3. Itís whatís inside that counts
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Let us pray. Gracious God, give us humble, teachable and obedient hearts, so that we may receive what you have revealed and do what you have commanded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A few years ago all the restrooms here at Blythwood had signs added to them. Toronto Public Health wants to make sure all of us know how to wash our hands. After 60 years of life I thought that was one of the few things I had mastered. The city was not so sure; they wanted the signs posted. If you are going to wash your hands you had better do it the right way.
When the grandchildren are at our house for dinner, we announce the need for hands to be washed as a subtle way of saying that it’s almost time for dinner, put away the book or puzzle or toy that now has your attention. Beyond that Nanny and I do not supervise the hand washing to ensure a proper amount of soap and water has been used. In perhaps this one aspect alone I would not make for a good Pharisee. One of the many things the Pharisees regulated was the ceremonial hand washing that took place before a meal. Jesus was invited by a Pharisee to have dinner; the failure of Jesus to wash his hands becomes the prelude to a conversation about what actions matter. That is important to notice. The conversation is not contrasting belief and action; it’s about which actions matter. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Much of the time, it seems to me, when we talk about the Pharisees we speak as if they were men who were people of words and not actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were all about the meticulous regulating of various actions that they said were needed to fulfil the laws of God. In his commentary on this text, William Barclay gives us the details of these regulations. First of all the water for this ceremonial washing was kept in large stone jars. Some of you will remember such jars are mentioned in the story of the wedding at Cana. Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons (John 2:6). This is not multi-purpose water; this is water kept for ceremonial washing.
An amount of this water to be used was specified. The process was specified—water poured from the tips of the fingers to the wrist, then the palms, then water poured this time beginning at the wrist and running down to the finger tips. As far as the Pharisees were concerned to omit the slightest detail in this ritual was to sin. Their concern is what a person is doing.
I wonder if Jesus had a particular burden of concern for Pharisees. I think Jesus must have had some sympathy for what the Pharisees were trying to do. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, about the need for people to know what the law meant in this situation or that. You see the Pharisees were not in any way part-time religious people; they believed the law of God applied to one’s life 24/7. Jesus believed that too! Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. ...For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17, 20). Jesus also wanted all God’s people to correctly apply God’s law to their lives all the time. Jesus also was concerned about faithful actions being done by faithful people. But Jesus believed that somewhere, somehow, the Pharisees had lost their way. “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” It is not just a matter of belief as opposed to action; it’s about which actions matter.
Let’s look then at the actions that Jesus views with a critical gaze. First there is the matter of tithing from the harvest of the garden. Whenever I read this verse I think of one of our favourite recipes, Caesar salad with a homemade dressing. This particular recipe, which I have used for more than 20 years, calls for ¼ cup of chopped parsley. The first time I prepared this salad I tired to measure the parsley. What a pain. Is that ¼ cup of chopped parsley as it is with all that empty air space included, or is it ¼ cup pressed down? The next time I prepared that salad I simply eye-balled what looked like a descent amount of parsley, chopped it up and threw it in with the romaine. It is hard for me to imagine all the fuss and bother that would be associated with measuring out a tithe of one’s parsley crop. Plenty of activity but not any action that matters when all is said and done.
Next there is seeking the place of honour in the synagogue. Here is one of those situations that sounds wrong upon first hearing, but I think deserves further thought. I’m not sure most of us would go through more than a day without encountering someone who occupies a place of honour. Chris and I have two daughters and a daughter-in-law who are teachers. They occupy a place of honour in our world in order to help children learn what is needed for a full and meaningful life.
One of our neighbours is a Toronto Police Constable. I believe he seeks to serve well, both to honour his profession and to be honoured because what he does is important in this city.
I seek a place of honour with my grandchildren. One of them was working on a school project in which he was to tell of a family celebration and he chose Easter. He insisted that he needed to call me because I know about Easter. I hope and pray that I always occupy a place of honour in the minds of those kids.
The days are mostly gone when clergy were placed on a symbolic pedestal, three feet above contradiction. Yet there is a place of honour reserved in many people’s hearts for their pastor. As the end of August comes ever closer I find it almost automatic to be in a reflective mood. As I was thinking about places of honour, it occurred to me that this may be at the heart of those times when I have been a disappointment to people in this church. In their minds they gave me a place of honour but I somehow failed to deliver on their expectations and because I could no longer have a place of honour in their minds they felt it necessary to leave the church.
The Pharisees whom Jesus criticized were looking for places of honour. It is likely they demanded such places. I think that’s the point. It is as if Jesus tells us to make a distinction between those whom we are naturally inclined to honour because of, to use Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous phrase, the content of their character, as opposed to those who demand honour only because of their title or their ability to threaten punishment for those not inclined to bow and scrape.
Then Jesus speaks about the Pharisees in what they must have taken as the most unflattering terms. I have mentioned before that the life of God’s people was regulated by the categories of clean and unclean. Coming into contact with anything involving the death of another person makes someone unclean. Numbers 19:16 is clear. Whoever in the open field touches one who has been killed by a sword, or who has died naturally, or a human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
The problem that arose was that often people did not know where a grave was located. That seems odd to us. I think we have transposed something that happens as part of the Easter story into common experience, but from the reading I have been able to do, it simply was not so. Following the death of Jesus his body is taken by Joseph of Arimathea and placed in a tomb or cave located in a garden. We read that and think, “Sounds as if they had cemeteries similar to ours.” But not so. The most common place for a body to be buried was a spot just off the road.
Jesus refers to this reality in Matthew 23:27 when he refers to the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs. This refers to a practice that grew up around Jerusalem prior to the Passover festival each spring. As the time of festival approached tombs close to the road would be marked with white paint, because as the roads to the Holy City filled with pilgrims some of the crowd would naturally spill out to the edges of the roads. An unwitting pilgrim could walk on a grave and thereby make himself unclean and therefore unable to participate in the Passover.
Luke sort of flips this idea on its side in order to suggest another way in which the Pharisees have gone astray. They were religiously active, but not with what mattered in the end. They sought to be honoured but not for the right reasons. God’s people looked to them as examples of righteousness and the Pharisees encouraged that, but it was as if they were calling people into contact with death, pointing them not toward God but away from God.
The remedy says Jesus is this: “So give for alms those things that are within.” In the time we have remaining, let’s think this through. This is one of those things said by Jesus that when I was preparing this sermon the thought went through my mind, “I don’t remember reading this before.” Now I have read this but I think it is an idea that is so outside our normal way of thinking that we dismiss it before considering it carefully. Listen once more: “So give for alms those things that are within.” When we give we rarely think about the gift coming from inside. If I pass by someone at the bottom of the escalator at Finch Station my first thought is how much change do I have and how much might I need for later in the day. Jesus is telling us that really giving, really sharing is something that comes from within.
Fred Craddock, one of my favourite preachers, has speculated that Luke tells this story as a warning to the church of his day. “Without continual self-evaluation and correction, all structures of religion decay into idolatry. …Were not the church of Luke’s time already falling victim to these ancient errors, there would have been little reason to report Jesus’ mealtime conversation with Pharisees and lawyers” (Interpretation: Luke, 159).
Here’s what I think Jesus is reminding us of. As people of faith we must always be asking ourselves what is going on within. The story is told that John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England who went on to found the Methodist Church, had a standard question which he asked as part of his pastoral care: what is the state of your soul? (Would you not be more than a little surprised if I sprung that one on you the next time we had coffee together?) It’s a great question. What is going on inside of me? How is my faith shaping that internal place where my priorities are set and my decisions are made? Does the justice of God have a place in my soul? Is it the love of God that motivates my actions? Or is it some sort of rigid conformity to a set of regulations that stands behind every step I take?
Friends, there is no debate here about beliefs as opposed to actions, it is about deep belief in the God who wants to shape our lives through love and place in our souls a passion for his justice. If it is truly God’s justice that stands behind our actions, we will be less about parsley and more about people.