Be Doers of the Word

Download (right click and choose save as)

September 2, 2018. The essence of hypocrisy is when people’s words and actions may appear to honor God, but their hearts are steeped in pride and sin and judgment of others. Pastor Stephanie discusses this in the context of the Mosaic Law as well as how this happens today. Do we have some adjusting to do when we look in the mirror?


*** Transcript ***


Did you find it a bit odd that it appears in the gospel reading that Jesus’ disciples are accused of eating with unwashed hands, and that’s just okay with Jesus? After all, that seems like something over which there should be no dispute. Washing hands before eating is just common sense, isn’t it? Our moms told us that, and nearly every bathroom has a sign reminding us, at least the employees, to do so before they go back to handling food. Because it’s just a matter of good hygiene to get rid of the germs. So this must be about something else. The interaction between Jesus and these strict religious leaders has nothing whatsoever to do with germs and hygiene, just to put your mind at rest on that. But it is all about religious behaviors and expectations. So, a little context for that is an order.


The law of Moses, which we call the first five books of the Bible, devoted a lot of attention to the matter of ritual purity. That means performing rituals in order to be considered pure. There were lots of things specified, from touching a dead body, to the mixing of meat and milk, and other things that we consider very peculiar now, that could make one ritually unclean and therefore barred from temple worship. But it’s important to note that the state of uncleanness was not the same thing as sinfulness. One could be ritually unclean just in the normal course of life by having done nothing wrong. And the prescriptions for that were not repentance, but ritual cleansing.


And over time, those cleansing rituals became of utmost importance and there were more and more of them. When visiting Israel these days, it’s quite amazing how frequently you will see baths for ritual cleansing — they’re called mikvahs — in nearly every archaeological excavation. They were ubiquitous as we traveled around the country, obviously revealing how valued they were as part of the religious culture into which Jesus arrived. I would certainly not want to give the impression that Jesus was against people being cleansed from impurities. That would be far from the truth. But the confrontation of Jesus with the Pharisees from Jerusalem, as recorded in Mark 7, is not really about the whole issue of purity or of being cleansed from sin. It’s about how these Pharisees were using laws to construct a system of ritual purity, more or less to define who was in and who was out.


After describing the Pharisees’ complaint to Jesus, Mark steps back a bit from telling the story to do some explaining to the folks in Rome, for whom this gospel was written. He might as well be explaining to us, because we don’t observe these rituals either. They knew little or nothing about Jewish interpretations of the Mosaic law at that time. Mark correctly points out that the law did specify that priests needed to wash before performing sacrifices on the altar, but the law handed down from Moses had nothing to say about everyone else washing their hands in a certain way before eating bread. As frequently happens in religious circles however, more details get added that detract from original intentions over time. So the Pharisees, the ultra religious leaders, amplified the original teaching to include the expectation that every God-honoring person should wash their hands before eating, but it had to be done in a prescribed way. The practice was to take a specifically designed pitcher of water and pour it twice from the right hand over the left hand, and then from the left hand over the right hand (unless you were left-handed and then you could reverse the process). But this had not been taught by Moses. It was simply added on over time. But this was all-important to the religious leaders, so they asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands in the same manner as we do before eating bread?”


Have you ever really looked at the way Jesus responds to those who claim to know God better than he does? It’s quite ridiculous from our point of view, since we know who they are addressing but they clearly do not at this point. But, if you do look at Jesus’ responses in these situations, you’ll see that 9 times out of 10, Jesus will quote their scriptures back to them. So here, Jesus quotes from Isaiah, going right to the heart of the matter saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites. As it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ” He is saying that people’s words and actions may appear to honor God, but their hearts may be very steeped in pride and sin and judgment of others. That’s the essence of hypocrisy. And Isaiah adds, apropos to Jesus’ situation, that the laws they promote in order to demonstrate their holiness aren’t even from God. These are human constructs. So Jesus’ punchline is essentially this: you have let go of the commands of God and are holding onto human traditions.


Well, it gets deeper. Since they brought up the topic of how to act in order to honor God, Jesus sharpens the discussion by giving another example of the same sort of manipulation of the law through human traditions. He brings up something that they practiced called corban. He saw that as clearly conflicting with the word of God. The word “corban” means the declaration that something is dedicated as an offering to God. But through some crafty juxtaposition of this law, these leaders had figured out a way to circumvent other obligations of God’s law, such as the clear commandment to honor your father and your mother. In their teaching, if a person was afraid of losing too much of their wealth by having to care for parents in old age, they could declare some of their assets as corban, set aside only for God. That was a religiously contrived word, to mean assets that could be declared as only dedicated for God.


Now, in and of itself that sounds like a good stewardship practice. After all, setting aside resources to give to God is an important practice of honoring God. However, this practice came to be grossly misused. Many times, people would make from this a religious loophole from having to give the money away at all. Jesus is saying that some of them have avoided both the care of their parents, and withheld their giving for the good of others. Their hypocrisy was that they claimed to do something altruistic, yet in reality they were being self-serving.


In today’s world, a person might declare that their entire life savings is dedicated to some mission endeavor in order to avoid having to pay for parents’ nursing care. They actually use it for themselves. It would be the same pious thievery that Jesus addresses, rather than real religious zeal. Jesus says that they are actually nullifying God’s law rather than honoring it, and he says you do many things like this. Essentially, Jesus is attacking forms of outward piety and good works that are actually selfish and have nothing to do with honoring God.


It’s not too difficult for us to see how this happens today, either. Generous public gifts may also serve as timely and money-saving tax write-offs. Politicians who make a point of their love for Jesus may also find that it helps them in the polls. Some religious leaders in our time use the ecclesiastical authority of their office to groom young men and women for sexual exploitation. A person can be scrupulous about bowing in prayer before meals in a public place as a good Christian practice, or to make a show of one’s piety. And when the conversation over lunch turns to gossip, the depth of that piety is revealed for what it truly is. To all these things, Jesus says, it’s a matter of where our hearts are.


Which leads us to some self-examination. If nothing else happens during this worship service, I hope that we each find ourselves wondering about the quality of our own hearts. Are we inclined toward listening to the good news of the word of God and letting it transform our words, our thoughts, our actions, our policies? Or do we have some cleanup to do in our own ways of justifying or bending the Commandments to fit how we went to operate? I find the lesson in James helpful here. “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror. For they look at themselves and on going away immediately forget what they were like. But,” always the good news, “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers but doers who act, they will be blessed in their doing.” God’s word does function as a mirror. When we let it reveal who we are at the depths, at our heart level, we can respond in two ways. We can see ourselves and deny what is revealed and go on our way. Or we can take in the truth of what is revealed and bring into alignment what we hear, and then act on it with God’s help.


Why is this really important? What’s at stake here? Certainly, the clarity of our witness. There is no way to completely root out the hypocrisy which shows up regularly in our human condition. But, there is a noticeable difference when people claim the truth and beauty of God’s word, and humbly try to be continually reshaped and molded by the Holy Spirit to exemplify it. That’s when the quality of the heart is revealed.


The impact on others who observe us, and what we’re about, is important. This is of grave concern when one considers the view the average non-church involved American has of our corporate witness today. I was just speaking about this with one of our professors here who said that so many students see the hypocrisy of people who call themselves Christian, but do all manner of unloving things. And they want nothing to do with that. As you know, recently a number of religious leaders were pictured as being at a meeting with the current president. We don’t have time to go into the sordid details of the meeting, some of which I would label blasphemous and certainly heretical. So I’ll let the synopsis of Jennifer Rubin, writer for the Washington Post, speak. She writes this: “The degree to which these religious leaders throw themselves at Trump’s feet, ignoring all manner of immoral and un-Christian conduct for the sake of political power, has hurt both religion and politics.”


I wonder what Jesus would say about all the religious jargon and pious statements made by certain so-called Christian leaders, in light of the way that people are treated by this administration’s policies. When all the rhetoric is stripped away, it would be difficult to say that the great commandment “Loving God and loving others as ourselves” is being honored.


None of those things seem evident in any of the executive orders or policy changes that we currently see coming out of the White House. How did these policy changes measure up with your understanding of God’s word, I might ask, although I think I know from knowing your hearts. It seems that these religious leaders, who eagerly follow and even bless what is currently going on, have done some of their own “adjusting” (if you will) of God’s laws to fit their own blindness and pride. Not unlike the people whom Jesus challenges.


But, because the reading of scripture reads “us,” we also need to ask what about ourselves? Do we have some adjusting to do when we look in the mirror of God’s law of love? I know that since I’ve been looking into the mirror this week, of the law, of love, of liberty, I have found words that would come into my mind to be spoken. But then when I thought about them more clearly, they seemed rather petty and unhelpful. Perhaps you see that also, when you stop to examine about the words that want to come forth from our mouths. James is helpful there. And I realized that some of my own signs or traditions that I’ve learned, as being the signs of a good Christian, are not necessarily essential to the faith.


God is very good at changing our hearts. Let us give God the space and time to do that. Let us be examining ourselves as well to see, and then lets altogether be doers of the word, so that the words of life might be manifest in our lives. And by God’s grace we will be able to exhibit the love of Christ which is in us and come out in an appropriate way to a greater degree than ever.




*** Keywords ***


2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot