Summary: Ordinary Proper 17: A continuation of last weeks lesson about the need for new hearts. Here Jesus directs his words at the disciples (and us) as he shares the darkness in the human heart.
A couple of cows were grazing in a lovely pasture. They were standing by a fence alongside a road. Right in front of them passes a large semi truck. It was hauling a bright, shiny, chrome tanker trailer. On the side of the trailer - printed in big red letters - were the words: “Grade A Milk. Homogenized; Pasteurized; Vitamin D Fortified; Calcium Enriched.” One cow turns to the other and says, “Kinda makes you feel a bit inadequate, doesn’t it?” (Adapted from an illustration by Marcus Naugler – Sermoncentral.com)
This facetious story talks about how even the best work produced by our four-legged bovine friends simply doesn’t measure up to the requirements needed to support life. So the milk has to be pasteurized, fortified with vitamins and calcium and homogenized in order for it to support good health.
This very same truth applies to us. We cannot produce in any way, shape or form what is necessary for us to have spiritual health. Why? Because if we look deep inside of us, we’ll be shocked by the darkness and depravity that lives there – in our hearts. In a metaphorical sort of way we need to see the tanker truck with big red letters saying to us: “Be perfect, like your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mat 5.48) Nothing else will do – perfection is the standard. The problem, however, is that we fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing just fine – that nothing is wrong with what we say, think or do.
That is what today’s Gospel lesson is all about. It is, in fact, a continuation of last week’s Gospel lesson where Jesus roundly rejected the Pharisees and Scribes for following traditions blindly. In today’s lesson, that correction is extended to his disciples – or perhaps better said – to the believers, to us. Let’s read together about what happened:
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ ” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") (Mark 7:14-19)
Jesus explained to people that a person will not be made unclean by eating with unwashed hands. He told them that being unclean comes from the inside. But the disciples, to Jesus’ great dismay, simply didn’t get it. They needed private instruction. And Jesus responded rather sternly to his disciples because they, like us, often tend to be blind to the sin in our own lives. The problem with that - in a nutshell – is that we often don’t see how much we offend God by our thoughts, words and deeds.
A friend of mine is often given to saying terribly hurtful words about other people – usually in private. It bothers me a lot when I hear these things. Why? - Because this says a whole lot about a very harsh spirit and about a heart that is unkind and angry. Hearing these things spoken by my friend saddens me more for my friend than anybody else. You see, the scriptures are very clear about leaving judgment of other people to God; about speaking a kind word – even to an enemy; about a kind word spoken having the potential to make peace and to win over an adversary. But yet – out of the heart comes this terrible anger and malice toward others. And sadly, my friend often doesn’t even realize what is going on.
Let’s read together what Jesus said about this sort of behavior: “He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ’unclean.’ " (Mark 7.20-23)
And isn’t that where the problem truly lies – that we have these terrible thoughts and say these horrible things that just seem to come out of us naturally. And we tend to think that we don’t have the problem – that this only affects the hearts of other people. Not so! Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago) The problem, as Jesus defined it, is that we have evil right in our very own hearts. And we have to own up to the fact that we are often self-deceived and don’t realize it.