It’s hard not to read today’s Gospel and not think about the Ashley Madison hack, is it? Famous names of people or maybe infamous names. People who loved to talk about marriage and family being publicly shown to have failed to live up to their own standards. And the reactions spanned the gamut, didn’t they. Shock, anger, disappointment, smug schadenfreude—I love that word. It means finding joy in the failures of others. They were all on display. What do you think Jesus would have to say to those whose names were found on the list? What would he say to their critics? What does he have to say to us?
There are three audiences for Jesus’ words in our Gospel this morning. I think the audiences in the text map neatly on to the audiences in our three questions. I wonder if you do, too.
Some Pharisees and scribes have come from Jerusalem and are following Jesus around the Galillean countryside to sniff out just who this young upstart thinks he is. It’s as though the Pope sent cardinals from Rome, or the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a sufferagan from Lambeth, to a backwater parish to check up on a priest who had begun to make waves. Head office wants to know what’s going on. So boots are on the ground. And immediately, they find a fault. “Why do your disciples not wash their hands?” Why, in other words, do they not obey the religious rules?
Here are the religious rule enforcers. And they’ve come to make sure everything is being done decently and in order.
And Jesus says, these rules are dumb. So my followers don’t follow those rules. Right? No? That’s certainly what we expect Jesus to say. He’s relaxed compared to those uptight overly religious Charlie Churches that have come from Jerusalem. He tells them to lighten up!
Except he doesn’t. He, as Jesus so often does, changes the subject. You, he says, also abandon God’s commandments. And what’s worse, you do it by creating religious rules to help you get around religious rules! In an important paragraph that our reading omits, he accuses them of inventing religious justifications for disobeying one of the 10 commandments! The really big rules!
And Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah. You honor God with your lips, but your hearts are far from God.
And I think that would be the rebuke that Jesus would offer to those people who publicly extol family values, but privately register on Ashley Madison. You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.
The problem is not so much that they hold people to rules they themselves cannot obey. The problem is that their heart needs to be renewed and their preoccupation with rules prevents that renewal from happening.
The second audience is the crowd. The gaggle of people following along from town to town hoping to see a miracle. They’ve just seen Jesus shame the religious experts who seem to enjoy making life difficult for people, who thrive on calling the judgment of God down on those who can’t measure up to their list of expectations no matter how hard they try.
And what does Jesus say? He says, “Those uptight religious nuts. I’m with you guys!” No. That’s not what he says.
“Listen!” he says, “Nothing coming from the outside in makes you unclean. It’s what comes from the inside to the outside that defiles.”
Jesus is using the Old Testament language of cleanliness and belonging to make his point here. In his day, as in the days of the Old Testament, to be part of the community was to be “clean.” To be cut off from the community was to be “unclean.” And one could be cut off from the community for many reasons. If a person had a skin disease, that person was unclean. Separated from the community to contain the contagion. If a person had touched a corpse, that person was unclean because of taboos surrounding death. If a person had sinned, had broken the laws by which the community lived, that person was unclean.
And what does Jesus say here? He says that belonging to God’s community is indeed a matter of being clean. But being is not about being fastidious about purity rules. It was about being renewed, changed, converted from the inside out. In other words, his message to the crowd is the same as his message to his enemies. You need to be renewed! You need to be converted!
And I think that would be his message to our second audience this morning, too. To those who were heartbroken at the Ashley Madison scandal as much as to those who enjoyed it. Don’t be distracted by their failure to obey the rules. Your hearts need to be renewed, too! Don’t think that because they failed, the rules are without value; don’t think that because they failed, you are their moral superior. You’re in the same boat! Your heart needs to be renewed, it needs to be converted, it needs to be changed too!
Then there’s a third audience. We miss the audience shift because our Gospel lesson again omits a paragraph. But it is there in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus left the crowd, we read, and entered the house and called his disciples to him. So we’ve moved from the Pharisees, to the crowds, to finally the small group of dedicated followers. The disciples.
To this last group Jesus gives a bit more explanation. The problem with purity he tells them, is not a matter of the body. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s from the heart that evil intentions come. From the heart comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, evny, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within! They defile a person.”
What cuts people off from the community of God’s people? The sin in our own hearts.
The disciples too are not immune from Jesus’ judgment. Look inside, Jesus says. What’s in there? What intentions lie within? Keeping the rules, following me from a distance, even following me into the house is no guarantee. Your heart is what matters. The core of your being.
And the message is the same for us, Jesus modern disciples. Look inside. Do you find adultery there? Then who cares if you’ve registered with a cheating website. Do you find a desire for another person’s property? Then who cares if you’ve actually stolen it or not! It’s the heart that needs changing! Even yours.
This past Thursday, we celebrated the feast day of that great sinner become a saint, Augustine of Hippo. Maybe you’ve read some of his Confessions. In the early chapters, he details his own sexual awakening, and how he enjoyed women. And from this side of his conversion, he’s ashamed of his sexual promiscuity. But he acknowledges that that promiscuity was rooted in an understandable inner intention. I longed for nothing but to love and to be loved, he writes.
Why didn’t my parents intervene to help me? Why didn’t they get me married off to channel my sexual desire? Clearly, he thinks they failed in their parental duty. They sinned, too. But again, his parents’ sin is also understandable. They wanted me to gain an education and a good living. What parent doesn’t want a good future for their children? And all of us who are parents can understand when that good desire sometimes leads to bad actions.
But then comes, for Augustine, the sin of sins. The sin that cannot be justified. Do you know what it was? Stealing pears. He tells that he and his friends did not steal the pears because they were beautiful. They were kind of ugly, in fact. He tells us that he and his friends did not steal because they were hungry. They fed the pears to pigs. No what makes the theft of the pears the worst sin—far worse than his promiscuity—is that he and his friends stole for the sheer joy of stealing. It showed that there was something wrong with Augustine’s heart. It needed to be renewed. It needed to be changed.
So it is that all of us are with the religious inspectors, the miracle seekers, the dimwitted disciples. All of us are with Augustine. All of us have hearts that defile. That keep us from God’s community. That, if we look inside and honestly, show us all—every one of us—to be sinners. That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. Only sinners can be saved.
And I, as likely the worst of all the sinners here, can invite the rest of the sinners here to come to this table with these words:
Ye that do earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort.
Here, at this altar, God has promised to change our hearts. Here at this altar as we feed on Christ by faith in our hearts and with thanksgiving, the rules will be set aside for the law will be written in us. We will be converted. We will be born again.