Just before sitting down to Sunday dinner after church, mom reminded her tow children to wash their hands before eating. Her son surprised her with his response. “Jesus said it’s ok to eat without washing your hands.” “Where did you hear such a thing,” the boy’s mother asked. “Well, it was in our Sunday School lesson,” the boy replied. “The Pharisees were being tattletales on the disciples. They told Jesus the disciples were eating without washing their hands and Jesus told them they were a bunch of hypocrites.” The mother continues, “Did Jesus tell his disciples they didn’t have to wash their hands?” “I don’t know,” said the boy, “but he didn’t make ‘em either and if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”
We would always remind the church school children to wash hands before coming to the table for snacks. There usually were some that said, “My hands aren’t dirty.” Or, “I washed before I came.” Of course, before coming indoors they had been out in the yard rolling around on the grass, tackling one another and tossing a ball back and forth. So, we held to the rule—wash hands before eating snacks.
We know that in our Gospel today, Jesus was not advocating the practice of eating with dirty hands. This lesson is not about hand washing at all, it’s all about fault finding and nitpicking. The Pharisees had gotten themselves all hung up on the outward trappings and traditions of their religion and in the process lost the inward meaning of their relationship with God. They were more concerned about outward appearances than with inward appreciation of the faith. They were extremely knowledgeable about the content of the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, but ignorant about the condition of their hearts.
We hear this passage of scripture and wonder why there was so much fuss being made over a trivial action of hand washing. What was the real reason the Pharisees were so adamant about keeping all of the many traditions of cleanliness?
Looking way back into time may help us get to the heart of the matter. Many centuries before Jesus was born the Hebrew people came to believe they were the chosen people of God. The Lord had called Abram to pack up his family and possessions and go from his homeland to a place God would show him. They would become a great nation and be blessed by God. Their identity as God’s people bound them together in community and kept them separated from others. They did become a great nation, a people that loved God and were devoted to their religion. Unfortunately, the traditions and rituals of keeping the laws that bound them together eventually became obstacles to their relationship with God. Religious practice cam to be of greater importance than religious affection and compassion. Jesus said, “You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” He continues, “Listen to me, all of you. Your worship intentions have gone awry, your priorities are misdirected.”
Notice that Jesus is not condemning the law that requires people to wash their hands before eating nor does he explain why the disciples had not washed before sitting down to eat. That was not what this confrontation was all about anyway. And Jesus quickly got to the point. He called the Pharisees hypocrites, then quotes from the book of Isaiah saying, “People honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
A hypocrite may be defined as a false pretender, acting as though one is virtuous but truly is not. The Pharisees held a place of honor and power. They were devout Jews but over time they had developed a system of rules and regulations that no longer represented the heart or will of God.
Hypocrisy is alive and well in our society also. It frequently raises it’s ugly head in the political arena, among people we have elected to places of prestige and power. We entrust them with the opportunity to work for the good of the people. The debates over health care reform continue to escalate, even though there is agreement that our system is broken and must not continue as it is, with medical treatment costs rising at an alarming rate. When outright lies and deception replace honest dialogue, when one political party has decided to vote against any proposal of the opposite party for the sole reason of defeating our President, then everyone loses. I’m sure Jesus would be as angry at the dishonesty within our system as he was with the heartless decrees of long ago. I pray the reasonable voices will soon prevail.
I learned late this week, it becomes a bit risky to use news stories for sermon illustrations. As son as the news focus of these past few days was centered on the memorial events for Senator Edward Kennedy, the heated arguments over health care reform faded into the background.
Something good, however, may come from the way these events have unfolded. There is the possibility that the momentum favoring health care issues may increase out of respect for the late Senator Kennedy, who for years and years had a passion for those people less fortunate than himself, who have no health insurance and could not afford the premiums even if that was an option for them. We’ll have to see what the news of this next week brings us.
Jesus challenges us with these hard lessons so that we might honestly examine our practices and traditions. The basic questions are “What does God expect of us? How do we best serve God in our worship and in the world?” Do we keep people out with doctrines and traditions or do we invite people in with generosity and open heartedness?”
From the second lesson, we are reminded, “Every generous act of giving with every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” The perfect source of truth, love, service, blessing and grace comes from our Lord. We are to be the channels for these gifts to the world. When we make our heart a place where God reigns, then our hearts will be tuned to our Lord. Then our outward practices will be a natural expression of our inward devotion to God.
Jesus’ listeners understood the heart to be much more than the center of feelings. The emotions were included but the heart was the center of a person’s being; it was the seat of the intellect, the emotions and the will. To have a heart for God, to be like King David, a person after God’s own heart, meant to have God at the center of one’s life. Jesus lifts up the fact that our relationship with God is a matter of the heart, it’s what’s inside that counts.
A few days ago, I was in town taking care of errands and as usual headed for Thriftway. As I pulled into a parking space out of the corner of my eye I saw a blue car pull into the space beside me. We made eye contact as we walked toward the store, she smiled, I smiled. Then she paid me a lovely compliment. I was so surprised and startled that I nearly stopped dead in my tracks. I’m sure I have never seen this person before. This kind act was totally unexpected coming from a complete stranger. I managed to stammer a thank you, then we both went on our way. The generosity and unselfishness of one person’s words lifted my spirits and stayed with me for the rest of the day. An angel in disguise, perhaps? I know nothing about this woman except by her actions she surely must have a grace-filled compassioned heart.
Heart disease may not always be a medical condition. Jesus says, “Evil intentions come from within from the human heart.” This is heart disease of another kind.
Our hearts can be clear as a mountain stream or as polluted as industrial waste. And sometimes we’re a mixture of both.
If we forget how much we have received, if we forget that life itself comes from God, that every perfect gift comes from our Lord or that God’s word gives us new life. If we forget that God loves us always then we are in danger of being overcome by pride, anger, envy, and other dark and evil intentions.
The Psalmist cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Washing our hands is probably is probably not the solution!
Modern medicine has not yet found the perfect remedy for heart disease, but Jesus proclaims there is a cure. With the abundant grace of our loving Lord and the desire to become new we will be put right, from the inside out.