(Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
Mark tells us today how Jesus and his disciples were cornered by the Pharisees and scribes, these religious officials who act like “religious police,” like death squads trying to catch anyone who violates the law of Moses. Moses had comprised over 600 laws to help us live a holy life, but the Pharisees taught that if you did not follow them to the letter, you could be excommunicated or even stoned to death. They thought everything and everyone was unclean, and that everyone had to become clean, to be purified in order to worship God, so they enforced these cleanliness laws, and as Mark says, everyone had to wash and purify every cup and jug and kettle, all day long. Worse of all, you were never allowed to go near “unclean, ungodly, unholy evil people” like women, or the elderly, or children, or the sick, or lepers, or prostitutes, and if you did, you too became unclean and should be excommunicated or even thrown into hell by God. The law of Moses was good and holy, but they totally abused it and misinterpreted for their own gain and missed the whole point of the law which is love, love for one another.
So Jesus and his disciples break these laws by not washing their hands or their cups, but they fulfill the law of God by trying to love one another. So the religious police come after them and ask Jesus, “Why don’t you follow the tradition? Why don’t you wash your hands? Why are you breaking the law?”
And Jesus lets them have it. First, he calls them hypocrites, then quotes the great prophet of justice and peace, Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine human precepts.” “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition,” Jesus tells them.
So the Gospel says that God does not want lip service; God wants our hearts. God wants our souls. God does not want us to do what everyone else does; or just to go along with the crowd; or simply do whatever our country tells us: God wants us to do what God’s will, what God wants.
Then Jesus turns to the crowds and issues a new commandment: “Hear me and understand!” He doesn’t want us to be ignorant. He wants us to understand God and the spiritual life. So he explains that it’s not what goes into the body that is the problem, but the evil within us that comes out of us that is the problem; that, in effect, all the problems in our lives and the world come from within our own hearts; that all the wars and injustice in the world have roots within each one of us; that our hearts are full of violence.
So today, Jesus tells us he wants us to repent of the violence in our hearts, to turn humbly to God, to ask God to disarm our hearts, purify our hearts, change our hearts, give us humble, contrite hearts, and he says this is the only way to worship God–with humble, contrite, disarmed, nonviolent, purified hearts. He wants us to fashion our hearts after his own sacred heart.
Now we could stop there because that is plenty of work for each one of us for the rest of our lives, as we try to purify our hearts. But Jesus doesn’t end there. He wants us to be morally clean individually but also as a community, as a nation, and the whole world.
Jesus connects our personal sins to the sins of the world, to social, global sin. And he’s really blunt, so I think if he were here among us, he would say to us as a nation, “You Americans have become just like the self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees. You go to church on Sundays, and worry about certain areas of morality, but as a nation, you ignore the big areas of immorality. You are violent, racist, sexist, unjust, killing people in Iraq, funding the unjust occupation of Palestine, helping the death squads of Colombia, executing people on death row, building nuclear weapons, not feeding the hungry, not welcoming the immigrant, not giving people jobs, or healthcare, or education to the world’s poor, and not taking care of the earth. You do what you want, not what God wants.”
He wants us to change our hearts and also to stop these big sins, so that our worship is really authentic and sincere. He wants us to obey the law of God, the law of love for all people, and this is hard to hear. That’s why he commands us to hear him and understand him.
This is what we are trying to do as we come to the sanctuary, to turn back to God with all our hearts, individually and as a community and a global church; to renounce the violence within us; to learn not to judge others like the Pharisees; not to dominate others like the Pharisees; not to be jealous or gossip or resentful like the Pharisees; but to love one another and forgive one another and show compassion to one another and to pursue justice and peace for all people everywhere on the planet.
This is what we are all trying to do. So we turn now to our beloved God, and offer our hearts completely to God.