Posturing vs. Purposing4th Sunday after Pentecost
I’m sure you remember the early days of COVID when we were trying to figure out how best to be vigilant against a virus that was infecting persons right and left. The basics were: keeping two-meter distance, wearing a mask, staying home if you were had any symptoms or exposure and most basic hand washing and using hand sanitizer when that wasn’t possible. We didn’t have church services or even visit our friends and family. We panicked in the fear that somethings that had become essential to our lives was suddenly unavailable. COVID underscored for us that the sanitary principle of clean hands is basic not only to our safety but to our acclimatation into society. We all struggled with what worked for us and adapted each of these to our own situation.
How might our experience in which the prominence of hand washing help us better understand the dilemma Jesus found himself in with the Pharisees?
Today’s gospel reading begins with a confrontation by the Pharisees with Jesus and the disciples who were enjoying a meal together. The Pharisees, protectors of God’s law were committed to “encouraging” all Jews to not let themselves become lazy in ritual cleanliness – after all, purity of heart could only be achieved through purity of body as well.
As the Pharisees watched Jesus and the disciples eat, they “noticed”, “some of the disciples had failed to wash their hands before they ate.” The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples did not follow the tradition of the elders in not only washing their hands but their cups, pots and kettles as well?
The Pharisees were standing on the solid ground of centuries old established Jewish law, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy.” How they were to maintain “the tradition of the elders” was specific as laid out in Leviticus.
“Do not mate different kinds of animals.”
“Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.”
“Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it.”
Every aspect of their lives was to be carefully guarded so as to come to God with a purity that indicated their reverence for the holy God. To these Pharisees sloppy hands certainly indicated sloppy hearts and lives as well.
Jesus had a wonderful knack of not attacking the messenger or critic but instead cutting to the core of the question, “What is at the heart of our faith?”
The Pharisees are not petty bureaucrats but thought the heart of faith demanded that they be a defender of the rules. Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that all of us should work toward a righteousness that exceeds even the Pharisees. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees for their rebuke of the disciple’s poor sanitary compliance is not about failure to follow sanitary laws but something more basic. He said, “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In other words, it may be easy to follow the rules but often our actions and attitudes reveal that our hearts are in a much different place.
To the Pharisees Jesus challenged their focus on handwashing when it was clear that their hearts were not about being faithful to the laws of God but about keeping score. What mattered most to them and what they revealed as the heart of their faith were the actions and attitudes of judgment and condemnation and Jesus called them out.
In the same way that it is from within the heart that evil intentions come, it is also from the heart that attitudes that honour God are born. The fruit of God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Do we at the heart of everything we do display a core of kindness and gentleness?
James, the brother of Jesus wrote an epistle about the connection between faith and works. In the passage read earlier, we hear the words we learned long ago, “Be ye hearers of the word and not doers only.” While I learned those words at a young age, I often still struggle with a proper balance between the hearing and the doing part. As a Type A, task-oriented person, taking time to hear and to listen first in order to understand what is essential is indeed critical and most essential. Hearing and then doing reveal two key components.
First the hearing. James uses the image of one who stands in front of the mirror. Hair…check. Clothes…check. Teeth…check. But James example carries the lesson even further. Suppose one stops in front of the mirror, takes it all in, walks away and then forgets the truth of what the mirror revealed. When we attend worship it is as if we are standing in front of a mirror to gain an image of ourselves. What does it tell us about who we are, about how God feels about us and what we need to do for ourselves and for others when we leave church/the mirror? James would caution that when we leave the mirror of this experience with barely a notice of what we saw, felt and heard and what it tells us about what we need to do next, then our hearing has been in vain.
When we “listen to the mirror” through which God shows us a true picture of ourselves, what then do we do with what we have heard? James speaks of the implanted word, ie. our hearts that were the focus in the Matthew passage. What will we do to show that we have truly heard what Jesus is saying about what and who is most important? There are two basic sections in these verses that might frame our doing and indeed they flow from us when kindness, gentleness, self-control and joy among others are at the root. James offers, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” This is hard work and opposite of the reactiveness that often spurs our snarky replies to one another.”
What I hear when the challenge to look into the mirror is the challenge to develop a reset button. Instead of a button with the words “Reply”, “React”, “Respond” is instead a new switch with different prompts, “Quick – Listen”, “Be slow – to speak and to anger.” It will take practice to build within our hearts a new default. It flows from a heart centered upon honoring God in word, action and attitude.
James offers a clue for those whose chief desire is not in playing at a worthless religion but living and in professing a faith that at its core honors God. He offers a clue for what that looks like. It means that we take care of orphans, widows in their distress and to, ourselves, remain unstained by the world around us. Do you want a mission statement for a life of faith? That is it in its most basic form. To care for widows and orphans reminds me of the beginning of the gospel from a week ago when Jesus called the disciples. Looking at the crowds he saw them helpless and harassed and as sheep without a shepherd. At the heart of our mission – at the heart of our faith is to hear the hurt of the vulnerable, the cry of those most at risk and to respond with “I hear you, I see you. You are as significant to me as you are to God.
Today we need to be reminded of what is most important and what is at the heart of our faith. As we look into the mirror and grasp what it is that God is saying to us by what we see and hear, it is our distinct opportunity to go and to be doers of the word…doers that have heard and not forgotten. Let us not succumb to moral rigidity and spiritual self-satisfaction. Let us be challenged by the hope of renewing our attitudes and actions so that we may become reflections of God’s loving intentions for humanity.