Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Pharisees have travelled from Jerusalem out to the region of Lake Galilee to find Jesus, but this is not a spiritual pilgrimage. We quickly discover they have come to find fault: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Isn’t it interesting that the accusation is not leveled at Jesus himself, whom we might assume was performing all of the rituals the Pharisees were so focused on?
But, before we get to Jesus’ response, we need to pause and really hear the Pharisees.
I know my Sunday school education taught me these figures were “bad.” Cast as one-dimensional characters, we knew that when Pharisees appeared on the flannelgraph, trouble was afoot. They were people to be judged and scorned, not those with whom our scrubbed-faced, shoe-shined, best-dressed little group were meant to identify. It took me many years to really see the Pharisees, and recognize that they objected because they wanted to please God, and they backed up this intention with their time and actions.
I can relate. Though the specific rituals have changed, I spent much of my life trying to live according to the tradition of the elders in my religious observance around food. “Saying grace” before meals, not rushing to the front of the church potluck line, and the sanctified Canada Food Guide that helped delineate healthy (clean) from unhealthy (unclean) foods. I recognize that these traditions were passed down with the intention to form my life with gratitude, humility, and proper nutrition to honor the body God gave me.
But just like those fault finding Pharisees, my empty hearted practice of these traditions led me to scorn those who did not pray before meals, to self-righteously take smaller portions in public and then binge in secret, and to spend countless hours pouring over recipes, calorie counters, diet books and weight scales trying to earn my cleanliness – my acceptance and status before God. I suspect the Pharisees felt the same security I did in being able to hang on to an objective, unchanging checklist they thought would please God.
“You hypocrites!” Jesus cries. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus blows their smug complacency right out of the water. Rather than being pleased and impressed with their actions, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. Their hearts are far from him, and like a skilled surgeon Jesus’ truth-telling words cut away the exterior pretense to expose the malignant rot of deception that lies beneath.
In John’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking with the Pharisees and proclaiming, “you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) Truthfulness must precede release from the debilitating chains of pretense. To admit distance from God, obsession with appearances, and shallow substitutes for God. For the woman who publicly praises a demanding and destructive husband, truth opens the way to healing. For the church family who centers its budget on acquisition and self-pleasure, and the congregation whose prejudices reject the very people God has called them to love, Jesus’ words of truth expose our hypocrisy and invite us to choose a different way.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand,” Jesus says again, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Even living with an eating disorder that appears to focus on what is going into my body, I come to discover that it is not the food that makes me “good” or “bad.” Though God provides my daily bread, He is using this to move my focus to the condition of my heart. When I need comfort, do I seek it in God? When the conditions around me are boring or unstable or infuriating, does my heart wait for the guidance and wisdom of God, or do I seek security in my intellect, excitement in my circumstances, and status in my skills? When the church encounters praise or problems, where does the heart of our congregation seek our healing and our way forward?
Pouring church growth strategies into our congregations isn’t what defiles us, it is the heart that seeks solutions outside of God’s timing and God’s provision that produces the rot. Are there “…evil intentions… fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly,” that need exposure to be cleansed and healed by Christ? Do we let go of our fears, resentments and obsessions to be filled with God’s grace and works of mercy?
The Pharisees had become so concerned with getting it right, that they lost sight of true communion. They focused so hard on offering God their best – their praiseworthy actions – that they missed that God wants all of them… all of us. Our best, our worst… our whole lives: heart, soul, and mind. Traditions cannot substitute for a heart surrendered to God. Trusting God for what goes in my mouth and the transformation of my heart allows me to be grateful now to pause before meals to voice my gratitude to God.
Opening our hearts to God requires a vulnerability and a depth of trust that can never be reached by dipping our hands in water. It is a process of surrendering our own ideas and intentions to be reshaped by the one who loved and created us for His purpose. To not simply do the right things, but open ourselves to receive a heart intimate with God. Gone are the status checkpoints. Here is our alive and instigating God beckoning us to be caught up in the transformative work of the Holy Spirit and in the inbreaking kingdom of heaven on earth.