Rev. Kit Billings
September 1, 2003
This morning we're confronted with two very serious and important parts of our Christian faith, and both deal with the issue of spiritual cleanliness, or the lack thereof. The first deals with the enormous difference between Orthodox Judaism and Christianity and why the Lord had to separate Himself from that religion; the second regards the things that can come out of the human heart that spiritually defile us, which create true uncleanness.
Given that the Lord named DECEIT and FOLLY as two of the basic sins of the heart which can hurt us spiritually, I'm sure you have your own experiences of how people addicted to alcohol love to play games with others and themselves before getting sober.
A guy walks into a bar, orders three shots and downs them all. “What's up with the three shots?” asks the bartender.
“My two closest buddies and I have gone our separate ways, and I miss them terribly,” says the guy. “See, this glass here is for Tom, this one's Bob's, and this one's mine. I feel like we're all drinking together, just like old times.”
So every day the guy comes in and the bartender sets up three glasses. Until one day, the guy asks for just two shots.
“I hate to ask,” says the bartender, “but did something happen to one of your friends?”
“Nah, they're okay,” says the guy. “I just decided to quit drinking.”
Not recognizing one's own self-deceit as this man did dirties one's heart. Spiritual falsity and evil simply get in the way of the goodness and light that the Lord would rather have inhabiting one's inner life.
Our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ came to do a number of vital and profoundly needed things, one of them being to clean up, reorganize and simplify the essentials of what saving faith and religion are about. In doing so He separated Himself from Orthodox Judaism and established the First Christian Church era on earth. Indeed, one of the real essentials of a truly saving faith is for people to be extremely clear about what true defilement is about—being aware of this increases our freedom to choose the good and the true, and that's essentially why Christ spoke about it. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day were really lost on the issue of what actually defiles a human soul. And still today we too can get lost about what it really is that seriously hurts us in life…what makes us seriously unclean, and therefore further away from God's saving goodness and truth.
The disparity and the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and the experts in the law, which this chapter in Mark relates, are of tremendous importance, for they show us the very essence and core of the divergence between Jesus and the orthodox Jew of his time.
The question asked was, Why do Jesus and his disciples not observe the tradition of the elders? What was this tradition, and what was its primary beliefs and values?
Originally, for the Jew, the Law meant two things: it meant, first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and, second, the first five books of the Old Testament, or, as they are called, the Pentateuch. Now it is true that the Pentateuch contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions; but, in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles, which a man must interpret and apply for himself. For hundreds of years the ancient Jews were content with that. But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts whom we know as the Scribes.
The Scribes were not content with great moral principles; they had what can only be called a passion for definition. They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded, broken down until they issued in thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation in life. These rules and regulations were not written down until long after the time of Jesus. They are what is called the Oral Law. And it is these oral laws, man-made ones, which are the tradition of the elders.
Now, the serious problem Christ had with them
was when these regulations got in the way
of helping and nurturing human beings who needed
desperate help and love.
Many of their man-made laws got in the way of loving others or being useful on the Sabbath in vital ways, and this was why Jesus and the elders verbally locked horns and why Christ was considered by the elders to be a bad man.
The basic and enormous difference between Christ and the Pharisees and Scribes was that the religion of the Orthodox Jews allowed for a man to maintain enmity, bitterness and contempt for another person as long as he maintained religious-ceremonial washings and outward behaviors as described in their Mishnah. For the Lord, however, what only mattered was what was going on inside the human heart and mind and that God's divine love was not prejudice nor afraid of caring for everyone at all times. In effect, the Lord and the Scribes were speaking differenct religious language and Jesus, at times, got very upset with them. This is why He eventually shouted vehemently at them calling these Orthodox religious leaders lizards and spiders, full of dead men's bones and all corruption!
Let's see some examples of where the differences laid.
The elders, for example, believed that a true Jew, a righteous man in good standing with God, had to wash his hands in a very special and prescribed way and he had to wash his food and clothing in a way and at times that cleansed him from defilement. For example, after spending time in a marketplace full of Gentiles, one's hands and clothing needed to be washed. If a Jew didn't wash after returning home, he became defiled. Those who became defiled were believed to be subject to demonic possession as well as poverty and destruction. And then there came the issues involving what types of food were ceremonially clean and which weren't. Bread touched by unclean hands for example was no better than excrement.
In Leviticus 11 there is a long list of animals, birds, reptiles and insects that were clean and acceptable to God and those that were unclean and detested by God. The Jews could enjoy and eat and make use of certain creatures and not others. They could eat cattle and sheep, goats, deer, chickens, fish, locusts, katydids and grasshoppers—now you know what we're having to eat during coffee hour (just kidding). They could not eat pigs, snakes, bats, eagles, osprey, vulture, weasles, rats, nor most lizards and other creatures besides. In fact, in the books of the Macabees, there's a story about a widow with seven sons who were ordered by the Syrians to eat the flesh of swine. Rather than do so she watched as they were horrifyingly tortured to death while she clapped and praised them for their devoutness.
The Jews died to maintain their view that it was what went into a person's gut that made him clean or unclean. The way you washed your hands and prepared your food; what kinds of food you ate; whether or not you touched a leper or if you touched a woman after childbirth; how you dealt with your pots and pans and water jugs—these were things that made you right with God or not. In other words, how you religiously handled yourself externally was the emphasis for the Scribes and Pharisees and not what was happening in your thoughts and intentions. Ceremonial purity wasn't bad in and of itself, the problem came when it greatly overuled the importance of spiritual goodness and faith.
The Lord knew the Holy Scriptures as well as any Scribe and quoted to them the evil involved in their twisting of God's holy truth. This is why He quoted to them from Isaiah's scriptures: “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.” (Is. 29:13) In one fell swoop the Lord disagreed with hundreds of years of tradition and with what many Jews had died for. By declaring all foods to be clean the Lord issued His most radical separation from Orthodox Judaism. No wonder His disciples couldn't understand at first what the Lord was saying nor up to.
Jesus said, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
As William Barclay put it so well: “There is no greater religious peril than that of identifying religion with outward observance. There is no commoner religious mistake than to identify goodness with certain so-called religious acts. Church-going, Bible-reading, careful financial giving, even time-tabled prayer do not make a man a good man.” For certain these beautiful actions need to be an expression of a good and faithful heart, but in and of themselves without a loving intent behind them they are nothing.
I can't tell you how many times when I'm on the phone with someone calling in about our Wedding Ministry and I ask them about their spiritual history that they equate simply attending church with righteousness with the Divine. Church-going is relatively easy; it's an external aspect of the human being. Remaining pure, loving and merciful in heart and attitude is what's difficult and makes a person clean in God's eyes. The fundamental question is, how is your heart towards God and towards your fellow human beings? And if in your heart there are desires for theft, folly, enmity, bitterness, grudges, pride, a love of slander, covetousness, and sexual promiscuity, not all the outward religious observances in the world will make a man or woman anything other than a hypocrite.
Swedenborg noted that there are many unclean thoughts and attitudes toward life that enter our minds and thoughts as we rub elbows with the world. Hearing and understanding them doesn't hurt the soul. What does hurt us is when or if we start to build affection for evil or selfish ways. For our human will makes up the essence of every individual. Truly, what you have affection for and truly desire inside has you on a road toward Heaven or toward Hell. Our theology reminds us that we come to love what we build affection for. And as Christ expressed so well it's ever so easy for a person to behave well religiously while maintaining a heart like that of ravenous wolves. Bringing one's self to church every Sunday is but the very beginning of a truly good and righteous way of life. It's really the depth of my worship, the genuineness of my prayer life, my willingness to examine my intentions and life and let God's Word be a part of my self-examination, my involvement within my family, civic life, or spiritual community where the sincerity of my caring and love for others and for the Lord can truly shine. Outward ritual and ceremony, prescribed prayer and prayer times, doing the actions involved in the Holy Supper are all good and holy, but they're intended to bring us into an internal involvement in the Lord and in what is good and true.
The Lord's Prayer for example can be simply mouthed and repeated without involvement in the words and what they mean for me personally. External religion is never an end in itself—it is meant to guide people toward a deeper relationship with the Divine and a more open, real and vulnerable engagement with one's self, with my real weaknesses and struggles that live in my heart. This, then, leads me toward and into the awesome spiritual strength and power that grows after I repent of my iniquities. The behavior of prayer should augment my felt need for Divine help, power and support.
Now, as if my sermon this morning weren't serious enough (*smile), allow me to close with a nice, concise list from Swedenborg's great work titled Divine Providence of the five other extremely serious choices to avoid to prevent you from deeply hurting your spirit—these are five basic ways we can PROFANE what is good and holy.
Avoid making jokes about important truths in the Holy Word or creating jokes or unclean names using God's name.
As a Christian it's normal to have periodic struggles with the truth of Jesus' divinity, but avoid a solid or forever conclusion if you can that Jesus Christ is not God or not Divine. Be sure and ultimately understand the distinction and difference between you and the Lord Jesus Christ—His soul was the Father, Divine Love Itself—our souls receive this Great Spirit and will forever be dependent upon Him for life and the power to love. After glorifying His life, Jesus became the one and only Divine-Human…at our very best we can become powerful and faithfully loving angels.
So, avoid the conclusion that you and God are one and the same. We can and need to feel that God is in us and we are in God, but only Christ was God Incarnate.
Most of all, once you begin seriously to live with affection the good life shown to you within the Lord's Holy Word, remain in it forever and avoid denouncing it as foolish and turning toward a life of evil and sin. This is the deepest form of spiritual profanation and leads most assuredly to an eternal life in the delights and pleasures of hell.
Truly, the Lord gives you the truth of what makes the inside of your cup clean, given in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in His Word. He gives you living, spiritual love within the wonderful depths of your being, in the holy remains of goodness given to you in your infancy and childhood. Also, God maintains His presence (or rather, His residence) down in the innermost depths of your soul, keeping your internal, subconscious core completely holy and pure. But, God will continue to allow you throughout your life on earth to deal with the serious, unclean, and potentially harmful inherited evil inclinations passed along to you from past generations. It's up to you to recognize and condemn them and seriously ask the Lord for the power to resist them, wanting God's goodness instead.
God depends upon you to be certain that what comes out of your mouth and what shows in your life are coming from a good and pure heart. Keeping your heart clean, by means of serious prayer for help to resist spiritual filth, is an enormous means by which the Lord heals and regenerates your will and inward affections. We simply must resist and condemn all of the evils of the heart, so that the tremendous goodness and beauty within us may reign as God intends. By doing your part you allow the Lord to do His. God is our Savior and Regenerator and He requires your involvement to keep your heart clean.