There are many of us who are great at making up rules for life that demonstrate our worthiness. My mother would never allow a milk bottle to be put directly on the breakfast table. People who did she assured me were common and by that I assume meant they were somewhat inferior to ourselves who always put a milk jug on the table. Truth be told I still always put milk in a jug before putting it on the table, except in our caravan where a calamitous drop in standards is allowed. There are a host of rule breaking behaviours that I have come to realise can quite quickly allow one to spot a morally inferior individual. Top of the list is allowing the grass to grow so long that small wild flowers appear. Monty Don heads that particular list of evil doers. In a church I know it is enjoying singing praises to God too happily and dancing about as you do so. Then there is the deed that I am convinced destines someone to certain hell which is eating with your mouth open. I am sorry, I really shouldn’t have mentioned that.
Back in Jesus’ time Pharisees and scribes were busy spotting the morally lax and seized on the casual approach adopted by Jesus’ disciples towards washing and eating. Pharisees and all Jews (now there’s a presumption) do not eat unless they wash their hands properly. Mark 7.3 Sound advice, even before bacteria and other microorganisms were known about. But this was not mainly a public health rule, it was a religious rule. In some way washing hands was a moral issue that had the capacity to greatly offend God. This was one of many detailed specifications about how one was to stay pure and holy. So certain of their ground were they that confidently challenged Jesus. ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?’ Mark 7.5 they demanded.
Jesus turned on them as hypocrites quoting Isaiah, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ Mark 7.6-7 Jesus had gone straight to the heart of the problem which was the problem of the heart. The Pharisees and scribes were in love with their own version of morality, none of which was in the Mosaic law that they professed to abide by. He went on to condemn their common practice of “dedicating” their money to God and therefore saying for reasons of holiness they cannot afford to care for their parents in old age. It was pious hypocrisy. This Jesus said was just one example of their corrupt and defiled hearts. They were, he said, making void the word of God. Mark 7.13
What defiles you in the sight of God, said Jesus, is what comes out of the heart. Our hearts are not naturally aligned with God’s heart. Even when our self-control prevents us from acting on our passions and lusts it doesn’t stop our hearts desiring them. Being honest and looking in the spiritual mirror we see too much of Jesus’ illustrative list of the evil thoughts of humankind. ‘From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.’ Mark 7.21-22 These are the things that come from within and in the sight of God defile a person. It is often said in modern society, “That is not the person I am now,” as a way of separating ourselves from responsibility for past acts. However, the same society and frequently the same person eagerly pursues justice for historic crimes. It is as if we want God to have a lower standard of justice than we want applied if we have been sinned against. To no longer hold us accountable because we would not do now what we have done in the past.
How honest are we before God about our heart life and need for forgiveness?
Do we genuinely repent or say sorry out of convenience with no desire for our hearts to be aligned to God’s?
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)