by David Baer, September 2, 2018
Text: Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
When one of my children was born, a good friend sent me some lines from a poem by William Wordsworth. They just seemed to capture the miracle and wonder I felt in receiving and caring for a new life. He writes:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!1
God is our home. In coming into this life, we lost something of that bond, and we struggle to get it back. There’s this apocryphal story about a little boy with a newborn baby sister. When the sister comes home from the hospital, and the boy meets her for the first time, he asks his parents to leave the room. They do, but with some reluctance, and they listen secretly at the door. The boy kneels down next to his baby sister and says to her, “Can you remind me what God is like? It’s been so long that I’m starting to forget.”
Our hearts belong with God. The fifth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo captured this truth with his poignant prayer: “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”2 God is our home, where we come from. Whatever longing pulls an adopted child to search for his birth parents, whatever desire drives someone to trace her family tree to the old country, is like the longing, the need we have to be with our Maker.
Religion begins with this natural drive to be with God. We are all religious. Whenever we wonder about the meaning of the events unfolding around us, whenever we struggle with our values in a difficult decision, we are reaching back toward the One from whom we came. Religion is the human hand thrust upward, grasping at heaven. It drove the building of the tower of Babel. Religion is the natural product of the restless heart that wants to rest in God.
The Pharisees that appear in today’s gospel are no different from any of us, in that respect. Their passion, their life’s work, is about drawing close to God. I think it’s important here to understand exactly where they differ from Jesus, because it’s all too easy to get caught up in the idea that the Pharisees think they can be saved by the law, and Jesus disagreed. The point of disagreement in this passage is not about the Torah, the Law of Moses that we find in the scriptures, but in the human traditions that had crept into the way the Pharisees practiced Judaism. There’s nowhere in the Old Testament where it says that all people have to wash your hands before meals—though let me just say that this is sound hygienic practice, and you should do it anyway. (At least that’s what I tell my kids!)
No, this was a extra-biblical tradition, and a beautiful, meaningful one at that. In the book of Exodus, God tells the Hebrew people, “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). When the priests presented sacrifices at the altar, and then afterward ate the meat, there were ritual washing practices involved, because it was a sacred act. So what the Pharisees are trying to do is to make every meal a sacred act, whether it happens in the temple in Jerusalem or in the home of a simple Galilean peasant family. Washing hands and food is the way that they enact the calling of the people of God to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. And there is nothing in the world that is wrong with that—it’s a creative reading of scripture, but it comes from a desire to draw close to God by living a ritually pure life, by filling ordinary acts, like eating a meal, with sacred meaning.
Where it goes wrong is when it becomes a vehicle for venting the envy and resentment they felt toward Jesus and his followers. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they ask. If they had really cared about setting Jesus on what they thought was the right path, if they really wanted to persuade him to follow their tradition, they would have done this in private, away from the crowd. But this was a public rebuke, designed to discredit Jesus’ teaching and demoralize his disciples. They were jealous at all the attention this new rabbi was receiving, and they wanted to take him down a peg. That’s why they said what they said. And that’s why Jesus responds the way he does.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand,” Jesus says to the crowd, indicating just how important what he says next will be. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Purity of the heart and spirit, being worthy to be in God’s presence—these aren’t controlled by external influences. It’s not about what you eat, what you put into your body. It’s about the words and the actions that emerge from you, and what they reveal about your character—these are the things that make you pure or impure. And then he lists a bunch of actions that sound just like the “thou shalt nots” from the Ten Commandments. Don’t look on the outside, Jesus is saying, but on the inside. Worry about what’s happening there. That’s his rebuke to the Pharisees. As noble and as beautiful as their traditions are, they aren’t enough to free them from the things on the inside that weigh them down, that keep their hearts from rising up to God.
Look at the inside. There’s a word of comfort there to people who are the victims of abuse or violence. There’s a word of comfort to folks who are caught up in addictions. The things that happen to us, and the things that we do to ourselves, can hurt us profoundly, and we carry those hurts with us, sometimes for the rest of our lives. But what those hurts don’t do is to make us unacceptable to God or unworthy of God’s love. If you’re doubting this right now, because of something that’s happened to you, then trust Jesus when he says there is nothing outside that can defile, nothing. You may need healing, and you may need comfort in a hundred different ways, but you are God’s beloved child, and nothing done to you from the outside can change that.
But there’s a caution here for the rest of us. Saying beautiful words, performing meaningful actions, belonging to a respectable group—all this has to do with the outside, and if the inside is disordered, it’s not going to help. And so much of religion—prayers, music, quoting scripture—can be co-opted by the evil intentions Jesus talks about. Sometimes it looks like trying to console a grieving friend with empty pieties, or using scripture to justify turning aside from injustice or human need. There’s beauty and meaning in so many of the practices that come with our faith, but the practices don’t purify our hearts. What’s more, just as with the Pharisees and their traditions, they can be corrupted into serving the opposite purpose. Our hearts are restless until they rest in their Maker, but our noblest religious traditions, by themselves, can never bring us there.
What a gift, and what grace, then, to have a God who longs for our hearts. It might have been otherwise. God might have decided to stay sealed up in heaven, an absent watchmaker who, once his creation has been finished and wound up, has nothing more to do with it. But as it is, God aches for our hearts. Don’t you hear it in the words in our Hebrew Scripture lesson? “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” If the scholars are right, maybe it was originally an ordinary love song, no more sacred in its intention than the latest hit from Taylor Swift. But interpreted as sacred scripture the dance of the lovers—embracing and losing and finding one another again—is all too similar to being loved and lost, lost and found, found and loved afresh by God. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” This is God’s invitation to us, beckoning with outstretched hands.
And this longing, this desire of God to take us and hold us and keep us, took on a body and a name in Jesus. It’s a mistake to say that Jesus came to start a new religion. Actually, Jesus came to do for us what our religion never could. If our hearts can never make themselves pure enough to rise up to God, if all our noblest intentions are irrevocably bound up with our darker impulses, then what we need is not another religion. What we need is not new ways to cleanse our hands or our stomachs. What we need is a clean heart, and a new and right spirit within us.
Jesus came to give us a new heart. Our old hearts crucified him, a blasphemer and a troublemaker that no religion could countenance. But in his innocent death our guilty hearts died too. And in their place God made clean hearts and breathed a new and right Spirit into us. Jesus did for us what all human religion never could. He gave us hearts that can come close to God. Not that they always do. We choose to cling to and follow our old, doomed hearts often enough to get in trouble. But God has given us new hearts, hearts that can bring us home.
And it’s to those new hearts of ours that God beckons: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” God beckons us to the font, not to have our bodies washed, but to represent the purification and renewal God is already performing on the inside of us. God beckons us today to the Table, not to have our bodies fed, but to represent the nourishment we receive from Jesus’ laying down of his life for us. Amid all the quick fixes that promise to make us right from the outside, Jesus bids us look inside. And what we find there is not only a fragile human heart, but a loving God who makes a home within us.
Let go of your impure, fearful heart, and embrace the heart you have been given in your baptism, the heart that’s already embraced and loved and claimed by its Maker. Know that in this gift you are pure, you are acceptable, you are holy, and nothing from outside of you can take that away. And knowing this, stop chasing the God who has already found you. Let yourself be freed for a life that says to God not, “please, please,” but “thank you.” Hear the voice of God, calling you as a lover to his beloved:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900. Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed.