Sunday, September 2, 2012

We Are All Pharisees - Sunday Sermon, September 2, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
September 2, 2012
Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23

“We are all Pharisees”

I was in high school the first time that I heard these verses from Mark. Admittedly, I didn’t always pay close attention to the sermon or scripture readings during worship. Mostly in church, I was distracted from the choir loft by all of the people sitting in the pews, particularly, my latest crush. For some reason, though, my ears were tuned in on this Sunday. When the reader said Jesus’ words, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going into them can defile. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles,” something clicked. This was just the ammunition that I needed for an ongoing argument that I was having with my father about watching rated “R” movies. Just a few weeks before, my grandmother, of all people, had given me the movie Pretty Woman. My father, normally an affable kind of guy, walked in on the exchange and took a stand. I would not be taking that movie with me, he declared. It romanticized prostitution and putting those kinds of ideas in my head would do me no good. If I didn’t watch out, I could become what I watched and read. I was a teenage girl, though. Of course, I had seen the movie a number of times, which I quipped back. But I could tell that I wasn’t going to win the argument, at least not that day. Pretty Woman stayed with my grandmother.

You better believe that my Bible was marked and ready when I brought the subject up again after church that day. There is nothing like the Bible to aid one in an argument for watching rated “R” movies, but I felt that Jesus had made a fair point, pertinent to my case.  It wasn’t what I put into my body or mind that would defile me, but it was what came out that mattered. I can imagine, as a parent, one is aware that what is put in can influence what comes out. I know that my dad has always had my best interest in mind, but the material point was this: my own heart, and not trashy television, should be my biggest worry. There is only so much that even the most overprotective parent can do to shield a child from the world and its ugly realities. At some point, we all have to face what is inside of us, our inner demons, and see them not as someone or something else’s fault, but as evidence of our humanity and, more importantly, as a reminder of how much we need God’s intervention.

Today’s gospel text is a classic case of religiosity gone wrong. It’s all about harping on the spec in that other’s person’s eye instead of recognizing and dealing with the plank in our own. Our chief hypocrites in the story are the Pharisees who have gathered around Jesus with the intent of pointing out what he and his followers are not doing correctly, according to religious law. The Pharisees make easy villains. They keep showing up armed with traps so that Jesus might publicly go against his own faith and its laws. On some occasions, it is a trap about healing and ministering on the Sabbath. Other times, it is about which commandments are most important. Today, it’s about hand washing and cleanliness. Yet, every time the Pharisees come at him, Jesus seems to turn their one dimensional argument on its head, leaving the crowd a little more prepared to reexamine the reason for the practices of their faith rather than blindly following them.

If you ask any Christian, from the fervent fundamentalist to the wildly progressive, what the greatest commandment is, most will answer this: to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and almost as important as this, to love our neighbor. This is an easy one because the answer comes straight from Jesus’ mouth. The Jews, which included the Pharisees, have a similar great commandment which is known as the Shema. In fact, Jesus was talking about the Shema when he taught about the Greatest Commandment. These verses are from Deuteronomy and go like this, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” The Shema is recited twice each day by observant Jews. It is the first prayer taught to a Jewish child and in death, these are the last words a faithful Jew will utter as a final affirmation of faith in God. The Shema is the essence of the law.

But even though Christians and Jews alike are taught that these are the greatest of all the commandments, it does seem that there is a disproportionate emphasis on some of the more peripheral things. In the first century, much of what the rabbis talked about were dietary rules, Sabbath-keeping and circumcision.[1] These were not at all a part of the Shema which they prayed relentlessly, but it sure seems that whenever the teachers of Jewish law, the Pharisees, show up, these are the issues that they focus on. Likewise, these days, the media is flooded with church leaders or even political leaders who have a whole lot to say about religion and the hot issues: The fight for birth control, the dilemma of sin and sexuality, are you pro-life or pro-choice? Is one’s politics Christian enough? Being a good Christian has been equated to support of a political party or a political issue and all the while, very few are saying anything at all about the most important thing-- that those who claim Jesus are called, first and foremost, to love and serve God. This commandment comes before all of the other things.

The Pharisees were so focused on who was a part of the inside crowd, based on observing certain laws, that they lost sight of what really mattered, loving God. The problem is not just that they neglected to teach others what mattered most, what pastors and priest are tasked with when they accept a call to ministry, but they forgot what really mattered themselves. This is Jesus’ point when he quotes Isaiah, saying, “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.” It may sound odd for me to say this, but I find it strangely comforting that the tendency to be hypocritical is not just of their time or our time, but it is of every time. Hypocrisy is the product of our pretense and self-deceit. It is, too often, the way of the human heart.

Of course, we know it is not just the Pharisees who are stricken with the inability to see the plank in their own eyes. Nor is it only the religious leaders in this time and in our pulpits who love to point their fingers and delineate just who is “in” and who is “out.” On most days, we are all Pharisees. We, too, have focused more on the specs in everyone else’s eyes, those especially who are not on our inside, who are not Christian enough, and all the while we have neglected the huge planks in our own eyes. As we point our fingers at the sins of others, as we endeavor to bar them, even, from our love and care, we defile ourselves from within. We fall into the greatest trap of all, abandoning God and instead clinging to our own very human tendencies.

As much as I can see Jesus shaking his head at all of us saying, “You hypocrites! You honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me. In vain you worship me, but you teach of your human ways as my way,” I also remember that Jesus never gave up on the Pharisees. After a while, after proving their points invalid, it would seem perfectly reasonable that Jesus would give up on them. Jesus could have easily pushed them aside because they just couldn’t get it. But, that is not how Jesus does business. With indefatigable patience, he continues to teach and preach, to be a living example of grace. This is not without speaking the truth. Jesus did not shy away from hard conversations. But, he also never got to the point of rejection, even when people got it all wrong. Even when they got it wrong in his Father’s name. Jesus’ religion never got in the way of his love.

As one commentator put it, “Ironically, the one human being who was perfectly free from self-righteousness is the only one who was completely righteous. The least exclusive member of the human race is also its most exalted. The only person who has ever been truly free of a messiah complex was the Messiah.”[2]

With God, our hearts are open, our desires are known, and none of our secrets are hidden. Though we know this is true, we still struggle to be honest about our sins. We still fool ourselves into believing that we are somehow better, somehow more lovable, somehow less tainted than those other people. We honor with our lips, but our hearts, what God desires most of all, are far away. Though we are all Pharisees, God’s news is still good. The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. In Jesus Christ, all of us, every last one, are forgiven and made whole. Believe the good news. Amen and Amen.

[1] John Ortberg. “Pharisees Are Us.” The Christian Century. Aug 23, 2003, p. 30
[2] Ibid p. 30

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