September 2, 2018

Listen AND Respond

Listen and respond. In both of the New Testament readings today – the first chapter of the book of James and the seventh chapter of the gospel of Mark – there is a common theme emphasizing the need to both listen…and to respond.

In the gospel lesson we have Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees having it out about, of all things, washing your hands. Or least it appears that way. It was a simple question that the Scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with unclean hands?” Of all the laws to follow – washing your hands before eating was certainly one of the most basic. I am sure that from the time that Jesus was a young boy, his mother ensured that his hands were clean before he ate. Why then were the disciples eating food with unwashed hands?I am sure the Scribes and Pharisees thought for sure they had Jesus this time. Who was going to disagree with their line of questioning? Lots of people had witnessed the disciples eating with unclean hands. There were probably many people standing behind the Scribes and Pharisees wanting to know the answer as well. Yes, tell us why – why are your disciples are setting such a bad example and eating their food with unclean hands. Jesus’ mother Mary would have been wondering as well, I’m sure.

But Jesus’ concern lay not with the lack of ceremonial washing presenting a hygiene problem, but with the fact that the traditions adhered to, including ceremonial hand washing, were becoming more important than their original intent and were overriding concern and care for people. What was important in the eyes of the Scribes and Pharisees was how well you conformed to the letter of the law than what type of person you were. In this incident, they reasoned that if Jesus were such a holy man he should apply the law more rigorously and make his disciples do the same. But for Jesus, keeping up a good image was not what counted. What counted was showing genuine compassion and care for another.

Leading up to today’s story, Jesus had been out and about – as was his custom – healing the sick. Jesus spent a great deal of his time with people – and as his ministry grew so did the numbers of people that he came in contact with. The Scribes and Pharisees, however, avoided contact with the ordinary folk. They used the traditions that had been in place for years to justify their behaviour. And washing hands was one of them. They couldn’t touch anyone, because their hands were ritually clean. If they touched someone and became unclean again, they couldn’t approach God, for no one approached God unless they were clean. A circle they seemed to revel going around and around in. They believed that this was what God demanded. To do this was to please God and to be a good person. It was a convenient rule to fall back on that kept everyone separate. If you didn’t conform there was no place for you.

And this was exactly what Jesus challenged the Scribes and Pharisees on. He quotes Isaiah and says: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Like a razor sharp sword, Jesus cut through the question about hand washing to the real issue: their hearts were far from God. Their concern was not for the people but for their own control. Their actions were not keeping their hearts compassionate. Jesus had a real knack for seeing through people. He knew that their hearts were not as pure as their clean hands. What is required is purity from within not just purity without.

Jesus goes on to cite one example of how the Scribes and Pharisees were using the law to their own advantage. The law to honour your father and mother was too easily being set aside in favour of another law which encouraged dedicating all one’s money to God. Once this was done, of course there was no money left to care for one’s mother or father. It was after all a vow to God and could not be broken, even if it meant ignoring God’s commandment about honouring your father and mother. The Scribes and Pharisees in essence nullified the word of God by following their traditions to the detriment of those they should have been caring for. That behaviour was inexcusable and made one more unclean than not washing one’s hands.

Jesus felt very strongly about this issue, and he wanted the people to know. After speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees, he gathers the crowd around him and simply states, “Listen to me. Nothing outside makes you unclean – it is what is inside that comes out that makes you unclean.” Apparently though, even after all the explanations, the disciples were still unclear, and they questioned Jesus further. Jesus must have been tired, first having to deal with the Scribes and Pharisees, the crowd, and now even his own disciples. He says to them, “Are you as dull as the rest?” Not terribly complimentary, but Jesus nevertheless goes on to explain it once again to his disciples. It is from inside, out of man’s heart, that come evil thoughts, and acts of greed and adultery and theft and envy and arrogance, to name but a few. If these thoughts are in your heart, then really, of what importance are clean hands?

In fact we can scrub and scrub our hands until they are raw, but if we don’t come clean before God, then like the Scribes and Pharisees, it is all just for show. We need to come before God, admit our need for forgiveness and accept God’s grace. When we do that we are changing from the inside out. God knows what is in our hearts. We may outwardly wash our hands and get off the surface dirt, but it is a clean heart that God desires. We need to ask ourselves – are our
actions from the heart – or just for show?

Jesus knew that what he was saying wasn’t popular, let alone easy to follow. It was a message though that needed to be given to the people around him then, and that needs to be listened to and followed today. We need to listen and remember that what God desires is a clean heart. What is on the outside is not nearly as important as what is on the inside. How we live our lives, the choices we make, all that we do, needs to be guided by God, who has shown us how to live by following his Son, Jesus, who by his life, death and resurrection enabled us to right before God.

In the reading from the Book of James, we find James restating the need for a clean heart – and he adds the need to respond with acts of compassion and kindness. He says: take note, everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…and do not merely listen – do what it says.

The book of James was not written to any specific church, but is a book of wisdom directed at all Christians. It was written to first century Christians who knew the story of Jesus but who needed a little help with the living out of their faith on a day-by-day basis. It is a letter of practical advice – stating the obvious was James’ approach. For James, the works we do are the outward evidence of our inner faith, our clean heart. In the passage that we read today from the first chapter of James, he mentions several truths, such as being quick to listen and slow to speak, and slow to be angry. He also reminds us that we must act on the message once we have heard it. He lists having control over our tongues, so we don’t mislead others and ourselves. And then finally, helping those in distress, such as orphans and widows. All of these truths, James says will help keep us untarnished by the world – they will keep our hearts clean.

So…if we listen – and if we respond – we will be living the life God is calling us to live. Sounds
easy – but is it? We have heard what we have to do. We know what we have to do. But doing what we know we must do – that’s another ball game entirely. What is it that makes putting the Christian faith into practice so difficult? It’s odd that we find it difficult to put our faith into practice, for from the beginning it is what has been asked of us. Throughout scripture, we are reminded to put our faith into action. We are to help one another – from the orphans and widows – to the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the lonely – the list is extensive. We must both listen and respond. Both are necessary. We must know God’s truth in our heads…and live it out with our hands. However we often fail to do both.

William Willimon, chaplain at Duke University, says that upon hearing scripture, we tend to ask, “Now, let me think about that.” We end it there. But scripture, he says, doesn’t just want to be understood. It longs to be put into action. We need to move beyond just pondering, thinking, considering, reflecting, when what the Bible longs for is for us to get moving, get into the act, perform the text rather than just speak or hear it.” We must both listen and respond – that is the key. Willimon goes on to say that, “We deceive ourselves into thinking that we have done the faith when we have merely listened, reflected, pondered, agreed. In my experience, he says, with students, students seem instinctively to know this – what we profess is not as important as what we are able to perform. Beliefs must be embodied, enacted in order to be real.” He goes on to say further, “The world is quite right in judging the truth of the gospel on the basis of the sort of lives the gospel is able to produce. Do we really look like the God who we praise here on Sunday morning? Have our songs and prayers changed us, made us into that which we profess? That is the test, says James. The mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. Yet here, as elsewhere, after all is said and done, more is said than done.”

So we need to take note of what is in God’s word – we need to listen to God speaking to us – and we need to respond. James has reminded us that we must be doers of the word we have received. We cannot be content to sit back and do nothing. Mark has reminded us that Jesus says it is what is in our hearts and what we do with it that matters. Sounds like good advice to me. Rather obvious when you think about it. But can we put it into action? As a faith community, can we put it into action? After the summer break and the starting up again of church programs, can we put it into action? Can we turn this advice into deeds of love and service in the name of Jesus? We all have the ability to respond – will we do it? The question is now before us, and with the help and grace of God we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.