Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
“IS CLEANLINESS NEXT TO GODLINESS?”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Pentecost 15B Lectionary 22
September 2, 2018
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
I still remember my mother telling my brothers and me to wash our hands before coming to the table for a meal. She would reinforce her advice with religious guilt. “Boys, remember that cleanliness is next to godliness.” Of course, we were usually too hungry to take time to wash our hands. We were sure that a little dirt was not going to hurt us. Besides, we wanted to push back against our mother. We were always testing her authority and asserting our independence. The older we got, the more we wanted to have the last word on what was right and wrong.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are criticized for similar behavior. The Pharisees and scribes took their religion seriously. They believed that their religion should affect every detail of their lives. They were the experts on how the law of God should govern even the simplest details of life, even details like washing your hands before you eat. Washing your hands before eating not only was good hygiene; it also was a way to recognize that all of life belonged to God. If you were going to honor God and be a part of the Jewish community, then you needed to follow the rules . . . and “the tradition of the elders.” You needed to wash your hands before eating because “cleanliness is next to godliness!”
Then comes Jesus who seems to care less about keeping the rules and following the tradition of the elders. Jesus heals on the Sabbath. In the name of God, he hangs out with rule breakers, the tax collectors, thieves and women of the evening. His disciples engage in the same kind of unruly behavior. Today’s Gospel reports that Jesus’ disciples were “eating with defiled hands.” They were not properly washing them before dinner. Not only was such behavior be unsafe, it disrespected the very thing that defined them as a people: the law. They were deliberately thumbing their nose at the idea that “cleanliness was next to godliness.”
Today we might find such concerns silly. This obsession with what is clean and unclean, defiled and undefiled, is irrelevant in our modern world. But is it?
The current debate raging in our country about immigration is really about the rules. What are the rules and boundaries that will define our nation? Without “boundaries”, we do not know who belongs and who does not. Where we draw those “boundaries” is what divides us.
The NFL is about to start another season. The league and players still cannot agree on rules for protesting during the national anthem. It is important to follow the rules. Without the rules, the league disintegrates.
No wonder that the Pharisees and scribes are disturbed! No wonder they ask, “Jesus, why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” Jesus and his disciples’ behavior threatened the boundaries of their community and the center of their religious faith.
Jesus did not worry about being politically correct, tolerant or polite. Jesus is the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and groupthink. He swings a wrecking ball. He unloads both barrels. The Pharisees and scribes may have appeared to be paragons of virtue. They were admired for their knowledge of the law and their commitment to live it. They not only talked the talk, the walked the walk. Yet, Jesus calls them “hypocrites!” They are not what they appear to be. They may have been awarded “The Sagamore of the Wabash” and “Citizen of the Year” but Jesus says it is all a sham. It is all a cover-up because hiding beneath all the rules, “the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles,” and hands . . . is a dirty heart.
Jesus turns the applecart upside down and inside out. We are impressed with religion that we can see, measure and count. Churches think they are successful when they can put “butts in the pew and bucks in the plate.” We ask one another, “How many do you worship on Sunday?” forgetting that we worship God and not people in the pew. We welcome people who are like us and only bother to talk to those who share our interests. We are upset with change and complain, “We never did it this way before.”
We fiddle while Rome burns. We shuffle the deckchairs on the Titanic. We whistle Dixie while the ground crumbles beneath us. We cover the rust with a new coat of paint, slap wallpaper over the cracks and delude ourselves into thinking that all is well.
Like a fire alarm waking us up in the middle of the night, Jesus says, “Listen to me all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
The fool boasts, “I am not proud. Pride is a fault . . . and I have no faults.” He exposes the very pride he thinks he can hide.
Jesus blows up such pretense and rejects such religion. No wonder the early Christians were accused of being atheists. In a sense, they were . . . atheists. All the religions of the world, including the religion of the Pharisees and scribes, are based on the conviction that IF, IF I only work hard enough, try hard enough, pray enough, give enough, love enough, are clean enough, wash my hands enough, THEN God will smile. THEN I can be sure. THEN I can belong. THEN I know I am in.
Jesus will have nothing to do with religion like that. Religion like that is from a heart that trusts itself more than it trusts God. All of the religious programs designed to help us grow closer to God still leave us in charge. We still want to know what we must do. We still are frustrated because we never know when we have done enough.
No one talks like Jesus. No one so completely rejects our attempts to be good. If religion promotes the belief that our cleanliness gets us closer to godliness, then Jesus is against religion. Jesus is against that kind of cleanliness. So what if our hands are clean, we still have hearts that want to be in charge and play god. No 12-step program, behavior modification, educational strategy or psychological therapy is going to change the human heart.
My brothers and I may have given in and washed our hands, but it was not because we loved God or our mother. We resented it. We resisted it. We conformed. We obeyed because we were hungry and wanted to eat. However, in our hearts we were the same-old-same-old selfish kids still looking out for ourselves.
This is a bleak picture. Is there any good news here? In today’s Gospel, we do not meet the gentle Jesus, meek and mild. We meet Jesus the fiery prophet, the scathing truth teller, the no-nonsense, honest-to-god master who will not put up with pretense or hypocrisy.
The Pharisees, scribes and all of us well-meaning, good-intentioned God-fearing, religious people want to know what gives Jesus the right to do this. “Jesus, who do you think you are . . . disregarding the rules like this, letting your disciples eat without washing their hands, welcoming people whose lives are mess and cannot get their act together and turning on good people like us? Who do you think you are . . . God or something?”
That is exactly who Jesus claims to be. That is why we along with the Pharisees and scribes of this world crucified him. Jesus deserved to die for daring to thumb his nose at religion and all our attempts to be good. The human heart cannot be that evil. The human plight cannot be that hopeless. Sin cannot be that bad.
So, we kicked Jesus out. He died on a cross as an outsider, as a sinner who did not keep the rules. When he died, Pharisees, scribes, and all of the good, religious people of this world breathed a sigh of relief. See, Jesus was wrong. We were right.
Then, “on the third day” Jesus rose from the dead. Oh, oh! He really WAS God! We are in trouble. What will we do? We are going to have to die for this. The cleanliness that we thought was next to Godliness is actually defiled and dirty. The religion we thought was blessed is actually cursed. Just when we are ready to throw our hands up in despair, we see the strangely wonderful twist in all of this. It is through such dying . . . that we will live.
Because Jesus is risen, Jesus is right. That IS good news for sinners like us who have been hiding our wicked, hypocritical hearts behind those cleanly washed hands. Caught with our pants down, exposed for being not what we pretended to be, we can tell the truth and stop working so hard to cover up the lie. We can let go of our pretense, our clean hands, clean houses and clean records that were only a thin coat of paint slapped over rust and decay, and instead cling to Jesus. Jesus forgives us and frees us from always having to be what we are not. We do not have to try to be good. We do not have to worry about following the rules and keeping our hands clean. We are free to get our hands dirty helping and serving others in our families, neighborhoods and the places of our daily work.
Is cleanliness next to Godliness? Yes! If Christ is our cleanliness, then we are godly. Then we can get our hands dirty serving those in need. Who cares what the rest of the world thinks? We know what God thinks. That is all that matters.