Title: Where is the Evidence of Our Faith
Scripture: Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
Proper 17b

How many people here today know a Pharisee? Raise your hands…
Don’t point, just raise your hand…
We know there aren’t any Pharisees here anyway…

But before we say that for sure, maybe we should figure out exactly what a Pharisee is…
The Pharisees weren’t “bad” people… in fact, if scholars were to attempt to place Jesus and his teaching within one of the streams of Jewish tradition of the day, he had the most in common with the Pharisees.

The Apostle Paul, once called Saul, was a Pharisee of a particular stripe and he says he studied under one of the most famous Pharisaic Rabbi’s of the day, Gamaliel.

Probably the same Gamaliel who convinced his fellow members of the council in Acts to spare the lives of the Apostles, saying: “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”

So a Pharisee is someone who is deeply committed… but their commitments don’t prevent them from making poor judgements, or from being overzealous about the wrong things.

I know none of us have ever been overzealous about the wrong thing…

But think of Paul, who as Saul was one of the greatest enemies of the new faith, who in his zeal for the Law, became an oppressor of the early church.

Or think about the Pharisees from our gospel reading today… those religious folks who just couldn’t see the forest for the trees. You might even think of them as a bunch of religious bureaucrats: there’s a certain way things are done and that’s just the way it has to be…

Mark is very helpful here and explains the context of this meeting. Some of the Pharisees and some Scribes from Jerusalem have come out to hear what Jesus has to say, and while they’re there, they notice that the disciples are eating with unwashed hands… now the Pharisees believed (along with moms and nurses and especially moms who are nurses) that it was a sin to eat without washing your hands.
But to the Pharisees, it wasn’t just a bad thing to do, it “defiled” you, it made you and what you ate ritually unclean, and you would be expected to perform some sort of purification rite to get back in the good graces of God and your neighbor.

So the Pharisees and Scribes ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live by the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” They were probably surprised, maybe even offended by the fact that the disciples hadn’t washed their hands, and while they could have been trying to highlight Jesus’ lack of adherence to the tradition, they may just as well have expected him to correct his disciples for what they did.

After all, this was a holy man, a teacher… surely he would observe the traditions of the elders…

But Jesus doesn’t answer the question they ask, instead he explains a principle, taking the opportunity to challenge them on their acceptance of human commandments in the place of God’s commandments and then giving them his definition of defilement.

I joke with Anna sometimes that her standard stance toward tradition is a “why,” while mine, dusty history buff that I am, is often a “why not.” I think a lot of us fall into those categories… but not Jesus.

For Jesus the question about tradition isn’t why or why not, it isn’t even a question we Anglicans sometimes here from other protestant churches—“is it biblical?” as in explicitly commanded by scripture.

No, for Jesus the question seems to be whether or not the point of the tradition has been lost…but not only lost—perverted.

And Jesus certainly ran into enough perversion of tradition in his day.

People putting up barriers between others and God…

It’s called legalism. Sometimes we might say somebody is nit-picky, but what we mean is that for all their desire to do good, to do the right or correct thing, they’ve become narrow-minded and focused on small things… unable to see the big picture or understand why something was ever done in the first place. Legalism in religion can be a deadly thing.

And Jesus was dealing with legalists all the time—people who kept the letter of the law while neglecting its spirit—those who kept the rule even when it prevented them from doing the very thing the rule was meant to ensure.

There are many examples of this in Jesus’ ministry, in the parables that he told. One that sticks with me is in the parable of the Good Samaritan… sometimes people miss it, because they focus on who it was who finally helped the man who had been beaten and left for dead in that parable, i.e. the Samaritan. But at least as important are the people who passed him by. One of them was a Priest who not only passed the man by, he crossed to the other side of the street to avoid him.

The fact that he did this shows that he was probably a legalist. He didn’t know whether the man was alive or dead, so rather than risk ritually defiling himself, he passed the injured man by.

Similarly, Jesus contends with some of the religious leaders who would condemn him for healing on the Sabbath, since Jews weren’t supposed to do any labor on the Sabbath.

They missed the point you see… they forgot why they were ever given commandments, and they forgot the greatest commandment and the second: To Love God and to love neighbor.

So Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

In other words, religious commandments and traditions are there for a purpose… to help people in some way, whether in their personal lives or in their relationship with God.

If the evidence of faith were simply to keep the letter of the law, then the Pharisees, and the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan would have been perfect examples of faithful people.
But we can see that they are flawed…they forgot the reason why they were doing what they were doing…in following the letter of the law they were neglecting more important commandments.

People like this are sometimes the most frustrating to deal with because they are usually the hardest people to explain something to. No wonder Jesus gets aggravated at the Pharisees… no wonder he calls them hypocrites and challenges them. He has to do that to get their attention, to make them wake up.

Jesus is dealing with a bunch of religious bureaucrats and he has to shout to get their attention. To get their heads out of their… forms…

And eventually he decides it’s not worth talking to them because they may or may not get it… Instead he goes and talks to the whole crowd and explains to them what true defilement is, telling them that “there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

After he’s taken so much effort to chide the Pharisees, to explain what he thinks about defilement to the crowd in pretty clear terms, after all of this his disciples come to him and ask what he means.

Well, we say that Christ is all God and all man at the same time… the human side of Jesus seems pretty exasperated now… people just aren’t getting it, not even his disciples.

So Jesus is even more blunt with them—this bit was omitted from our lectionary readings this morning, but this is what he says to them:

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“…are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In other words, Jesus is saying that the patty-melt you get from Shenanigans, or the burger you get from Hubers or Sonic aren’t going to defile you… your fingers might get greasy and if you enjoy them too much you might get fat, but they’re not going to make you ritually unclean…instead, it’s your heart that determines whether you’re “clean” or “unclean.”
Whether you’re in right relationship with God and your neighbor, or not.

And you know… the thing is… every one of the things in that list has been committed by people who observe the form of faith and do the “right” things at the right time. Where was the evidence of their faith? Was it in the rules and observances they kept?

Most recently the arrest of the serial killer known as “BTK” comes to mind. This man terrorized Wichita for decades and when he was finally arrested this year he was found to be the president of a church congregation.

That’s an extreme example, but it shows that someone can go through all the “forms” and do everything they’re supposed to do, but if their heart isn’t in it, if they haven’t allowed the truth of the faith to permeate their actions everywhere, then they are living a lie, honoring God with their lips while their hearts are far from him.

Every so often I run across something that just makes me sit back and reflect on whether or not I’m actually living my faith… as others have said, I have to wonder whether or not there would even be enough evidence to convict me if they were suddenly arresting all Christians.

There’s a song by the blue grass/country singer Rhonda Vincent that makes me take a step back and look in the mirror that way every time I hear it. It’s called “You don’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor” and the lyrics are as straightforward as the title:

There are many people
who will say they’re Christians
and they live like Christians on the Sabbath day

But come Monday morning, ‘til the coming Sunday
They will fight their neighbor all along the way

{and the chorus goes}
Oh you don’t love God, if you don’t love your neighbor
if you gossip about him, if you never have mercy
if he gets into trouble, and you don’t try to help him
then you don’t love your neighbor, and you don’t love God…

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” there is a good example of someone who lives their life this way—observing the form but neglecting the content. The character of Mrs. Turpin follows the pattern of the song and goes through the story doing nothing but silently insulting the people she meets, even as she strokes her own ego.

Like the Pharisees, Mrs. Turpin equates certain actions, a certain demeanor and presentation with being faithful…

Eventually her image of herself is challenged and she’s forced to come face to face with the reality of her own sinfulness, which she’s not able to accept. Instead the Revelation of her sin breaks her… she can’t handle it.

Wondering at being called an “old wart hog from hell” by one of the other characters in the story she ends up being angry at God saying “What do you send me a message like that for?” “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”

“Why me?” she continues, “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.”

Mrs. Turpin expected to be saved by her own works…

And in the conclusion of the story O’Connor gives what could be one of the best descriptions of salvation by grace in literature when she describes Mrs. Turpin’s “revelation” as she looked up in the sky and

“saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.”

She sees poor whites and blacks, and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone where on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

That last line sticks with me… “Even their virtues were being burned away.” I have no doubt that that will be the way it is in the presence of God…every action, every “good deed,” none of it will matter…not if they aren’t evidence of something deeper…

This is what the Pharisees couldn’t grasp… that all their virtues were meaningless because there’s no way they could be “good enough” to satisfy God by their actions, instead they needed a change of heart, to love as God loves and act out of that…then they would’ve understood the principles behind the laws and followed the spirit rather than the letter.

It’s the disposition of the heart that matters most to God, it’s the why behind what you do that God cares the most about… if we do the right thing for the wrong reason, it doesn’t count… if we observe forms and ceremonies not because we want to honor a Holy God but because we think we are accomplishing something by them… they are meaningless… God wants our hearts first, and our actions should come out of that.

So what is the evidence of our faith? Is it that we do certain things believing they will get us to heaven? No…Only Jesus can get us to heaven…

The evidence of our faith is that we treat people as Jesus treated them… that we have mercy on others because God in Christ has had mercy on us. That we pay our debt to God—a debt that can never be repayed, only honored—by serving our neighbors and spreading the Good news of his gospel.