Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Our Savior Lutheran Church on September 2, 2018
“If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” Whenever Jesus says these words, there is an almost 100% guarantee that nobody around him has any idea what he’s talking about. Apparently, most people do not have ears to hear. However, I’m fairly certain that there was one group of people who had a pretty good guess at what he was saying…the Pharisees. As we heard last week, in this section of Mark Jesus has just finished up his thorough scolding of the Pharisees regarding their silly traditions, and immediately after this, Jesus gathers the multitude of his followers around himself. Mark doesn’t say that Jesus switched locations—not just yet. The Pharisees are at least within earshot, and what Jesus says next is directed at them as much as it’s directed at the crowds.
So, the Pharisees maybe could have shrugged off a critique aimed at their ritual washing of cups, pitchers, and couches (after all, they had to admit that they were making up their own laws—who even washes a couch?), but in this passage Jesus takes his critique to a whole new level—he doubles down and goes after the Law of God itself. “Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” It’s like he said, “Oh yeah, those ancient Levitical laws about what you can and can’t eat? Mmm…let’s just forget about those. It all ends up in the same place anyway, and I’m really craving bacon and eggs.” [As pastor would say, that’s the NIV translation]. But seriously, with one devastating sentence, Jesus fulfills the Law and completely destroys the religion of the Pharisees: “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.”
The Pharisees were the most righteous men around. They followed the Law better than anyone else; they thought they were so good, in fact, that they’d gotten bored with God’s Law—so, they upped the ante and made even more difficult, human, laws to challenge themselves and impress others. God…was not so impressed, and it’s for this reason that Jesus despises them. With an egotistical attitude they had turned God’s Law around in order to serve themselves. And so, just like that, Jesus removes their only crutch and sweeps the Law right out from under their feet. “Thus purifying all foods”—All the dietary restrictions, cup-washings, and “holy living” in the world can’t help you if you are rotten to the core. It is what comes out of a man that defiles him.
The Pharisees were the most recent followers of an age-old religion whose founders were Adam and Eve. I think we tend to imagine that it was by the actual physical eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that sin came into the world, but this is not what the Bible says. The apostle Paul says in Romans 5, “By one man sin entered the world,” not “by one fruit.” The first sin, the original sin, and that which has plagued humanity ever since, had its inception in the heart of our first parents, not in the fruit of a tree. The subversive words of the devil, “did God really say?…” took root in Adam’s being and corrupted him immediately and totally. “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.” Not a fruit, not even Satan himself, just a bad case of unbelief and all its accompanying iniquities.
By virtue of this original sin, there’s a Pharisee in all of us. Whenever we do something noble or right in the eyes of the Lord, or criticize others for their sinful behavior, no matter how justified we may be, some part of us would like to elevate ourselves and maybe give ourselves a little pat on the back. But Jesus has no congratulatory words for us sinners; unfortunately we’re not getting any gold stars by our names in the book of life. Instead, he says “whatever comes out of you defiles you. Your heart is evil, adulterous, murderous, deceitful, wicked, prideful, and foolish. Do you really think I’m impressed?”
Jesus is clear that the Pharisees, despite their rituals and impeccable law-following, are defiled creatures. If I could summarize this passage, it would go something like this: “You think you’re so great that some deli meat is going to make you unclean? Hey buddy, news flash, you’ve got bigger problems.” The same thing, of course, goes for us. We are really messed up, and we can’t help ourselves. To illustrate our depravity, Jesus gives the disciples a long list of sins that arise from the heart. The first one in the list is translated as “evil thoughts,” but that’s not really the best translation. The Greek word is “Dialogismos,” which means….REASON. This word, used by Plato and the Greek philosophers ever after, means the act of thinking and deliberating within oneself by means of human reason. An active “dialogismos” was considered a virtue…so naturally Jesus includes it at the front of a list of terrible sins. What this means is that the highest form of consciousness and self-reflection…actually taints you—who knew? Your best thoughts, your most profound metaphysical musings, are nothing more than foolishness, blasphemy, and Pharisaical, “pride.” Food for thought.
An old professor of mine, Dr. Steven Paulson, once said, “Christ is given as crucified to people who cannot hear because they will not hear, in other words, in order to elect the unelectable. Preachers are not just playing a tough audience; they are speaking to people who literally cannot hear them.” Because our hearts are so totally sinful, we do not have ears to hear. This is how deep the defilement goes; the heart of a sinner is such that you cannot do anything by our own power except shut your ears. This is why Jesus gets upset at the disciples when they don’t understand him; he says, “Are you thus without understanding also?” This translation is also a bit tame; a literal word-for-word Greek translation would be something like this: “Thus Also Y’all Stupid Are, Question mark.” Ouch. Now, I think most of us know the verse, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” But I think whenever we read this particular passage we should all say, “Lord, I am stupid; help my stupidity.”
The truth is that ears which hear and understand are purely a gift of the Holy Spirit. Put it this way…that which is inside you defiles you, but it is that which is outside of you that makes you clean. Whatever comes out of you defiles you, but whatever comes out of Christ is perfectly good and holy. In our Epistle reading Paul says, “Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel…above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This armor and weaponry belongs to Jesus and is fitted for you at Baptism in such a way that really, we are clothed with Christ himself. Through the external gift of faith your closed-ears have been opened, and you have been given ears to gladly hear the Gospel and know that the crucified and risen Christ offers himself freely to you as a gift.
So, what about my defiled heart? Well, Jesus has taken all sin upon himself and by his crucifixion, and has cast it out, as far as the East is from the West. In this way, he has switched places with us. For the one who sins against God, for the one who is defiled, for you and I, the punishment ought to be eternal death. But instead Jesus, the one who is undefiled and pure, the one who fulfilled the whole Law, became defiled for our sakes. Our Lord spoke these words from Psalm 22 at his crucifixion: “I am a worm, and not a man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people.” What more needs to be said? In return for our sin and the accompanying punishment he makes us spotless, clean, and undefiled, ready for the resurrection of the dead and an eternity in heaven. I’m not going to complain about that trade-off. The undefiled righteousness of Christ and the whole armor of God do not rightly belong to us sinners, but because God so loves us, he forgives, renews, and strengthens us by the gift of faith in the Holy Spirit through his Word and sacraments. For this very reason we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me,” that we may be defiled no more. O Sinners, do not stray from the straight and narrow way…for there, the hand of the almighty is upon you, for Christ’s sake. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear: that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus, now and forevermore. Amen.