The 14th Sunday after Pentecost — Proper 17B (Sept. 2, 2012)

Lessons:Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 Psalm 15 James 1:17-27 St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Semicontinuous Series: Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9

Prayer of the Day: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many  other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;  7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’  8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Lip-Service or Heartfelt-Worship

There is a danger in being a religious person. A friend of mine tells of a church member whose commitment to their church is deep and profound. After observing this for a time, my friend asked the member why that was the case, expecting to hear an inspiring story about how God’s love had moved in a transforming way. He was shocked when the member explained, “I know we believe in grace, but just in case we’re wrong, I want to be covered.” Similar stories have been told about Buddhists who are anxious about all things, Jews whose hearts remain impervious to the Psalms, and Catholics who leave mass early.

It is easy for our religious observances to become all form and ritual, an outward observance, little more than an interruption of an otherwise ungodly life. Rituals can sometimes let us imagine that we are being faithful, while at the same time living in a way that would not please God.

In the battle between Jesus and the religious insiders, they too were foolish and hypocritical. These Scribes and Pharisees were the most religious people of their time. They were diligent and observant – and, quite frankly, far more committed to their faith practices than many of us are today. Their efforts had started out being the right thing to do: an attempt to obey the commandments that they received from God. But they eventually got to the point that following those commandments became the focus, not following God. They believed that if they followed the proscribed rules in the marketplace, in the home, in the synagogue, then they had nothing to worry about – as far as their standing with God was concerned.

But Jesus saw a deeper problem. He saw that they could be mean spirited, filled with hate, and occupied with lust. He saw that they knew the law well enough to use it to their own advantage in dealings with other people. Jesus saw proud and arrogant people, who followed all the purity laws, but whose hearts were filled with unclean thoughts and desires. They did all the things that their religion required them to do. But as Thomas Erskine once said, “Those who make religion their god will not have room for God in their religion.”

Jesus' words today remind us that it can be dangerous to be religious. It can be dangerous, because when all is said and done, filling one’s life with religious behavior can leave no room for the kind of living relationship with God that makes the believer a loving, caring, and faithful person.

Jesus commanded those first century Hebrews to give up what was at the heart of their religious behavior in order to make room for a living relationship with God. Today, he asks us to do the same. It is possible that you and I replace discipleship with religious behavior: attending worship, giving money, teaching Sunday School… These are, or can be, good and God pleasing activities. These are, or can be, disciplines that help us to become better disciples of our Lord. But we dare not stop there. We dare not say, "I am a religious person, and that’s what God wants from me.

But if we take that additional step into a living and growing relationship, then our faith can become source of life. A faith that touches not just those moments when we're visibly religious – but a faith that touches every moment of our lives: guiding us in our words and actions, every day of our lives. May that be the kind of faith that capture our hearts and shape our living. Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What kinds of religious behavior was important to the Scribes and Pharisees?
  2. What faithful response did Jesus believe they were missing?
  3. What was his message to them?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I been tempted to act “religiously” instead of “faithfully?”
  2. How is God calling me to grow in faith and faithfulness?
  3. What one positive step can I take today, to begin moving in that direction?