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September 3, 2000
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Have a Heart  (for God)

Just before sitting down to Sunday dinner after church, mom asked her two children to wash their hands before eating.  Her Son startled her with his response:

"Jesus said it's okay to eat without washing your hands!"

"Where did you hear such a thing?" the lad's mother asked.

"Well," the boy continued, "The Frizzies were being tattletales on the disciples.  They told Jesus the disciples were eating without washing their hands and Jesus told them they were a bunch of hypocrites."

The mother continued, "Did Jesus tell his disciples they didn't have to wash their hands?"

"I don't know," the boy replies, "But he didn't make 'em either -- and if it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"


You and I know that Jesus was not advocating eating with dirty hands in our gospel reading for today.  The lesson is not really about hand washing at all -- it is about fault-finding and nitpicking. The "Frizzies", (known to us as Pharisees,) had gotten themselves all hung up on the outward trappings of their religion and in the process lost the inward meaning of their relationship with God.  They were more concerned about outward appearances than with inward appropriation of the faith. They were knowledgeable about the content of the law but ignorant about the condition of their hearts.

They were described, Jesus said, by the words of the prophet Isaiah, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Reference is to Is. 29:13)  The tragedy of the dominant religion of the day for God's people was that it had developed a system of rules, regulations and traditions that no longer represented the heart of God.

Professor Charles Neilson, a Presbyterian pastor and teacher of Church History, compared some modern Christians with the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' time and said, "Their difficulty is that they are trying to be more religious than God."  

Jesus' encounter with the scribes and Pharisees in our text is a wonderful portrayal of a statement in 1 Samuel.  Samuel was to anoint one of Jesse's sons as King over Israel and the brothers were all passing before Samuel beginning with the eldest.  Seeing Eliab, the eldest son, Samuel thought,  "This is the one for sure."  But Samuel was wrong and God said something to Samuel that goes to the heart of today's gospel reading:

"Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." [1 Samuel 16:7]

As the story progresses, seven of Jesse's sons appear before Samuel and none of them is the one God wants.  "Are all your sons here?" Samuel asks.  Jesse's response is pivotal for understanding the nature of the relationship God wants to have with us.  "Well," Jesse says, "There is the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." In other words, the youngest brother, David, was just a kid out in the fields.  No one would expect God to choose a young, inexperienced lad like him to be God's chosen person to lead Israel into its days of glory.

God's great correction to the way we tend to judge people is to say, "It's what's inside that counts!"  The "appearances" referred to here are the physical characteristics of Jesse's sons.  If they are big and strong and handsome, then Jesse and Samuel are able to see a leader for Israel.

God sees more.  God sees inside. That's good news.  It is not what we look like, nor our station in life, but who we really, truly are inside that counts with God.  It is not that we should not engage in religious practices or outward observance of the faith... but, that which we profess outwardly has to line up with what we possess inwardly. It is our heart God wants. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment of all was, he went back to ancient Israel's great commandment - the Shema.  "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." [Deut. 6:4-5]

Listen to these very revealing and instructive words from 1 Samuel: 

Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you. The LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you."  [1 Samuel 13:13-14]

The failures and foibles of King David of Israel are well known.  During a part of his life, he was a scoundrel who broke most of the ten commandments.  Yet, confronted by a prophet sent from God, he turned his heart back to God.  In Psalm 51 there is strong evidence of a broken heart and a broken man.  The key truth in the Davidic episode is that an impure heart in the hands of God is more valuable than a self righteous heart separated from God.  "It's what's inside that counts."

Over and over again in the ministry of Jesus we encounter the fact that Jesus is always seeing beneath the surface, under the outward mask and into the heart. The most powerful description of the key characteristic God wanted in Israel's' leader has to do with the heart.

Listen carefully to these verses where Jesus lifts up the fact that our relationship with God is a matter of the heart - "it's what's inside that counts."

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."  Matt. 5:8

"...where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Matt. 6:21

"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."  Matt. 22:37

"...{Jesus} looked around at {the Pharisees} with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart." Mark 3:5

Jesus' listeners understood the heart to be much more than the center of feelings.  The emotions were included, but the heart was the center of a persons being -- it was the seat of the intellect, emotion and will.  To have a heart for God - to be, like David, a person after God's own heart - meant to have God at the center of one's life.


Jesus points to two places where our spiritual lives are vulnerable and enter dangerous ground for our relationship with God.  The first is addressed to the Pharisees and the second to the gathered crowd.

1. The danger of "lip service" and "hypocritical worship"

It is important to point out that the Pharisees and scribes were not bad people.  They did not rob, steal or disturb the peace.  They were committed people who were devoted to their religion.

However -- they elevated their religious practices and customs to the place God and God's people should occupy.  They became so wrapped up in the outward expressions of their religion that the inward seat of religious affection - or the heart - became secondary.  What counted was how many prayers were said, not how heartfelt the prayer was.

Them most devastating thing of all was that even the worship had become tainted.  Jesus quotes Isaiah and notes that the scribes and Pharisees have reached a point where their worship is "in vain" - useless!  Their outward practices had become the master of God's people rather than the servant that led people to God.

2. The danger of relying on outward appearances

We need to go back and emphasize that Jesus was not addressing the issue of whether people should wash their hands or whether ingesting bacteria could make someone ill.  His comments to the gathered crowd had to do with the gaggle of rules and regulations that had accumulated in Pharisaic life.  If you didn't follow the exact ritual for washing hands and pots and pans, you were defiled.  If you associated with the wrong people, you were defiled.

Whenever Jesus addressed a gathering of people the way he did this group, there is a strong call to pay attention.  "Listen to me all of you, and understand!" He said.  This is on a par with the many times he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you..."

Jesus says in effect, "You don't become unacceptable to God by not following a bunch of outward rules and regulations that are supposed to make you spiritually acceptable.  It's not an outward thing.  That which makes you unacceptable to God comes from within.  When your heart - the center of your being - is given to anything other than God - that can lead to the kinds of evil things that cut you off from God.  It's what's inside that counts!"


We need to be careful not to make the mistake of dismissing all outward religious practice as "vain worship."  It was not the practice of their religion that got the Pharisees into trouble, it was the substitution of the outward practice of religion for the inward devotion which should give shape to the outward expression.

The primary message in the gospel lesson for today is that God looks within each of us to see where our affections truly lie.  When we place the Lord at the center of our lives and make our hearts the place where God reigns, then we can be described as having "a heart for God."

Nothing outside of us can create that.  No outward practice we engage in, no religious rite or ritual can create a heart for God.  When we engage in outward religious activity without the inward devotion to God, our religious life will be like wearing a hair shirt.  But when we make our heart a place where God reigns - that is when we have a heart for God - the outward practices will be a natural expression of our inward relationship with God.

May the Good Lord give us grace to know the joy of having a heart -- for God!

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

What is real wisdom? The lectionary texts for today point to a different notion of wisdom than we usually think of. For the people of God, wisdom is not so much related to intellectual prowess as it is to commitment of the will to follow God's commands. In Deuteronomy, the idea is that when the nations holds fast to the commands of God, the life of the nation does well and this translates to wisdom. [4:6]

James relates wisdom to the "doing" of God's commands and not just "hearing" the word. Though he does not specifically use the term wisdom - he notes that listening to the word and not actually doing what the word of God commands makes "religion" worthless. Blessedness comes from hearing and doing.

The gospel lesson flows naturally from the preceding lessons. In all three it is the "keeping" of the precepts of the Lord that constitutes true faithfulness. It is important to note that Jesus' warning about outward appearances does not men that we are not to practice our faith in acts of worship (which are outward things) - but it is the imposition of our own attitudes and traditions that brings the problem. In following the theme of wisdom - biblical wisdom is to hear the word of the Lord and take that word to heart - which leads to correct living.

In other words, orthopraxy is just as important as orthodoxy. Biblical wisdom is when the mind and the heart are conjointly ruled by the precepts of God. The "Great Commandment" (to love God with heart, mind, body and soul) reflects this wisdom.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

The key to this text and indeed to the whole of the book of Deuteronomy and Moses charge to the people of Israel as they embark on their new life in the promised land is contained in 4:1-2. There is to be no adding to or taking away from all the "statutes and ordinances" Moses gave to them. Taken as a whole, the teachings of Moses = Torah / Law. The national consciousness of Israel as the "People of God" is centered in the "statutes and ordinances" given by Moses - from God. The relationship of the people to God and God to the people is dependent upon this "word" and the keeping of it.

The gospel text shows the danger of "adding to" the commandments and the superimposition of "human tradition" on the word of the Lord. We should see here a strong message in these words for the identity and consciousness of the people of God - the Body of Christ. We need to be clear about the center of our identity. Biblical illiteracy is the archenemy of the Body of Christ.

A second thrust of the Deuteronomic passage is the issue of not only "hearing and knowing" the word of God (ala James) - but it is in the "diligent observation" and "not forgetting" of the word that faithfulness will be measured. An authentic relationship with God for the people as they enter the land will consist of knowing the statutes and ordinances of God and in diligently observing them.

Although our context today is radically different, none of Moses' teaching in this passage has been rescinded or overridden!

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This passage has to be seen in the context of Mark's whirlwind tour of the life, and teachings of Jesus and the early enjoining of radical conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment.

As early as Mark 3:6 the Pharisees are forging a coalition with the Herodians to eliminate Jesus from the scene. There is a dynamic interplay between the growing popularity of Jesus and the determination of the religious officials to eliminate Jesus from the scene. The gospel lesson for today is another of the "toxic" encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees. These encounters are significant in that the conversations which occur in the midst of these conflicts result in "core" teaching about the principles of our relationship with God.

An instance of this is Mark 7:15. "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." Taking this beneath the surface in today's text yields the principle that all the meticulous observation of outside religious regulations does not result in a "heart for God" -- rather it is from within that we are faithful to or faithless in relation to God.

The Isaiah quote is worth reflecting on for each of us as we ask ourselves whether our "lip service" and "heart service" to God are congruent.

James 1:17-27

In verse18, James sets out how it is that the believing community is a creation of the word of God. As God's creative word called the worlds into being, so that word now has created the believing community as a "kind of first fruits."

It is critical, James points out, that this new community line up its life with the word or "perfect law" of God. The community which is the "first fruits" is not only a product of God's word it is a visible witness of that word. The "fulfillment of {God's} own purpose" goes beyond initial creation of the community. The conduct of the community is a part of the fulfillment God is seeking. We are to not only "hear" the word, we are to "do" the word.

Verses 26 and 27 could well serve as a comment on the interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. "Worthless" religion is the product of a hair trigger tongue combined with an uncaring relationship to those who are "in distress."


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  

Leader:   Come to us even now O Lord of Life,
People: And fill this place with your presence!
Leader:   We praise your name and rejoice in your love,
People: We stand in utter amazement of who you are!
Leader:   Everyone who calls upon you will find fulfillment,
People: They will rejoice forever, because you are God!
Leader:   Rejoice and give thanks!
People: Halleluiah! Amen!


A Prayer of Confession

O Lord God of grace and mercy, we flee to your redeeming love today. We acknowledge that we imitate the world too much, and the Lord Jesus too little. We confess that we are too often "case hardened" when we see the suffering of others. There is so much to do, we get overwhelmed. We are tempted to do little or nothing. Yet, you have decided to need us for your work. Let us hear your voice today. Grant that our hearts may be filled with your love. And at the last, give us the joy of reaching out with your strength to bring healing to a shattered world. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Brothers and sisters in Christ, hear the gracious words of our Savior: "Come to me all you who labor and I will give you rest."  Christ the Lord knows that we are heavy laden with sin and that we are in need of forgiveness and renewal

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give you thanks O Lord of heaven and earth for the wonder of the world you have placed into our hands. You have called us to share with you in the care and nurture of a creation so amazing that we shall never understand the brilliance that put it all together. O our God, we pray that you would be pleased to give us wisdom to care for the earth, love to care for our fellow human beings and courage to work for the dawning of your kingdom upon the earth.

We are thankful that you did not give up on us, O Lord, but you sent your Son Jesus Christ to redeem us from sin and failure.  We have not lived up to your call.  Our care of creation and of your children around the earth has not measured up to your divine desires.  Yet, in Christ you have called us, forgiven us and recreated us for every good work.  In Christ we have been freed from the bondage of self centeredness and empowered for service to the world you want redeemed.

We thank you and give you praise, O Lord of life, because you have made it possible for the heart of Christ to take shape within us by the power of your Holy Spirit.  You have placed within our hands the mission of Christ and the responsibility for reaching the world with your Good News.  We are amazed at the trust and value you have placed upon us.

O come now, and fill us with hope, joy and love that we might faithfully represent you in the days that lie just ahead.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

Where there is life, O God, you have given it. Where there is joy, you are the source. Where there is hope, you are the author. Where there is love you are the fountain. Where there is giving you are the giver. O God, even as we bring our gifts, may we see that these offerings are of your hand. We thank you O Divine Redeemer that even in our giving you are loving us! Amen.