James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-15, 21-239
Last Sunday Paul warned us about “the rulers,” “the authorities,” “the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” – those powers and principalities that influence us from outside. To help us defend ourselves against these outside influences, Paul told us to put on the “armor of God,” which God has given us for our protection. Paul told us to put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. We put this armor on so that we are ready for any spiritual attacks that might come from outside. But what about what’s on the inside? What about spiritual darkness that lurks not outside of us, but inside of us?
Today, Jesus warns us that evil doesn’t only exist without, but also comes from within. Our story begins with a familiar scenario: the scribes and Pharisees are once again questioning Jesus and Jesus is once again not having it. This time, the question is about tradition, specifically the tradition of washing one’s hands before eating. Now, the scribes and Pharisees’ concern isn’t about sanitation, as ours would be today, but about a different kind of “clean” and “unclean.” It’s about holy and unholy, sacred and secular. It’s a boundary marker. Washing one’s hands before eating was a distinctly Jewish practice, which was meant to set them apart from their Gentile neighbors.
The scribes and Pharisees notice that some of the disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. Apparently some do follow the traditions, and some don’t, so it isn’t that Jesus is necessarily teaching his disciples to disregard the traditions, he just doesn’t seem to place a great deal of value on this specific tradition. Probably because this “law” isn’t actually in the Torah. It’s an oral law, and oral laws were open to a lot more debate than the written law reportedly given to Moses on Sinai. So this rule about washing your hands before you eat is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.
Now, at first glance, the scribes and Pharisees’ question seems pretty harmless. They simply ask, “Why don’t your disciples was their hands? Do they not care about the traditions?” They just seem curious, but there must have been something about the way they said it, or perhaps Jesus knew what was in their hearts, because he jumps on this seemingly harmless question: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” he says, “as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Once again, Jesus isn’t against traditions in and of themselves. He’s against human tradition that is empty, void of God’s commandment. He’s against outward shows of righteousness that have no effect on the heart. God’s commandment is transformative, but human traditions have the outward trappings of piety but leave the participants unchanged.
Jesus gives an example of how the scribes and Pharisees’ human traditions have come to supplant God’s commandment. The written law of Moses, which is much more binding than the oral law the scribes and Pharisees have accused his disciples of breaking, commands that you honor your father and mother. But the Pharisees have adopted a tradition that allows adult children to give what should be used to support their elderly parents as “Corban,” which is a kind of offering. Clearly this is wrong. By adopting this tradition they are abandoning their helpless parents, who become dependent on their adult children when they reach old age and can no longer work.
Our passage from Mark culminates in Jesus’ main point: it’s not about what goes into you that makes you unclean; it’s what comes out of you. It’s not about how well you follow tradition, but what kind of person you are. As Jesus says in Matthew 7, if you want to know who a person is, look at the fruit they produce. Is it good fruit or bad fruit?
Jesus says that bad fruit comes from within (this is the NIV’s version of vv. 21-23): “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (NIV).
It’s as if there is spring within us, and out of that spring – out of who we are deep inside – comes our actions. If we want to be made holy, we must shift our focus away from outward rituals and must instead look at the heart. We must do some deep, introspective work.
And that’s not easy. We would probably rather go through the outer rituals, no matter how inconvenient, than sit with ourselves long enough to explore the inner thoughts, fears, and desires that motivate us. I know I often feel that way.
Awhile back, when it was still cold and rainy, I was walking our dog Winfield. It was his final walk of the night, so it was dark out. I didn’t want to be walking him. I wanted to be inside our nice, warm apartment. As I came to an intersection, I saw a car coming. They had a stop sign, but I could just kind of tell they weren’t going to stop. So I waited for it. I stood with Winfield on the edge of the sidewalk, so that it was clear that I wanted to cross, but I didn’t step out into the street because I was sure this car was going to run the stop sign. At the last minute, the driver saw me and hit the brakes, but not in time. If we had stepped out into the street, he wouldn’t have stopped in time and he would have hit us. And, well, I didn’t react in a way befitting of a Christian, especially not a pastor. I threw my arms up in the air and gave him a look like, “what are you doing, you idiot?!” Then I pointed at the stop sign before crossing the street. As I walked away, I heard the driver say, in a contrite voice, “Sorry.”
And as I continued to walk away I was filled with guilt. Why had I reacted that way? As I stood there, watching the car approach, it was like I was just waiting for him to mess up, just waiting for a chance to be angry.
I spend many a Sunday preaching about the value of all people, about how important it is that we treat others with respect and dignity, and yet, here I was losing my temper with a total stranger. It’s not that I wasn’t justified in pointing out the stop sign. People need to stop at stop signs. What if a kid had been crossing the road? The problem wasn’t that I pointed out that there was a stop sign, it was my attitude, and the way I conveyed the message. It was the disproportional anger I felt inside, and the way it seemingly came out of nowhere. The way I reacted wasn’t really about the guy driving the car, it was about me.
That story might not seem like that big of a deal, but it really shook me, because I had no intention of losing my temper and then, all of a sudden, I did. In this experience I caught a glimpse of who I was inside. It was like I let my guard down for just a second – I was just out walking my dog – and this version of myself that I didn’t like popped out. So I’ve started to examine myself, and ask myself: am I getting angry too easily? Am I assuming the worst in others? Am I letting stress affect the way I treat my friends and family?
Jesus tells us the problem: we have the potential to do great harm to one another if what’s inside us doesn’t match our squeaky-clean exterior. Despite our outward attempts to be good, sometimes we aren’t good. Sometimes we surprise ourselves. Like me a few months ago, out walking my dog, we realize that our internal, spiritual state isn’t as healthy as we thought it was, and what’s going on underneath can suddenly break through the surface and reveal some previously unknown ugliness lurking there. But Jesus, in this specific passage from Mark, doesn’t really tell us what to do about it. He just points it out.
Fortunately for us, as if someone planned these readings or something, our passage from James picks up where Mark leaves off. James tells us that goodness comes from outside of us – it comes from God. He says, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” A few verses later, he says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Just as Paul told us in Ephesians a few weeks ago to “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice,” so James tells us to get rid of all “sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,” and make room for the implanted word. Our hearts can be like a field full of weeds. James tells us to clear away all the weeds and make room, prepare the soil, for the implanted word that comes from God.
It’s like the parable of the sower and the seed, where Jesus speaks of a sower, sowing “the word,” and it lands on all different kinds of soil. In some soil, the seed is immediately snatched up by birds. Other seed falls on the rocky ground and there isn’t enough soil for its roots to take hold, and so it withers in the hot sun. Other seed gets choked out by weeds. But some seed falls on good soil and flourishes “growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8). The word comes from God, but there is, as we’ve been talking about the last few weeks, responsibility on our part as well. We are responsible for receiving the grace extended to us. What kind of soil is the word falling on?
The book of James is often accused of preaching a “Gospel of works” in opposition to Paul’s “Gospel of grace.” Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, famously called James a “Gospel of straw,” because he thought it made works too important. It’s true, James thinks works are important. The book’s primary argument could be summed up in 2:18, “I will show my faith by my works” (ESV). All this could lead us to think that James is overly concerned with outward acts, but our verses from today make it clear that James sees a clear connection between our interior and exterior lives. James believes, like Jesus, that good works flow out of the heart. The key to our transformation is the word of God that come from outside of us, is planted within us – the word that turns the brackish spring of evil intentions within us into a freshwater spring of eternal life.
In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “…those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14). It’s the presence of Christ in us that transforms us. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.”
This may seem like a kind of negative anthropology, though. As if I’m saying we are, on our own, nothing but evil, and that only by negating ourselves can we become good. But that’s not it at all.
The story Scripture tells is one in which we were made to be in constant relationship with God. We are our fullest self when our lives are joined to the life of God. Adam and Eve walked in the Garden with God. But then that relationship was broken. Jesus, the implanted Word made flesh, came to repair that broken relationship, so that we can once again walk with God, and in so doing become our truest, fullest selves. When we walk with God, the spring within us becomes a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, blessing us and everyone we come in contact with. That is the spring we were always meant to have deep within us. Everything good in us comes from God because we come from God.
But, when the busyness of life and the distractions of our day and sinful desires crowd out the Divine, we begin to lose our true ourselves. We forget who we are, and the spring of eternal life gets muddied, and instead of a spring of eternal life it can become the spring of evil intentions that Jesus warned us about.
Maybe you have, like me, surprised yourself at times. You’ve reacted in a way that you never thought you would, and you’ve wondered, “Where did that come from?” It can be scary, like you can’t trust yourself. So what do we do. How can we change. How can those surprises become good surprises instead of negative surprises? When we surprise ourselves with acts of compassion, generosity, and forgiveness that we didn’t know we were capable of?
It begins not with doing, but in simply receiving. In fact, all our doing can get in the way of the receiving. The more we try, the more we fill our lives with busyness that crowds out the “implanted word that has the power to save our souls.” The most we can do is to prepare the soil. To clear out a space in our hearts for the living word of God to take root in us, and become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It’s not about what we can do, it’s about receiving the grace of God, which is freely given to all of us.
Thomas Merton says in his book New Seeds of Contemplations (and please excuse the masculine language),
Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.
What a relief that our Scriptures this morning don’t ask us to do more, but to do less. To clear away all our outward attempts at goodness, and instead to still ourselves and receive the good and perfect word of grace and love that comes from above. May this word land on the good soil of our hearts – “the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love” – and may it take deep root. May it be for us, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Amen.
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 16.