Rules vs Heart

29th August 2021

James 1:17—end Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” I wonder how many people here today remember listening to those words, because for many children they heralded the daily invitation to a gentle and reassuring few minutes of listening to familiar songs and stories on the radio, underlining the sense that the world was a secure and kindly place for its pre-school-aged listeners. And we might be forgiven for thinking, indeed hoping, that most sermons could begin in the same way. 

It is perhaps unfortunate that we live so long after the events described in the Gospels, and they are almost so soothingly soporifically familiar, that they have lost the immediacy and power to shock which they would have had for the original hearers. Today’s reading from St Mark’s Gospel is no exception.

Jesus and his disciples are still in the area of Gennesaret, on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, after the Feeding of the 5,000, when he is accosted by some Scribes and Pharisees who have come all the way from Jerusalem to check out his credentials as a religious teacher. When they discover that some of the disciples are eating with unwashed hands, they feel that they have a valid reason for challenging the authority of Jesus. After all, he is not demanding that his followers keep to the strict codes of purity which distinguish the true sons of Abraham from the rest of the world, and therefore his reliability as a teacher is in question. 

And Jesus’ response to these religious leaders is shocking.

“You hypocrites,” he says, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you, saying that this people appear to worship God, but in fact they are teaching human precepts as if they were the will of God.” 

The Pharisees interpreted the Law of Moses for the people and they are being accused of teaching their own human ideas in place of the will of God. The rule of ritual purity being referred to here, is one which originally applied only to priests, and the Pharisees had extended it to everyone.

The term hypocrite was used originally of actors, and therefore the meaning developed from “one who acts”, to “one who puts on an act,” that is, is other than he appears to be. Hardly a description anyone would want to have applied to their religious leaders. 

And the challenge in these words is not only for the Pharisees and Scribes; if we had been in that crowd, how would we have reacted? In all likelihood we would have been asking ourselves, “Who is this man who dares to speak to the leaders of our religion in such a way, calling them hypocrites? And if they have got it wrong, then how are we supposed to know what to do and believe?” Calling into question the integrity of our leaders, religious or political, leaves us with the uneasy sense of being rudderless, having no reliable leadership, not knowing where to turn for inspiration and guidance.

The second part of the reading answers this question. Beginning by inviting the people to not only “listen” with their ears, but to “understand”, that is, take into their hearts and minds what he is saying, Jesus turns the teaching of the Pharisees on its head: it is not what you take into your body which defiles it, but what comes out of it. Now, with all our concerns over hygiene, and protection from the Covid virus, we may think Jesus’ words may not be, dare we say, 100% correct, given the scientific advances of the last 2,000 years, but in fact Jesus has moved on from the clean hands issue to a deeper level. 

Jesus is saying that, while they were fussing over the details of ritual purity, they had lost the vision of what this was all about in the first place. His words are not about ritual cleanliness, but about true religion; not about rules and regulations, but about the attitude of the heart. 

What was the Law of Moses really about for its adherents, if it were not about keeping strictly to all the nitty-gritty of the detailed regulations? It is summed up in the first commandment, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This is purity of religion; it is complete, it is all embracing, it is the total offering of the whole human being in all that we do, say, and think. 

So I am not saying that Jesus was rejecting the Law of Moses; indeed he made it plain that he had come to fulfil it. Nor am I saying in speaking of “true religion” that this is somehow a faith free of all guidance and structures. The inspiration and direction of the Scriptures is paramount, and the tradition of all the great Christian writers which has been passed down to us is valuable. The carefully honed structure of the liturgy is also an indispensable part of our reaching out to God. We cannot do without any of these.

But there is more to true religion, real purity of heart, involved in our search for God himself, because it also impacts on our attitude towards ourselves, and hence towards other people. If you were to compare Jesus’ list of defiling thoughts and behaviours that we heard this morning, you would see that they match all the sinful actions that deal with human interactions in the 10 Commandments, that springboard of the Law of Moses. 

However, the Law of Moses is not enough. It draws our attention to our shortcomings and what we need to avoid doing, but it does not solve the original problem which brought up the need for it in the first case. We have great difficulty in acknowledging that we are not totally in control of everything. We so want to assert our autonomy, and that begins the slide which, taken to extremes, reaches a position which denies the existence of God. As a result, we lose sight of who we truly are. 

Many Christian writers throughout the ages have spoken of the division within us between the True Self, and the False Self. The false one is the being who tries to be in control of everything without any acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God. The true self is the one who recognises our position in the created order. We are told that we are made in the image of God. When the truth of that dawns upon us, our lives become the exploration of who we are truly meant to be. All that the search for holiness entails, that seemingly unattainable goal, is simply being wholly the person God knows we can be, and above all, helps us to be. 

But we do have a choice; we can claim that, by the strict observance of rules and rituals, we, in our own strength, can be all that God asks of us; which is tantamount to the desire to be perfect without the help of God. Interestingly, this is one of the early Christian heresies, and came about through a British protagonist, Pelagius. We have this tendency deep within our national psyche. Or we can accept the apparently simpler, but all-consuming call of Jesus, to explore God’s view of us, his desire for us, and be the people he intends us to be. This is the perfect law which James refers to; not the Law of Moses, but the law of liberty which Jesus has brought into existence; the Law that makes us free.

All of this, I think, I hope, may leave us sitting rather more comfortably than if we were Pharisees being denounced by Jesus as hypocrites. It is a challenge, admittedly, and there may be times when we would cry out for a way which leaves us more in control, by having a more proscribed way to God via strict rituals and regulations. But this way of Jesus is one of joy and liberation which rules on their own can never offer. It is the Way of never-ending exploration, the way of freedom, the way of LIFE, the life of God in us. May God grant us the desire, and the perseverance, to discover the truth of this, and to continue our exploration to our life’s end.