The Problem of the Heart

I recently read about an art museum that was having trouble keeping its guests from touching, and damaging, its priceless works of art. The paintings and sculptures that were on display were all becoming dirty and damaged.  The museum put out signs that said, “Do not touch!”  They strategically placed security guards throughout the displays…they had cameras observing…but nothing seemed to change the behavior of the museum guests.

But their problem was solved overnight when a clever museum employee replaced the signs that said “Do Not Touch” with new signs that said “Caution: Wash Hands After Touching.”  (No more problem!  Give that employee a raise!)

Our Gospel text for today is also about handwashing…but at the same time, just like the museum experience, it isn’t really about handwashing.  

The Pharisees are again gathered around Jesus, presumably because they are looking to see if he breaks any of the religious laws.  

They scriptures say that the Pharisees witnessed Jesus’ disciples eating their dinner with “defiled” (or dirty) hands.  You see, according to Jewish law, there was a certain, ritualized way that people were supposed to wash their hands before they ate.  These were a part of what was called the “purity laws.”  Jewish tradition taught that the better you were at following the purity laws, the more “righteous” you would be in God’s eyes.  And the more righteous you were, the more deserving you were of a relationship with God.

To be clear, the pharisees concern was not hygiene or germs; it was whether Jesus and his followers were being obedient to the scriptures, whether they were following the law.  They were looking for a reason to charge Jesus with a serious religious crime.

Jesus does, in fact, take the charges seriously. He doesn’t just tell the pharisees that they’re wrong, as he’s sometimes done, and he doesn’t disagree with the laws that they are quoting.  

Instead, Jesus refocuses the concerns of the pharisees.  He says, “yeah, but you are being hypocritical.” And then he quotes from the book of Isaiah, where it says “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

Jesus is telling the pharisees that their concern is misguided.  They are looking at external things…but Jesus is saying that your relationship with God does not depend on how you wash your hands, or what kind of food you eat, or whether you keep the sabbath, or how you worship.  

Instead, according to Jesus, the issue is internal. It is what is in a person’s heart.  Because sin and evil do not originate outside of us…sin is not like some sort of an airborne virus that is trying to break through your immune system.  Rather, sin and evil are within us.  The problem of sin, according to Jesus, is internal, not external. 

The phrase we use in our liturgy is that “we are captive to sin, and we cannot free ourselves.”  When we say this, we are acknowledging what Jesus is teaching in today’s Gospel story.  We are all born into this condition we call sin.  It is a broken relationship with God.  And by ourselves, there is absolutely nothing that we can do to fix it. I wish there were!  And this condition of sin…it affects our behaviors and our decisions.  

One of the most popular of TV show “gimmicks” over the decades is about when a character has a tough decision to make; often around some kind of moral or ethical problem.  As they ponder between right and wrong, two little figures appear, one on each shoulder, whispering into their ear.  One is an angel, who argues for what is “right.”  The other is a little devil, who argues for the decision is morally wrong, but that might be the most profitable, or the most fun.  Each figure is trying to convince the character to do their will.

You’ve seen this, right?  This image has shown up in everything from comic books, to cartoons, to TV shows and movies.  

This idea, the two extremes, whispering in your ear, is an interesting image, and it represents, I think, two things:  First, it reminds us that yes, decisions are hard.  There are competing voices to which we must pay attention.  But secondly, and I think especially relevant for today, is that it gives us someone else to blame.

When we make a bad decision, it gives us something or someone to blame.  “It’s not me…it’s the outside influence!”  “Not my fault! Theirs!”  You’ve probably heard the phrase “The devil made me do it!” 

Because, of course, if we can blame the devil…or whoever it might be (when I was a kid, I usually blamed one of my brothers) then I can try and escape responsibility.  “Not my fault!  It’s their fault!”  

And that, my friends, is exactly what our Gospel scripture for today is all about.  

Jesus is saying “no, it’s not outside influence.  It’s not something else that is defiling us.  It’s us!”

In our Gospel text, Jesus is calling us to honesty.  While I may want to blame my sin on things outside of me, in reality,  it’s my heart that is the problem.”

The theologian and writer, GK Chesterton was asked once to contribute to an article answering the question: “What’s wrong with the world.”  Chesterton returned a simple, two sentence answer.  He wrote: “What’s wrong with the world?  Me.”

It’s a truth that I don’t particularly like to acknowledge.  I don’t want to admit that I may have brokenness within me.  I don’t want to admit that my heart might be a problem.  This requires a level of honesty and vulnerability that I’d rather not get into.  And yet it’s the truth that Jesus is teaching today.  It’s my truth.  And here’s the bad news:  it’s your truth too.  

But Jesus came to restore our hearts and our relationships, so today’s scripture is not all bad news.  In the midst of all of our talk about sin and brokenness, there is good news to be found.

The first piece of good news is this:  It’s not all sin and shadow in our hearts.  Yes, there is brokenness.  But there is also good…sometimes great good…and there is kindness…and grace…and beauty…all within the human heart.  

We must remember that we are created in the image of the divine…of the holy…and we can live out those qualities as well.  And as a pastor, I see it…I see it every day.  I have seen the way you have given and cared and showed compassion and loved, all in Jesus’ name.

I think the key word is the word: “and.”  

  • Is there sin?  Certainly.  And there is grace.  
  • Is there is brokenness? Yes! And there is restoration
  • There is anger and there is love.
  • There is selfishness and there is compassion.

And it’s all here…within our hearts.  Martin Luther describes it well with his teaching: “Simul Iustus et Peccator,” which means that we are saint and sinner at the same time.  This is our nature.  It is who we are as children of God.  We are both and.  The ugliness of sin, and the beauty of grace.  All right here. <point to heart>

The second piece of good news here is that Jesus words invite us to engage the world fully.

You see, when we believe that sin and evil come at us only from the outside, our tendency is to take on a defensive posture.  We want to go into a bubble, and we try to protect ourselves and those we love from the evil of the world that we believe threatens us.  

But when we realize that sin is not simply external, and that we are “both and”…holy and sinful…love and grace…at the same time…then we can step into to the world, and we can share the love and grace that God has given us without having to feel like we need to close ourselves off from the world…to protect ourselves.  

The world needs our witness.  The world needs our love.

We can be an agent of God’s grace and hope in a world that desperately needs grace and hope. 

We can be an agent of God’s grace and hope in a world that desperately needs grace and hope.  In fact, Jesus calls us to step out and serve, to make God’s vision for the world a reality in the here and now.  People who follow Jesus don’t hide from sin.  Through the Holy spirit, we confront it; we engage it; we transform it.

And the last, and most important piece of good news is a reminder that while we feel like we live in a broken world, and while yes, we have sin and brokenness within…we also have Jesus.  

And God’s promise is that through Jesus, you are forgiven, and you are made whole.  You cannot do it for yourselves.  You are only be made whole through Jesus’ great love.  This is God’s promise, made to you.

There are things we do to practice our faith, just like the Jewish people washed their hands.  We go to worship.  We read scriptures.  We pray. We encourage.  We learn.  We give.  These things are important.  But don’t do them because they will fulfill some law, or check some box, or because they will protect you from sin, or because God will love you more if you do.   That’s not how it works.  

We do them because of God’s love.  We do them as a result of God’s love.

Remember Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  I think Jesus says to you today “Allow me to work in your life to bring you closer to me.  Let me transform your broken hearts.  Your actions, your good works…will follow.”

And that, my friends, is good news indeed.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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