(Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1: 17-27)
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
(watch here: https://youtu.be/jXCrg7-TaRk)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Sometimes I like to ask teenagers a number of questions from a quiz created by Amy Adair and submitted to the journal, “Christianity Today,” to help me gauge where they are mentally and spiritually. Allow me to ask you 4 of the questions:
1. Your little sister and her friends need a ride to junior high youth group … again. You’ve got the keys, so you:
a. Take them, because you know your parents will be annoyed with you if you don’t.
b. Tell them to fasten their seatbelts. Hey, you remember what it was like before you could drive.
c. Are irritated, but in the end you take them. Whatever.
2. Habitat for Humanity needs help painting a house. You sign up because:
a. All of your friends did, and you don’t want to be left out.
b. You love painting—and meeting the homeowners you’re helping.
c. It’ll be fun to hang out with some of your friends, and there’ll be free pizza when you’re done.
3. Your best friends would say you:
a. Always do whatever other people want you to do.
b. Aren’t perfect, but have a very big heart.
c. Always try to look good.
4. You’ve given up swearing because:
a. You want people to know you’re a really good Christian. And good Christians don’t cuss.
b. You know the things that come out of your mouth matter to God.
c. Your mom takes away your cell phone for a day every time she hears you cuss.
These are just a sampling of Amy’s questions but they reveal enough for our purposes this morning. In scoring, Amy advises to those who answer mostly A’s, “People can totally count on you, and you try your best to never let anyone down. It’s good that you always try to do the right thing. But many of your decisions are based on pleasing your friends or family. So the next time someone asks you for a favor or to pray about something, try not to worry about impressing them. And try doing some good deeds secretly. This will help you focus on pleasing God instead of people.” To those who answer mostly C’s, Amy advises, “On the outside, you seem to make a lot of good choices. It’s not unusual for you to do volunteer work, to pray, or even read your Bible. While people can see you’re doing all the right things, you’re often just going through the motions. The next time you have a decision to make—like whether or not you’ll sign up to do some volunteer work—try not to think about what you’ll get out of it. Instead, ask God to help you to be motivated by a desire to please him, and to help you to connect your good works with a right spirit. You might be surprised at the spiritual growth you experience when you do. Finally, for all those who answer mostly B’s, Amy explains, “It’s not always easy, but you do a pretty good job of living out your faith. You’re faced with a ton of tough choices every day, and you’re the type of person who thinks about God before you make a decision. While you care about other people, your first priority is pleasing God. And even though you’re not perfect, you try to do the right thing—from the right place in your heart. It’s likely your friends and family see you as a real person with real, everyday faith.”
The questions reveal there are three different types of people: those who strive to eagerly please people, those who strive to mindlessly serve people, and those who strive to please and serve God. Teenagers, perhaps more than children and adults, want to please and serve. They’re always trying to discern the nuances of right and wrong. They understand they can no longer be children and ignorant of what’s right and wrong while also struggling to form identities that are different from their parents’ identities. Being like their parents is definitely the WRONG thing to be! Yet what that leaves them is just a slew of questions. They ask, “Who am I?” and “What exactly are the rules of the game that I’ve been thrown into?” and thus “How can I genuinely serve and please in this world?” They’re endlessly searching for answers to questions like these. They are questioning beings, seeking out truth and objectivity in an overwhelmingly subjective world. If only they have black and white answers to their questions, then they can endure all the bodily, emotional, and spiritual changes they’ve been subjected too. They want to serve and please, they just don’t know how and to whom they ought. Parents? Teachers? Police? Friends? Siblings? Who and how? This is why I like to pose them with a few questions of my own…to help get their minds off their own questions if anything!
Our readings assigned for this week present several characters also wrestling with who or what they should be serving and how. We again encounter the Israelites roaming in the wilderness, crying out to Moses for answers to their questions about who and how they should serve. Moses simply told them, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” For Moses, it was simple: follow the laws given to him by God. Unfortunately, the people only heard, “Follow the law.” Simply follow the law, all law, and your life will have complete guidance and security. Break the law and your life becomes a mess. Pretty quickly you’re serving the law, not God. Look at the Pharisees in our gospel reading, they were consumed with following the law. For them, it was the law that brought security and good order, not God. For them, it was the law that ensured long life and prosperity, not God. Following and serving the law was of the utmost importance for the Pharisees. Of course, Jesus saw right through their hypocrisy. Jesus saw that they were no better than teenagers who answer mostly A’s and C’s in those questions from earlier. In many ways, the Pharisees were like teenagers, constantly questioning authority and clinging to black and white answers as ultimate truth. The older a person gets, the more he/she realizes there are few black and white answers in life. Life consists of a million shades of gray instead. But teenagers and Pharisees alike try to convince themselves there are black and white answers to life’s mysteries and struggles.
For the Pharisees, serving the law, in all its varied nuances, was the key to everlasting happiness in this world. In his letter, James tackles another commonly held disservice—serving faith for faith’s sake. It is just as easy to believe that faith is the key to happiness in this world. If one only clings to faith then the evils of this world will no longer affect us, or so the thinking goes. But James tells us no, true faith compels us to serve each other and God all the more. Luther hated James letter because he saw how the church had distorted James’ teaching to support works righteousness. The church taught that our works are what save us, not our faith, and this came out of James’ emphasis on being “doers” and not simply “faithful.” Of course, we know from Luther’s “Freedom of Christian” that his own theology also mimicked James’. He, too, understood that we are freed to serve our neighbor through faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross. We are freed to serve God and neighbor, not because the law tells us to do it but because faith compels us to serve.
Jesus saw that serving the law would only satisfy a portion of our need to serve and please. The law is not the ends but rather a means to happiness. True and lasting happiness comes from the mere act of serving God and neighbor. True satisfaction comes from unmotivated, non-mandated service. When we give to God and neighbor, not because we’re told to or forced to but because they want us to, then we experience true and lasting satisfaction. Those who answer mostly B’s have figured it out that primarily serving and pleasing God helps to serve our neighbors better, more genuinely. When we serve and please God, we invite Him into us and allow him to direct our service to others. Let us focus on inviting God into our lives this week so that as we encounter others it will be Him who will…serve from within.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.