“Nothing outside a person can defile him”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + August 30, 2015

Texts: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Confession: I preached on these same Bible passages last week at a friend’s church. But the sermon you’re about to hear is wholly different from that sermon for a whole lot of reasons: you’re a different church, God is doing something different here than God is doing over there…I could go on and on. But the biggest reason for all that is different between that sermon and this sermon is that between then and now I had a tiny revelation. (Thanks to Pr. Scott Jamieson’s preaching at the Church of Another Chance.)

I approached that sermon thinking about the gospel story like this: the Pharisees and scribes say to Jesus, “How can you let your disciples eat without washing their hands? That’s against our religion,” and Jesus says to them, “It’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, it’s what comes out.”

But that’s not exactly what Jesus says. It’s one of the meanings of what Jesus says, but the actual words are, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile him.” There is nothing outside of a person that by going in is able to defile him.

It’s just a little difference, but it totally changes the impact of what Jesus is saying — at least for me. If Jesus had said, “It’s not what goes in that defiles, it’s what comes out,” he still would have been calling for a big shift in thinking: stop worrying so much about all these outside rituals; pay attention to what’s going on inside. But in this way of telling the story, we just kind of brush past the outside things and on to the inside things. If the message hits home, the Pharisees and scribes will walk away with one question: What’s going on inside of me? They will mediate on what’s going on in their hearts, on how sincere their faith and their practices are.

But Jesus’s actual words are even more intense. They linger a little longer over our relationship to the things outside of us. He says the things outside of us don’t have the power to defile us. This is more than saying, “don’t worry so much about outside things.” This is making the bold claim: “What’s inside of you is stronger than whatever comes at you from the outside. The outside things have no power over the inside things.”

And this claim should make the scribes and the Pharisees and us, too, rethink how we relate to world and the people outside of us. We should walk away with two sets of questions: The first has to do with our deepest, driving intentions: What’s going on inside of me? Is that core part of me we call a heart, that firebox that holds all my intentions and desires — is that part of me truly seeking to follow God, or am I driven by something more worldly? And the second question is: If what comes at me from the outside does not have the power to defile me, but what comes out of me does have the power to defile me, how will I act? How will I relate to the people and the situations I encounter?

For one thing, we should stop making excuses for our own behavior. C. S. Lewis once wrote about his own struggle with the habit of blaming his actions on the outside things. He wrote:

When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? … The suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.[1]

When I first read that years ago, it stuck with me like I had a rock in my shoe. It’s sort of a modern re-telling of Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and scribes: What comes at you from the outside doesn’t make you into something you’re not. But what you do — especially when your guard is down — is probably a revelation of your most honest self.

But there’s some good news that comes trailing along after that bitter-tasting reminder. What is outside of us does not have power over what we do, and what we do does not have power over God. Our actions cannot make God stop loving us. God accepts us, sins and all, and even the most sincere and mature Christian saint is still a sinner in need of grace. We are always going to need forgiveness, and it is always going to be there for us.

But even Martin Luther said that having faith in God’s grace should change the way we act — but we’re not working on our own to make that happen. As the Holy Spirit gives us faith in God’s unconditional love, that love changes the deepest part of us. It changes our desires. It points our lives in the direction of that love. It changes the way we see ourselves. It changes the way we see others. And because our hearts are being transformed, our actions are being transformed, too.[2]

Our actions can help us see where we are still in need of God’s transforming power. If we notice, like C. S. Lewis did, that we’re often hurting other people with our impatience,  that can clue us in that we need to pray for God to help us learn patience. It’s not a matter of becoming watchdogs of our own actions; it’s a matter of tuning in to the gospel message that God loves us unconditionally, and that God loves those around us unconditionally, and of trusting that message more and more fully, more and more deeply, so that that message changes our very being.

Jesus’s teaching that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” — that should change the way we see the world in another way, too. The difference that believing in that statement makes is obvious in the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees lived like they needed to protect themselves from anything that might harm them. Throughout the gospels we see them putting up walls to keep people out. They wouldn’t eat with people who did not obey their traditions. They cast judgement on others for every little way that they broke the rules: we see that they judged Jesus’s disciples for eating without washing their hands, for picking the heads off of grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). They criticized Jesus for eating with sinners (Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-2) and for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). They were always on the lookout for contamination, so that they could cast it away.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live like that? They must have always been on the lookout, so that they could avoid anything that might have contaminated them. It sounds to me like a life chained to fear.

But Jesus believed that the things outside of him did not have power over who he was. He lived his life free from that fear. Free from the need to always protect himself or prove himself, he could go to the people who needed help. He could eat with the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. Rather than building walls made of judgement, he could open himself up in love.

I wonder where we stand on that spectrum from Pharisee to Jesus, from fear to faith, from self-preservation to hospitality. Are we focused on proving ourselves to be good, or are we living out of that somewhat reckless freedom that comes with knowing we are forgiven, and that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts? Are we focused on keeping ourselves safe, or can we take the risk of loving as Christ loves?

Of course there are ways in which the things outside of us can affect what’s going on inside of us. We can think of people around us who become “bad influences,” or of the way the everyday stresses of life can wear us down, or of how a tragedy can make us feel totally weak and exhausted. Sometimes the way we have been treated by other people makes us want or need to protect ourselves.

This is why we need to make sure we are constantly tapping back in to God’s love, the source of our strength. We see that Jesus himself did this habitually. Jesus surrounded himself with faithful friends (the disciples); Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray; Jesus took part in the rituals of his people. In the same way we should make a habit of participating in Christian community, of remembering our baptism and taking communion, of keeping personal practices that help us keep connected to the God who loves us and strengthens us, who guides us and transforms us.

We do all this for our own benefit, to keep living free from fear, free from anxiety about our own perfection. We do it to refill ourselves with the promises of God. And we also tap into God’s love for the sake of others, that we may be open rather than closed, vulnerable rather than defensive — that we may be less concerned with keeping ourselves safe, and more concerned with sharing the love God gives us.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 192.

[2] See Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian,” also called “Concerning Christian Liberty.”

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