In the Gospel passage from Mathew today we get a rather personal and nasty exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding how the disciples of Jesus eat their food. It seems the followers of Jesus have been caught eating food without the customary ritual practice of washing their hands first. Jesus takes exception to their criticism. However it is very important to notice that when Jesus challenges the Pharisees he does not question their religious beliefs nor does he question their insistence on first century Israelite ritualism. Indeed it is significant to realize that the Pharisees here are not being petty nor are they being overly officious religious police, they are – I think – rightly concerned about preserving their cultural identity and their Jewish faith in such matters. In his response to them Jesus is very careful not to question their faith or the ritual of washing hands, but rather points out that these particular Pharisees are being hypocritical. Jesus is not criticizing Jewish tradition; he is saying it is their hearts that are far from God. Indeed whenever we talk of cultures or religions different than our we must be very careful not to denounce them as whole groups lest we be party to the same hard heartedness as the Pharisees here is this Gospel passage.
To say the very least the relationship between Jesus and the religious authorities was dynamic and complicated. I would like to explore two important aspects of this in order to get at a deeper understanding of the Gospel passage for today. In first century Israelite theology the human heart was considered to be the center of the soul as well as the center of human will and reasoning powers. In this sense to turn one’s heart from another person was a serious personal rejection. In addition, to have a hard heart towards God was a serious sin as it meant you were likely evil in your intent and in your nature. In this sense having a hard heart meant that you were spiritually deviant and lacked the capacity for empathy, sensitivity and even the capacity to love other people.
Jesus says to the crowd gathered that it is in fact the heart and not the hands that design and carry out harmful deeds. He is saying the Pharisees are hypocritical to worry about the washing of hands when their own hearts are hard and turn away from God. Jesus then lists a number of deeds a hard heart may cause and they include: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. On the surface this may pose a problem for most – sorry, let me be more accurate – on the surface this poses a problem for all of us. Who here has never lied? Who has never wished you had something of value that someone else has? Who, including in your childhood, has never said something nasty about someone to their face or even behind their back? Now I am quite sure no one here has ever murdered someone, but –for example - you are driving and some dunderhead cuts you off, have you never in your imagination thought of committing some grievous act of retribution that would permanently end their poor driving habits forever? According to the list of Jesus then, we all are guilty of having hard hearts, and as I said, in the first century that was quite an indictment.
However, Jesus here is not condemning us as much as he is warning us about our human nature. Each one of these inclinations represents a turning away from the love of God. Moreover, each one of these inclinations represent ways in which we can damage personal relationships with other people including those we love and care about. Jesus is asking us to look honestly and carefully at our hearts and our actions that come from within our inner selves. Do we sincerely seek a loving relationship with God who loves us unconditionally? Do we sincerely seek a loving and forgiving and life affirming relationship with all other people in our lives and even those beyond our sphere of personal experience? What Jesus is really asking of us is to honestly look into our heart and ask the question are we growing as people and as adults into the full stature of Christ? Jesus is asking us are we growing in compassion, empathy, understanding, forgiveness, humility, generosity, and are we growing in a love that fosters relationships and keeps them healthy and strong. Jesus is asking us to open our hearts to the love of God.
A second, and I think rather interesting; aspect that I would like to explore with you regarding this particular Gospel passage is, what exactly are our own religious rituals and practices. I am not talking about what we do here at Church on a Sunday; I am not talking about corporate liturgy or what we do here together. I am talking about what we do when we are not at church, what we do in terms of the rest of the week and in terms of the community outside of the Church. What are some of the Christian practices and rituals that we could follow and implement into our lives that would in fact open our hearts more fully to God and help us in our own understanding of ourselves and how we might grow as human beings and as spiritual beings?
Fortunately there are numerous Christian practices we can place into our lives should we so choose. Some of the most obvious would be: keeping the Sabbath, giving time and or money to charity, a regime of daily structured private prayer, contemplative prayer, working for the good of others, practice and live out forgiveness, visiting the sick and the lonely, developing the art of hospitality, start or enhance our own attitude of unconditional love for all others, and amplify our awareness to the presence of God in our lives and the power that relationship brings to us – to name a few.
Let me briefly tell you about my experience practicing one of these ways of living. I have mentioned here before that for the summers while I was at VST I was a volunteer visitor at the Dr. Peter Centre in Downtown Vancouver. It was then, as it remains today a place where people with full-blown AIDS and who have few resources, go for palliative care in a well-appointed and comfortable setting. I also recall telling you recently about one of the residents there who told me his tragic, but in the end beautiful and triumphant life story. I won’t then repeat that story here. What I would like to say though is that this man’s story was but just one of many. As a visitor volunteer I felt my primary responsibility was to listen and I found that people in the last stages of their lives like to tell the story of their lives.
What I did not realize when I started this volunteer position is that in the end the residents of the Dr. Peter Centre would be giving to me, through their stories, far greater a gift than I could have ever given back to them. They told me of human hurts and social complexities that I had never experienced before. They told me of sacrifices and heroics that I could have never imagined before. They told me of victories won and personal accomplishments achieved that were Olympic in proportion and nothing short of inspiring. These men and women gave me true wisdom and sage advice for life. I am a better person in so many ways for having spent time with them. I entered the Dr Peter Centre trying to fulfill a Christian duty and in the end the grace of humanity and the love of God gave me a permanent and lasting gift of a certain kind of understanding. In the end, to be genuine about the experience, I felt I was the resident and they were the volunteers.
In the Gospel passage today Jesus asks of us to take an honest look into our hearts. In the parlance of the modern times in which we live Jesus is asking of us to take an honest look into our heart, mind and soul. Jesus is asking us are we growing in compassion, empathy, understanding, forgiveness, humility, generosity, and are we growing in a love that fosters relationships and keeps them healthy and strong. Jesus is asking us to open our heart, mind and soul to the love of God. It will always be a work in progress as we live to be in the full stature of Christ. While on that journey feel free to implement one or more of the Christian practices I mentioned here today. Feel free to visit others, to give to charity, to invite strangers into your friendship, to pray regularly and contemplatively, love others unconditionally and deepen your connection with God. When you do this be prepared for what I call the paradox of grace. As you give of yourself to these Christian practices, be aware that you will inevitably receive back so much more than you anticipated. It’s called the amazing grace of God, and it works its wonders for all of us. We all know it is a good idea to wash our hands before eating, that just makes sense. It is even a better idea to open your heart, mind and soul to the love of God because that makes miracles. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney