A Matter Of The Heart
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Tradition, tradition, tradition (sung). These are the words sung by Tevya in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Tevya was a Russian Jew who was trying to marry off his five daughters into traditional Jewish marriages. These were marriages where all the family members had traditional roles. In his mind, the traditional roles were what held the family together.
In today’s gospel reading we hear a similar sentiment. The story starts with a group of religious leaders concerned about the traditions of the elders. These leaders observed that some of the disciples of Jesus were not washing their hands before they ate. These leaders were not concerned about hygiene, they were concerned about tradition.
Let me give you a little background. When God established his relationship with the people of Israel, he declared certain things “unclean.” Certain foods, certain activities, certain people, and certain animals were all declared by God as “unclean.”
A person who came in contact with anything that was declared “unclean” by God was then too considered “unclean.” God said they must be cleansed with a ceremony conducted by a priest in the tabernacle and later in the temple.
God was reminding them that he and he alone could declared what was “unclean and clean.” God alone could cleanse them from their sins, sins that separated them from a holy and righteous God. He alone could cleanse them from all unrighteousness.
Sign of Grace
God was teaching them about his grace and mercy. Many of them, however, saw these ceremonies as ways they could do something to make God less angry with them. They saw these ceremonies as ways to cleanse themselves by obeying the commandments instead of trusting in God’s word that he would cleanse them.
One Step Further
The next step was to follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. Through the years, the religious leaders, the elders of the people, began to make up their own rules about what was “unclean” and “clean.”
They sought their own way of “cleansing” themselves. For them, their relationship with God became dependent on what they did for themselves and not on what God did for them. They were working on making themselves righteous without God through obeying their own traditions.
The gospel reading shows us how they had added the “traditions of the elders” to the Word of God. Nowhere in God’s Word did he prescribe this ceremonial washing of hands before everyday eating. It was a tradition started by men to make men feel better about themselves.
In their minds, obeying this and other “traditions of men” made them righteous. They judged themselves and other on what came out of their lips and what was done by their hands. Surely God and the world would see their good works and call them righteous people.
Men Like These
It was men like these who questioned the actions of the disciples and in reality were questioning Jesus. They were looking for excuses not to listen to Jesus and not to follow him because he was calling everyone to repent. Finally, they were looking for a reason not to confess that Jesus was “the Christ, the son of the living God.”
The Pharisees and Scribes were accusing the disciples of Jesus of being “unclean.” They went to Jesus asking him “why do your disciples not walk in the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands.” Their target wasn’t really the disciples, it was Jesus himself.
Jesus was teaching that salvation comes through repentance and God’s mercy. They were teaching that salvation comes through following their example of obedience., including obedience to manmade traditions.
Jesus immediately takes these Pharisees and Scribes to the Word of God. He calls them hypocrites and says that God had spoken about people like them. Jesus quotes the Word of God from the book of Isaiah.
“This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Jesus was telling them that their outward appearances were just that. They were outward appearances that they were using to cover up their sinful hearts. To prove his point, to bring them to repentance, Jesus shows them how one of their traditions was completely opposite to the will of God.
Jesus said to them, “God’s commandment says honor your father and your mother.” At that time there were no retirement plans, no social security, no Medicare, and no Medicaid. As parents grew older and unable to take care of themselves, their sons took on the financial responsibility of providing for their parents. Taking care of them in this way was part of honoring their parents, part of obeying God’s laws.
These hypocrites had found away around this law through one of their manmade traditions. Their manmade law sounded very religious, but it was just a way of satisfying their selfish heart.
Their manmade commandment went like this:
“If they dedicated all their wealth to the Lord through a ceremony called “Corban,” then they could tell their parents that there was no money left to help them in their time of need. The son could claim that his money was all tied up in dedication to God. Under this tradition, they were under no obligation to use the money for the temple or the synagogue or any other religious purpose. They were free to use it for whatever they desired in their sinful heart.”
The tradition of “Corban” was simply an excuse for not obeying God’s commandment to honor father and mother.
How Easy For Us
How easy it is for us to become hypocrites, for us to use the “traditions of men” to justify ourselves. We learn to say and pray the “right words” thinking that what comes out of our lips will make us clean in the eyes of God and the world.
The traditions of men say that if we act in the “right way” we will be seen as righteous. It is so easy then to depend on a good record of church attendance and a modest number of receipts for charitable giving.
If I, If I, If I, this is the language of the Pharisees and of our sinful nature. Depending on the traditions of men makes sense to us because we want to believe that we can “cleanse” ourselves. This is the language of a sinful heart that is full of sinful pride.
It’s good to say the creed, sing hymns, pray, attend church, share your blessings with those in need, but none of us can do these things on our own with a pure and clean heart. On our own we are always motivated by selfish reasons.
What was missing from the Pharisees and from all who are hypocrites is “a broken and contrite heart,” a heart that confesses “I am sinful and unclean.” Jesus is looking for a heart that says to him, “Lord have mercy on me a poor sinful being.”
God’s Heart, Lips and Hands
God’s answer to your hypocrisy and sinful heart is His Son. His answer to your broken and contrite heart is Jesus. His answer to your cry for mercy is Christ the Savior. Jesus Christ alone is the answer for lips that confess him as Lord, but for hearts that are far away from him.
God promised a Savior, one who would “cleanse” you from all your sins. His heart was full of love for you. God did not just give lip service to his promise. Because of his love for you God sent forth his Son to redeem you, to pay the price for your sins. Jesus came into the world to give his life as a sacrifice for your sins.
Jesus went willingly to the cross so that all your “unclean” thoughts, words, and deeds could be washed away. He came to “cleanse” you with the shedding of his blood. Jesus has sent his Holy Spirit into your hearts so that you might no longer be far away from God.
God has good news for you as you confess your sins and seek his mercy. The good news comes from his loving heart. The hands and feet of Jesus were nailed to the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. With his lips he says, “Peace be with you.”
The heart of Jesus is all about you. He gave himself up for your cleansing so that you might be seen by the heavenly Father as holy and without blemish. Jesus has promised to give you a clean heart and to renew a right spirit within you. This is not the tradition of men, this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria