|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|"That Which Defiles"
| Back in the early
nineties, when I frequently served a camp counselor, one of the
responsibilities, for both the counselors and the campers, was
setting tables for the meals. Each cabin was
responsible for at least one meal during the week, and we set tables
for about one hundred fifty campers and counselors.
And at the beginning of the week, the camp manager would suggest to us counselors that we might make a SPECIAL effort to have our campers wash their hands before they set the tables.
And he would add, "for some of the campers, aside from going swimming, it may be the only time all week that they will wash their hands."
Well, in this situation hand-washing was a matter of health and hygiene. And it's probably not a bad idea. But sometimes our practices of hygiene may be little more than ritual, little more than tradition.
In the opening to the fifteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, "The Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat."
Now, notice that the Pharisees are saying nothing about CLEANLINESS, nothing about SANITATION. Their concern is with "the tradition of the elders."
Well, Jesus has an answer for them in verses three through nine, in which he points out to them how hypocritical they are in breaking the commandments of God for the sake of their tradition. But this morning I want to deal with some extended comments he has to make with regard to hand-washing before eating. And just as the Pharisees had little concern for the personal hygiene aspects of hand-washing, so does Jesus.
But with Jesus the issue is not with tradition. With Jesus, the issue is whether we are placing more importance on the material than on the spiritual. And in this age, that's not difficult to do.
We are so saturated with a material culture that our judgments are frequently going to be of a superficial, material nature.
"Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes INTO the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes OUT of the mouth that defiles."
Now, if you've ever eaten bad food, or too much food, you might disagree with this. But Jesus is not talking about the defilement of a person's body; he's talking about the defilement of a person's soul. And he's telling us that unclean hands are not going to contaminate our souls.
But what we have to worry about is what comes OUT of our mouths, what we say, the messages we send. What goes INTO our mouths is of a material nature. What comes OUT of our mouths is a manifestation of our spiritual nature.
You know, it's said that we are what we eat. And in the material world, that is true. But in the spiritual world, we are what we think, speak, and do.
My father rented houses and apartments. And he contended that he could tell what the inside of a person's house or apartment looked like by looking at the inside of his or her car. We simply cannot escape sending messages about lives.
"Then the disciples approached and said to Jesus, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?"
Well, of course they did.
Listen to what he said to them in the seventh verse:
"You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: "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."”
I have a pastor friend who once told me that he was concerned that some members of the clergy had re-written the title to the hymn "How Great Thou Art" to read "How Great I Am."
We give God lip-service and go through the motions, but our hearts are not with God, but with the material world.
Now, the Jews weren't concerned with filling the synagogues or gaining converts, but contemporary Protestants ARE concerned with filling churches and gaining converts;
and sometimes I wonder if, in order to achieve that end, some churches become more engaged with the material world than with the spiritual.
But Jesus has an answer for his disciples, who are concerned that maybe Jesus upset a few Pharisees: "He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly father has not planted will be uprooted."
And to understand this, it is helpful for me to think of the sower who went out to sow. Some seed fell on the path and was eaten by the birds; some seed fell on shallow soil, and withered and died; some seed was choked out by thorns. But SOME seed flourished in deep soil. What God plants is in deep soil. And it will flourish. But all else is lost.
So is Jesus concerned with the Pharisees being upset? In a sense, Jesus seems to be telling the disciples that any judgment in this matter is up to God, not up to him. If what the Pharisees believe is true, if it is of God, then it will survive.
If it is not of God, then it will be uprooted.
But Jesus is very specific in how to handle the Pharisees: "Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit."
And Jesus is not only condemning the Pharisees, but he is also pointing out what will happen to those who follow the Pharisees. Yet, the most intriguing part of the verse is "let them alone." It is as if he is saying, "Don't worry about them! In their blindness they will get exactly what they deserve."
Now, it's a bit difficult to preach on Jesus judgment without becoming judgmental myself. But maybe we should instead take some comfort in what he is saying. If we are troubled by the teaching and actions of others, we should not be.
If they are walking in the light of truth, that is wonderful! If they are walking in blindness, they will find their own pits to fall into. And likewise, if WE are walking in the light of God's truth, no matter what may happen to us, God WILL take care of us.
But let's get back to that statement about what defiles us. "Peter said to Jesus, "Explain this parable to us." Then Jesus said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?"
Now, that may sound crude, but consider the nature of the material world. We take it all so seriously, when we really shouldn't.
Even the most beautiful shiny new car is someday going to be a scrap of junk sitting in a salvage yard, or piled on top of other scraps of junk, or compressed into a bale of metal to be recycled.
The most lovable piece of clothing, if we keep it and USE it long enough, is eventually going to fall apart and will be fit for not much more than a rag.
Even our bodies, which in the prime of youth seem indestructible, eventually wear out, and we return to the dust from which we came.
And all of this is simply part of the cycles of nature. It is all part of the material world.
But we need to be careful here. Although what goes into the mouth may not defile the PERSON, it CAN defile the body.
Several years ago my father reported to me that a fellow I went to high school with, who was a year older than I, had just died. And I asked Dad what was wrong with him. And Dad said, "Everything."
And then he added that the fellow had died of generally abusing his body. And a large part of that was excessive drinking. What goes into the mouth CAN defile the body.
So it is probably a good thing that we pay heed to what we put into the body, but for the good of our SOUL, that is not the most ESSENTIAL concern.
I was always amazed at watching campers eat. Amazed at all the junk they would eat and the good food they wouldn’t touch. And yet, they were probably healthier than I was, and they had boundless energy.
Well, this is much ado about the stomach and the sewer. But the disciples started it when they said, “Explain this parable to us.” Actually, I’m not sure it qualifies as a parable. But if it is, I want to take some liberties with a parallel reconstruction of it.
I think Jesus could have added to his comments on defilement, “It is not what HAPPENS TO a person that defiles him or her, but what that person CAUSES TO HAPPEN that defiles him or her.”
We can be the recipients of action, or we can be the initiators of action. Accidents can happen to us for which we are not responsible; but we can CAUSE accidents to happen for which we ARE responsible. In these cases, where do you suppose there is defilement?
Jesus continues, "But what comes OUT of the mouth proceeds from the HEART, and this is what defiles."
But isn't the heart the source of goodness? Isn't the heart the source of love? Well, yes it is. Indeed, it is the source of ALL our emotions, of all our spiritual thoughts and actions.
And we may defile our physical bodies by what goes INTO our mouths, but what comes OUT of our mouths is what defiles our souls.
Now, I have to admit that Jesus is not presenting a completely balanced picture here. That is not his purpose. Because a balanced picture would show us that what goes into the mouth can also nourish the body, and what comes out of the mouth can also strengthen the soul. Both good and evil are possible. But Jesus concern is with the evil, with the damage that can be done, with the defilement of the soul. And Jesus is very specific about what that evil is:
"For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander."
And notice that he doesn't mention gluttony, which might be considered a sin against the body. Instead, he's concerned with our sins against other people.
Jesus seems to be telling us that the Pharisees would make a big deal about abiding by certain minor traditions, but they have their priorities all wrong. They're overly concerned with the wrong kinds of cleanliness. Concerned with the cleanliness of the body, but not with the cleanliness of the soul.
So, does it make any difference if our hands are clean when we eat? Yes, I suppose it does. But it's not nearly as important as how clean our hearts are for our thoughts, speech, and actions.
"For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."
But before I leave this subject, I should probably address Jesus’ list. Sometimes we ignore principles because the details don’t seem to apply to us.
For example, it is easy to not be concerned with addiction, because we think only of chemical addiction, such as alcohol or nicotine, and we think, that doesn’t apply to me. And we ignore many OTHER kinds of addiction, and perhaps one of those kinds DOES appy to us.
Look at Jesus’ list one more time: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.
These are rather serious forms of evil, and we may quite readily say, “But those don’t apply to me.” And maybe not.
But in any case we need to truly take Jesus’ principle seriously and ask ourselves, “What DOES come out of my mouth? What ARE my actions? Do these behaviors in any way defile me?”
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