell within.
But we can get a whole new scaffolding outside to help this feeble and sin-weakened body stand up against the wiles of the devil; not just a cleaning, but a renovation, becoming a new creature.
Saint Paul calls this new outside “the armor of God.” It goes on the outside but it helps the inside to stand up. It’s like the cast that goes on the outside of a broken limb to help it heal from within. And it is healing we need. We will never overcome our inner evils just by washing our hands: we need the armor of God to mend our broken hearts. We need the scaffold of God’s support to rebuild our ramshackle selves, to make them whole and fill them with the love of God so that there is no more room for all that nasty stuff that hid there.
If we are willing, God will fasten the belt of truth around us, the truth that acknowledges our weakness and casts its whole dependence upon the one who alone is the living Truth.
If we will let him, he will put his righteousness on our chests like a breastplate, the sign of a righteousness not our own, but loaned to us to protect us and give us confidence to stand tall and proud with our chests out and shoulders square.
If we let him, he will give us shoes of readiness to proclaim the Gospel for our feet, shoes to protect our soft soles — that’s s-o-l-e-s — from the ruts and rocks and broken glass on life’s road.
If we let him, he will put a shield of faith on our arm, not our faith in him, but his faith in us, strengthening us by this act of confidence, as the presence of any proud parent in the bleachers will spur on the child to greater efforts in the game.
And he will crown us with a helmet of salvation — and remember that helmets in Saint Paul’s day didn’t just cover the top of the head, but came down over the nose and the cheeks, with eye-holes to look out of: so the helmet of salvation doesn’t just protect us, but it directs our view straight ahead towards the prize for which we are competing.
Lastly he will put the sword of the Spirit in our hands, which is the living Word of God, living and active, cutting both ways and searching out the inner realities and secrets of our human heart.
Clothed from above like this, given a whole new outside to support us by the Lord of Glory himself, we need fear no evil from without. Strengthened to stand in the armor of God, we need fear no evil from within. Like a fragile old manuscript newly bound, we can be put back into circulation. Like a damaged building given a new roof and walls, we can then open our doors in hospitable welcome. Like a person with a broken limb that has been healed and strengthened, we will be able to stand and bear witness, clothed with the armor of God against all evils, with confidence that nothing from within our now-
cleansed and rehabilitated insides will ever be able to do usor others any harm.
To God who has thus remade us and armed us in his spiritual power against all evils from within or without, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+