In the morning I like to make my gorgeous wife a cup of tea, and make myself a coffee. I open the cupboard and decide what kind of mug mood I am in. Yes, there’s a thing called a mug mood. They all look so shiny, and I take great pleasure in selecting one that meets my mood that particular morning.
Am I in a floral, fluted mug mood, or should I go for a large, classic simple shape, or one with a big G for Gavin on it, or perhaps a comedy one with some witty ditty painted on the side? It matters!
So, you can imagine my dismay, if when I take it from the cupboard and place it on the counter, that when I look inside the mug, it is filled with something blue and black and furry; when I discover that the mug has not been washed properly on the inside, and since it was placed in the cupboard it has become a petri dish for all manner of mouldy growths! Clean on the outside. Dirty on the inside. Ewwww!
In the stories about Jesus he often encounters two groups of people, the Pharisees and Scribes, and on one occasion they criticise Jesus’ disciples for not ceremonially washing their hands before eating. It is a story of contrasts – clean and mouldy.
Humility vs Pomposity
Sincerity vs Hypocrisy
Sympathy vs Cruelty
Self Interest vs Looking to interests of others
The Pharisees and Scribes – that’s the lawmakers – were trying to trip Jesus up. You see, Jesus was becoming famous and they were deeply concerned.
Think of the Scribes and Pharisees as the spiritual police of the time. They set the rules and told people how to live and behave. Then along came this radical rabbi called Jesus, who was undermining their teaching and telling everybody something different – and worse – the people were listening to him.
So important was this, that the Pharisees and Scribes travelled north from Jerusalem, which was about 100 miles away, and it would have taken three to four days to get to the region called Galilee, and track Jesus down. You have to applaud them for their effort. To say they were concerned is an understatement!
But it is interesting that Jesus was not criticised directly. The Scribes and Pharisees criticised the disciples of Jesus. I will come on to that later.
And what are the disciples criticised for? For not ceremonially washing their hands before eating. This was considered a sign of spiritual uncleanliness. They were, in the eyes of Scribes and Pharisees, spiritually dirty. But here is something you need to understand. Handwashing was not in the written Law of Moses. You see, the Pharisees and Scribes had two sets of laws: the written law and the spoken law. The latter was called, ‘the tradition of the elders’.
Why is this important?
You see, the Pharisees and Scribes were obsessed with holiness or being spiritually clean. That is why the law was there in the first place. When you live under the law then every little thing you do, say, or think, matters. For every action you have to determine, on the cosmic scales, is it right or wrong? And so, the written law had hundreds of right ways of living, but it was not exhaustive, and so the spoken law started to define things down to the point where hairs could be split – down to even what, where, and when you can eat, and – as we see in this particular encounter – how you prepare yourself for eating. There was not a minutiae of life that was not under the law – written or spoken. All this, to keep you holy and clean.
But then, Jesus calls them hypocrites – literally, actors! Can you think of anything more insulting to call a bunch of people obsessed with holiness? You see, Jesus was turning this whole idea of the law on its head.
The prevailing thought at the time was that it was external things that made you unclean, such as touching an unclean person, or engaging in an activity that made you unclean. But Jesus says it is the other way around. It is what is inside you that makes you unclean.
And Jesus spells it out. It is not appearance that matters but your HEART that matters. He said…
“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
So what are the faith lessons we can learn from this story? What does it mean for us, today?
The first Faith Lesson I think we can take from this is that criticism in the church usually comes from within.
In the Bible story it was not the Romans or the Samaritans criticising Jesus or his disciples. It was the leaders within Judaism!
After many years in Christian ministry, I can tell you that it is not those outside the church that criticise what we do. It is not the atheists. It is not the humanists. It is not the agnostics. It’ is not the government. It is not your neighbours, nor your family. Those outside the church are largely indifferent, saying things like, “Hey, it’s okay if you choose to spend Sunday mornings hanging out in that building with the pointy roof,” or, “It’s up to you if you want to bring your kids forward and say thank-you to God for them.” No, criticism comes, nearly always, from those within the church. And that’s perhaps why it hurts so much? Ask anyone involved in Christian leadership and they will all tell you the same thing.
So, what do we do when we are criticised? Well, just like Jesus’ disciples were exactly that, Jesus’ disciples. They answered only to him. In the same way, we answer only to Jesus. I know criticism hurts, but stay true to God and to what God is calling you to do and to be. Trust in him.
The second faith lesson is that in the same way the Jewish people had the written law and the spoken law, we as Christians have the Bible – our written law – but then different denominations have their own church laws – we call ours in the Anglican Church, Canon Law.
For example, in the Anglian church, only a priest can consecrate the bread and wine for communion. That is not in the Bible and we need to be VERY, VERY careful about doing things and then criticising others if they do not do them.
John Stott, a famous Anglican minister said…
Scripture is divine
Scripture is obligatory
Scripture is supreme
Tradition is human
Tradition is optional
Tradition is subordinate
I wonder what the traditions are, to which you hold dear, that God would say, “That thing you do in church…? Yes, that thing… I know you love it and it’s dear to you, but in the big scheme of things, it’s what’s in your heart that matters.”
Traditions can be good and helpful means by which we draw closer to God. That is why we do them, but they must never, ever become the thing. As soon as we focus on them then we’ve taken our eyes off God. Dear friends, we must keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus.
And, finally, Faith Lesson number three. And this is the biggie.
It is not what we do that makes us clean.
It is who we know.
We do not become holy or spiritually clean by obeying a set of laws that influence every part of our lives. No-one can live up to that standard. That bar is set way too high, and if you attempt it, then you will fail.
The gospel message is that God, through Jesus, has done it all. Everything. There is nothing we need to do to become holy or spiritually clean, other than turn to Jesus. In him is complete acceptance, understanding, love, and forgiveness. To turn to Jesus to embark on a life-transforming relationship. In other words, it is our hearts that matter. And what kind of heart is God looking for? Psalm 51 says, “Oh God, a broken and contrite heart you will not despise.”
God wants you to come to him just as you are; to not act, but to be your real, broken, messed up self. He wants you to worship him – to give your life to him – to open yourself up to him. Jesus makes you clean.
I will leave you with these words from a former archbishop:
Humble yourselves before the holiness of God
Feed your minds with the truth of God
Focus your eyes on the beauty of God
Open your hearts to the love of God
And devote your lives to the purpose of God.