ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 30, 2015
James 1: 17 – 27; Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14- 15 & 21 – 23
This past week my husband went out and did something completely out of character. He bought a BMW. He’s started to figure out that life is short and he should do at least one reckless thing before his number is up. (Just for the record, it’s a used car and he got an excellent price – no more than a mid-range Honda Accord would have cost him.) The thing about owning a bimmer is that now I need a new wardrobe to go with it. I figure something a little more elegant with designer labels. (Terry’s decided it’s the wardrobe that makes BMW’s expensive). I’m also wondering if one can park a BMW at Walmart. Or if we should start going to the Opera. And just in case I was missing anything I googled “How to be a snob” – it’s there. They suggest the term “elitist”. The joke is we haven’t bought a car, we’ve bought a whole lifestyle.
Lifestyles are something everyone has. Our lifestyle indicates to the world who we are and what’s important to us. Many different factors affect our lifestyle: stage of life – whether we are raising children, working or retired, advertising, public opinion, self-image, the lives of the rich and famous, trends, our values, our worldview and our faith. I’d add financial solvency but many people buy a lifestyle on credit.
People are often judged by their lifestyle. Heaven help the child whose parents can’t afford the latest clothes or technology. I know a College student whose parents pay all her expenses; her boyfriend who works and supports himself judges her for not being more adult and independent. We judge people by their work – most people tend to be more impressed with a doctor than a McDonald’s cashier. We judge people by their taste in entertainment, how they raise their kids and if their house is clean. We even make judgements about when they get out of bed.
There is nothing new under the sun. Even Jesus was judged by his lifestyle. He seemed to be too laid back about things others felt were important. For instance he and his disciples didn’t wash their hands before sitting down to eat. While we may judge that to be unsanitary (even though most of us have done it at some time) for the contemporaries of Jesus this was huge. The fastidiously religious Jews of Jesus’ day practiced a lifestyle based on the laws we find in the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). They upheld the tradition of ceremonial cleanliness. This included a rather laborious ritual of washing their hands before they touched any food. It was of extreme importance to carry out this ritual just as the law prescribed. For the observant Jew this was the only lifestyle that could be pleasing to God and to ignore the ritual was tantamount to sin. They judged Jesus’ lifestyle because they were sure it was an indication of his lack of reverence for God and for the practices of his and their ancestors. It was sacrilege to violate God’s law in such ways.
Jesus had a differing view. He refuted the objections of the Pharisees by telling them what they thought was so vital to their faith was really of little importance to God. He told them, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Mark 7: 15 It’s not the external things imposed upon a person that makes them good, or holy or right with God and it’s not the keeping of rules that expresses love to our neighbour. It’s what’s inside us that defines us. To put it another way: the dirt’s not on your hands, it’s the dirt in your heart that counts.
This line of thinking would have been shocking to those who heard it. In Leviticus 11 there’s a long list of the sorts of things a devout Jew was not to eat. Obviously the externals mattered. During the reign of the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanies which was from 175 to 164 BC, the time in between the events of the Old and New Testament, the Jews were ordered to eat pork. Pork is one of the meats expressly forbidden by the Mosaic law. Rather than eat pork, many Jews went to their death. Those who practiced circumcision which is the main sign of God’s covenant with the Jews were also put to death. (Cf. 1 Maccabees 1) How could Jesus possibly negate the importance of outward practices? It was an insult to God and a mockery of his community! Even his disciples were confused.
Jesus explained, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7: 18 – 23 Cleaning the outside does very little, what we need to clean up is the intentions and motivations of our hearts. We can be spotless on the outside, we can keep the 10 commandments and all rules and laws of Moses and still be unclean. A righteous lifestyle doesn’t guarantee a holy person.
At this point you may be as confused as the disciples. You’ve always followed the 10 commandments and you’ve tried to do the right things. The thing is, we can do the right things and still not be right before God. The story is told of a monk who was angry with a fellow monk so he took a knife and was going to kill him. Before he got the chance it was time for vespers (evening prayer at 6 pm). He tucked the knife up his sleeve and went with his brothers to pray. He knelt on the floor and recited his prayers. When it was time for Compline (9 pm) the group was one brother short. The monk had left vespers, killed his brother and returned for prayer. His outward actions of prayer and devotion meant little as his heart was filled with evil, murderous anger. The opposite can also be true – we can do the wrong things for the right reason. A man goes into a pharmacy and steals drugs. We are quick to judge that person as an addict and thief. Then we hear that he stole the medication because his neighbour’s daughter would die without it and neither he nor the neighbour could afford to pay the $4000.00 for the drug that would cure her. I’m not saying we should all go out and steal whatever we can’t afford and certainly this example doesn’t take in the harm done to the Pharmacist but the intention of the man’s heart stemmed from love and concern. Comparing the two stories I think the actions of the thief are more easily forgiven than those of the monk. As Christians our lifestyle isn’t determined by rules, social conventions, piety or appearances so much as by the ethic of love, written deep within us.
Notice that many of the things we consider to be external to us, Jesus defined as originating deep within us. “Ashley Madison” is a household name these days. AM is a “dating” site where 30 million married people go to find a married stranger with whom to commit no strings attached adultery. Not many would judge this lifestyle to be virtuous. Even the company recognizes the need for secrecy. Many clients who are now in danger of being exposed by computer hackers are feeling shame and anxiety – it’s been reported some have committed suicide. We might say “adultery” is against the rules; that it’s not a “Christian lifestyle”. Jesus said it comes straight from the heart stemming from the desire to “have” someone you have no right to be with. It reveals the callous core of the person who would risk devastating their spouse and destroying their family for a fleeting thrill. What depth of selfishness allows one to use a stranger and disregard the person to whom you freely made a commitment? Not to mention the skewed thoughts and emotional barriers one would need to put between their real life and their secret adultery in order to feel justified. It’s not so much that AM clients have broken a rule – they’ve broken people, starting with themselves!
In differing ways we also need to be awake to the times and ways that we put external factors ahead of eternal ones. When it comes to outer forms of lifestyle God isn’t impressed, God looks into our hearts. Coming to worship on Sunday and betraying Christ on Monday isn’t worship at all. What we wear to church is unimportant compared to how we treat those who dress differently or are different from us. Doing our daily devotions is empty if we don’t love God and long to be with him. Sitting on a committee doesn’t serve God’s kingdom if you have an agenda that creates discord. Appearing to be a spiritual giant while having a petty, bitter soul, being a gossip or having anger management issues does not make one holy. God looks for integrated people with pure hearts and loving motives.
Jesus’ contemporaries cleaned their hands while their hearts sat like crap covered shoes in the back of a closet. As Christians our lifestyle is to be a sign of God’s love and we can only express that externally if we are filled with it internally. If we love Jesus we examine our hearts and by God’s word and grace we are cleansed and renewed.