2021-08-29 the 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One evening a man was watching the news and the feed suddenly switched over to the live stream. It was reported that there was a car going the wrong way down the freeway. The man knew that his wife was travelling that same exact freeway and became concerned for her safety. He whipped out the cell phone and called her immediately. She picked up and he quickly said “Dear, be careful! There’s one car going the wrong way on the freeway!” “One car!?” She exclaimed, “There’s hundreds of them going the wrong way!!”
This funny little story is relatable to all of us in some way, if we are honest. We’ve all been there. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, we believe that we are absolutely correct. No question about it. No doubt in our minds. It’s all the other cars on the freeway that are wrong. Can’t possibly be me! But this is why humility is stressed so much in the Christian faith. Our Lord’s teaching on not judging others comes to mind: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (MT 7:3-5).
This kind of hypocrisy is what our Gospel reading hammers away at today. Jesus was trying to drive the point home to the religious authorities - a group of religious leaders who had emerged around 500 years before our Lord was born. Their interest was reading God’s Law in the Torah, the Old Testament scriptures and upholding the exact letter of the law in a real legal-beagle kind of way. This may have been fine if they had honoured what God asked them to do. We just heard in our Old Testament reading that God wants His people to faithfully obey Him and do what He commands. But what this group of people were doing was making even more commandments up so that they couldn’t possibly break God’s commandments.
Think of it like a playground you might see at a school or a park. There is a nice chainlink fence around it to keep the kids inside from running out on the road and possibly getting hurt. Inside this fenced of space, you’re safe. No rogue dogs can come a bite you inside the fence. But what the Pharisees were doing was building another fence around the outside of the first fence. More laws. More commandments. These would for sure make it so that no one could possibly sin against God’s commandments.
As an example, the hand washing law would go something like this. Before you eat, you need to wash. But you couldn’t be trusted to wash your hands on your own. No, these bean counters would specify it out for you and think for you. You needed exactly 1 1/2 egg-shells worth of water that needed to be poured over the hands. But it needed to be done just so. The hands were held with the finger-tips upwards. The 1 1/2 egg-shells of water was then poured over them until it ran down the wrists. Each palm was then cleansed with the fists of the other. Then, the hands were held with the fingertips pointing downwards. Water was poured on them from the wrists downwards so that it ran off at the fingertips. This became a codified law. Even if your hands were already clean, you still had to do it this way in order to please God. To fail to do it exactly as the Pharisees specified was sin!
These guys were the ones driving down the road the wrong way. They assumed that they had everything 100% right and anyone who disagreed with them was wrong. Jesus and His disciples didn’t wash like they did before they sat down to eat. They see this and they go berserk. The accusation is “You don’t do what we do, therefore you are wrong. There’s no way You can be from God.” But our Lord quickly reminds them: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites in Scripture: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is pointless, because their teachings are rules made by humans’” (Mark 7:6-7).
The cardinal sin of the Pharisees was thinking that what they did made them right with God. Martin Luther spelled this all out for us during the Reformation times as “works righteousness.” It was the idea of scoring brownie points with God by what we do. We follow and obey His laws, we gain spiritual credit. It’s the age old idea that “I go to heaven because I’m a good person.” Or, at least I’m not as bad as the meth dealer down the street. Or the perverted pedophiles. Or federal politicians. You get the drift.
But this is where Jesus’ teachings come shining through. He says: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (MK 7:20-23). The Pharisees and the Scribes missed this. They were the ones being holier-than-thou, looking down their noses at those whose blood was less blue. But they were like that glorious yellow banana that is bright and beautiful on the outside, but inside, it’s all grey and rotten.
Sin corrupts us completely. From the inside. You can’t make that better from the outside. Instead you need an internal cleansing - a Divine Bran Muffin! And this is what our Lord does for us through His death on the cross and His resurrection. He takes away our rotten sinful core and gives us a new one that is righteous and clean and good. And He continues to cleanse us through His word and sacraments. We confess our sins, and in Holy Communion we take and eat and take and drink His grace in its fullness.
This was something that Jesus told His followers up-front. He said, “Indeed, the time is coming, and it is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. The Father is looking for people like that to worship Him. God is spirit. Those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). This is Jesus’ point. Worshipping and knowing God isn’t about rules and regulations. It’s not about how clean the church building is. It’s not about memorizing a bunch of facts about God in a 2 year or a 2 week confirmation class. It’s not about externals.
Rather honouring God and keeping His commandments is about first realizing we haven’t done it. It’s realizing we’re the dunce driving the wrong way down the road! It’s realizing that no amount of rule following is ever going to change that. Instead, it’s about confessing our sins and receiving our Lord’s forgiveness poured out on the cross. It’s about being Baptized and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb of God. It’s about internalizing God’s grace in bread and wine. It’s realizing that our Lord has dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s for us. Our faith isn’t this long laundry list of oppressive man-made rules. Rather it’s about freedom in Christ. Freedom from our sins. Freedom to serve our Lord and honour and obey Him from a position of love and respect in all we say, think and do. Thanks be to God. Amen!