Proper 17b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.
In our Gospel passage this morning it might appear at first glance that Jesus is being a bit hard on the Pharisees and the scribes. After all, their criticism, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled — that is, dirty — hands?” could come from the mouth of many a mother or grandmother or aunt talking to a son or granddaughter or nephew or niece. At least I was brought up that way — and so it was a tradition in my family home, as much as it appears to have been for the Pharisees and all the Jews, as Mark observes. It is not that unusual to be expected to wash your hands throughly before you eat — particularly when you are eating without knife and fork, but dipping your hand in the bowl and breaking the loaf of bread with your bare — and, one hopes, clean — hands.
But as Jesus notes, there is more going on here than just hygiene and table manners. The thing that seems to pull Jesus’ last nerve is the tendency of the Pharisees and the scribes, at least the ones who confronted him, spectacularly to miss the point of God’s law, and to substitute rules and regulations of their own, and focus on those hand-made laws, rather than on the deeper matters of justice, truth, and love, that are embodied in God’s sublime law: the Law summarized so well in the commandment to love God and neighbor.
As important as washing your hands may be, there is something superficial about it. It cleans only the outside; it does nothing for the inside. Think for a moment of another famous hand-washer from the Scriptures: Pontius Pilate. A good politician — or perhaps I should say a bad politician — he takes a poll and follows the prevailing opinion rather than standing up for what he really knows is right: At the urging of the crowd, he sends Jesus to be whipped and crucified, then washes his hands of the whole affair — literally. Outside, his hands are clean. Inside, he is “as guilty as sin” as my grandmother used to say; remembered around the world and down through the ages only for this single act, as people everywhere in countless languages recite each Sunday, “crucified under Pontius Pilate... crucificado bajo Poncio Pilato...” What a way to be remembered!
Pilate could wash his hands from dawn to dusk, for a week at a time or for two thousand years, and like Shakespeare’s Scottish assassin’s wife, Lady MacB, never manage to get that damned spot of blood off of his guilty hands. And even if he could, it would not change the inner reality of who he is, and what he did. He chose not to risk trouble with the crowd, and sent the Lord of glory to his death.
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But enough about Pilate. Let us return to the one of whom Pilate washed his hands. The point Jesus is making, as he goes on to teach, is that tarting up the outside is no good if the inside is filthy. Washing your hands will not make you a righteous person. Jesus made this point to the Pharisees on another occasion when he talked about them being like whitewashed graves: pure and spotless on the outside but full of corruption and rottenness within. And here he contrasts the talkative lips that honor God with their literal lip-service, and the all-too-fallible and sinful human hearts that conceal God only knows what evil inclinations and mischief deep within, where sin crouches for employment, ready to leap out at the first opportunity.
In the present case Jesus is addressing the question of food — for the Pharisees would hold that even kosher food would be contaminated by eating it with unclean hands. But Jesus goes beyond the food question to expound on one of his favorite themes: what does God really want from us? Does God want merely the appearance of righteousness, a superficial ship-shape and bristol fashion on deck while down in the engine room is all is chaos and confusion and unruliness? Does God only want clean hands and a clean slate, or rather a clean heart, an inside cleaned and voided of all the wretched impurity that lurks within, and defiles as it comes out?
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The Apostle James — not our Saint James but the other James, who wrote the letter we heard this morning, believed by many to be the brother of Jesus — echoes this teaching in his call for the inside of the believer to be purified — weeded and trimmed of the rank growth of wickedness, and transformed inwardly by the implanted word of God, like a seed planted in a newly cultivated garden plot, ready to grow inside the heart of a faithful person, so that the righteous man or woman can actually do what God requires — not only hearing the word with the ear or speaking it with the lips, but actually doing what it requires; not being like someone who looks at his superficial reflection — his outside — in a mirror, but one who takes the word in, in to the heart, where it empowers the righteous person to act rightly, and the good to do good.
Ultimately goodness does not come from within us, as James testifies: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” But if we allow this graceful gift to enter us, to cleanse us inwardly of all our faults, then we can bring forth things other than those awful and defiling things that are all we could do on our own, without God’s grace. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, “Clean the inside of the cup and then the outside will be clean.” The vessel that needs cleaning — inside — is us, and only God’s grace and God’s gift can do that cleaning, deep down where it matters, in our heart of hearts.
It is not enough just to wash our hands, or to hear the word — we are called and invited to take it all in, to allow God to cleanse us “through and through,” as the Psalm says to God, “Purge me from my sin and I shall be pure, Wash me and I shall be clean indeed.” God indeed looks for truth deep within us, and plunges the depths of every human heart. God will cleanse us and weed and cultivate our inward garden plot, so that his implanted word will bear fruit, and bring it forth accordingly.
Let us pray. Cleanse us, O God, in our heart of hearts, that we may be your faithful people, and do such good things as only your grace can empower us to do, that we may serve you not only with our lips, but in our lives, in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord.