A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
(Song of Songs 2.8-13; Psalm 45.1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-23)
There is a word that comes to mind as I hear the wooing of the bride and bridegroom: delight.
In the eyes of these two young lovers the world has moved from winter to spring. The ‘rain is over and gone’, ‘flowers appear on the earth’, ‘the turtledove is heard’, ‘the fig tree ripens’, and ‘vines are in blossom’.
The perfect time, this eager bridegroom suggests, to ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.’
Who says the Bible is boring?
Of course, we can easily read this love story with a heavy or cynical heart. Joy can seems far from our experience. Spring can turn to winter. Love can seem more challenge than the joy.
Perhaps there are echoes here of Pharisees and scribes.
In our gospel reading, presumably, there were many things going on around these leaders. Each detail was capable of arresting their attention. There were people they had never met; the smell of home cooking; an array of colours, sights, and sounds. In short, a smorgasbord for the senses!
And this not to mention that God incarnate walks among them.
One translation tells us that these leaders surrounded – a rather aggressive word choice – Jesus and his disciples and saw…that their hands were not washed.
Of all the possibilities that could catch their eye – these representatives of God notice the dirt under Jesus’ fingernails!
Just prior to this incident the gentiles of Genesearet ‘recognised’ Jesus and immediately ‘rushed’ to bring their sick. People begged to brush his cloak. Our author summarises: ‘and all who touched…were healed’ (6:56).
Some noticed other details about Jesus’ hands. Like their ability to heal.
‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ The Pharisees ask. They – tragically – observe the Messiah with a critical heart. They seek a hold on the Christ – that they may pull him down.
And it blinds them to that which others see so clearly. It stifles the celebration that God’s presence should inspire. They experience no joy in the miraculous. No delight in God’s gracious presence.
Of course, we all have traditions, cultures, focus. We have blind spots. A sobering thought. With Jesus before you, what would your question be? What would you notice? What would you miss?
I’d have thought Jesus spoke quite clearly: ‘…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ It seems straight forward enough. But then the disciples ask about the ‘parable’.
Really? This concept is so foreign they think it must be a riddle?
So, Jesus explains: defilement is not about food that goes in. It is about the stuff that comes out. They have it all upside-down – perhaps more accurately – inside-out.
Jesus’ list of the product that ‘comes out’ of the human heart is sobering, embarrassing, confronting – and not nearly as removed from our condition as we would like. ‘Evil’ is not a word we easily sit with – and even less when it is seen as stemming from within. We’d rather speak of an evil ‘out there’ – embodied in something or someone else.
But the devil is not the only source of evil Jesus’ identifies. What Jesus speaks of here is birthed in us. It is ‘…from the human heart, that evil intentions come…’
Intention can seem far from action. We often use the word to express how unlikely a thought is to manifest. But Jesus suggests that thoughts habitually grow and become more. They are a source, a spring, a well. Occasionally, they spill over.
The more I sit with this passage, the more I am convinced that it does not leave the only possible product of the human heart as evil. If evil intentions have their overflow, surely the same can be said of good intentions.
Jesus’ words urge a guarding, a protecting, and a shielding of our inner life.
Perhaps there are echoes of all this in James: ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’
And what echoes the joy of spring more than the declaration that the will of God has ‘brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures’?
James follows this flowering language with a reminder to be doers of God’s word – and not merely hearers. I wonder if that is what stifles the Pharisees? Are they content to merely understand the letter of the law? And, if so, what have they lost in the process?
If the resurrection of Jesus is anything, it is a new season. From this re-creative action of God, and the hope it inspires, we blossom and grow.
This is not, however, a growth that comes from merely hearing – a worthless self-deception. It is a growth that comes from a faith that does and lives the gospel.
My simple prayer for you is that you would never let the opportunity of such joy, celebration and delight, pass you by.