Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning! It’s so good to be back with you all after such a prolonged absence. I’ve spent the last 11 days mostly in bed with bronchitis, for those who don’t know, and so I’ve not been around much at all at the church recently and I’m anxiously looking forward to getting back into everything this week. But given my absence, suffice it to say that this is going to be more of a homily than a sermon.
In any case, there’s something ironic at least for me in our Gospel lesson appointed for this morning. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” Jesus says, “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” Now, this would have come as news to me when I first contracted RSV from the kids which would eventually prove to be my downfall, because I certainly felt defiled by what had come into my respiratory system! But if it’s obvious that this is clearly not the kind of defilement that Jesus is talking about, it’s only because we know that he is talking about a spiritual defilement. The defilement of “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Those vices originate from within, from out of the human heart, as Jesus says; the heart here serving as a metaphor for the internal source of our desires, thoughts, and intentions. These things -- and not the superficial dirt and grime that you can wash off your hands -- these are what truly defile a person in the sense that Jesus is concerned about.
There are lots of passages in Scripture that are obscure or difficult to interpret, but today’s lesson is not one of them. We are all quite familiar with the stereotype of the “churchy religious person” -- the uptight, humorless, do-gooder type who spends most of their time surveying other people’s lives for the slightest infractions. And with that character in mind, the Pharisees who call out the disciples’ omission of hand-washing (and thus their failure to “live according to the tradition of the elders”) seem to fit the profile perfectly. So it’s easy to read this as a straightforward story about getting too caught up in the rules and losing sight of what really matters.
But I don’t want us to settle too quickly with what might seem like the obvious moral of the story. It might appear that Jesus is acting as the great champion of the motto that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” -- as opposed to the Pharisees who are preoccupied with what’s on the outside: the rules and the regulations, the traditions of the elders, “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” In a way, this is a familiar take for us, one that we as modern Americans are inclined to resonate with: it’s easy to hear Jesus echoing some of our most cherished values: to be true to yourself; to follow your heart; “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”; all of these are versions of a basic idea: namely, the idea that morality is the same thing as personal authenticity; and that if we could just be ourselves and follow our hearts, we would be alright; we would be virtuous. On the other hand, religion is bound to end up in hypocrisy, so the thinking goes, because it causes people to obsess over the externals and the rules -- all of which can be faked. And so the upshot is that we should prefer a personal and internal spirituality over a public and external religion. After all, isn’t that what Jesus is getting at in his criticism of the Pharisees?
The problem with this otherwise popular understanding is that it relies on the assumption that who we are on the inside, when left alone, is basically good and reliable. Which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus says today. His whole point against the Pharisees is that it is not that which is outside of a person that morally or spiritually defiles them, but that which is inside. It is the heart that even at its most authentic is the source of all the vices that defile us. Far from casting off all the rules in favor of a vague spirituality free from judgment, Jesus is actually saying that the Pharisees have not gone far enough. They have not gone deep enough.
Part of the reason that the people were not to add to the law in our Old Testament reading is that had been given to them is that it was already sufficient by itself. It already encompassed the entire duty of human beings before God: to love God with the heart, the soul, and the mind; and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. What more could remain to be done beyond that? Only someone who thought that the law pertained exclusively to outward behavior alone could even imagine this. But this is precisely what the Pharisees had come to believe. All of religion was a matter of external observances, whether the actual tradition of the law and the prophets or the traditions of the elders. It was all the same either way. One loved God in the same way that one washed his hands before eating. They vainly imagined that they were only “contending against flesh and blood,” to use St. Paul’s words from our Epistle today. Virtue cannot be reduced to mere behavior, because human beings cannot be reduced to mere behavior. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood,” says St. Paul, “but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In turns out that what’s on the inside is caught up in a great drama of what’s on the outside; the vices that pour forth from the human heart join together with the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. There are no clean boundaries between inside and outside or religious and spiritual to be drawn here. There is only one conflict, ultimately speaking, that requires nothing less than the whole armor of God.
Alongside Jesus’ warning about the true source of our defilement, our Collect asks that God would “Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works….” It seems that the human heart is just as much the source of the love of God and the fruit of good works as it is the source of all wickedness. So it is what’s on the inside that counts. But the heart inside can only be the source of the love of God if the love of God is first grafted into it. God must claim our hearts for himself and we must receive within our hearts the implanted word of his very truth. From this renewed heart comes all virtue and all godliness; it is the source of good works even as it was once the source of wickedness. But when Christians focus on the heart, they see only what they have received by grace: we see true religion, indeed, for we see the religion of Christ, his perfect obedience to God ingrafted into us so that we too may be nourished with all of his goodness.” For we are cleansed of defilement not by “the removal of dirt from the body,” but by “an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). So we give thanks to God that we no longer worship him in vain, for our hearts are no longer far from him, as God himself lives within them. Amen.