Hearts Inclined Toward God
Reading: Luke 10:25-37; Mark 7:14-23
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Perhaps you had the opportunity as I did yesterday morning to watch some of the Presidential inauguration and listen to our new President give his inaugural address. I remember being somewhat caught off guard at one point when he said, “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass by on the other side.” I wondered how many in our nation understood the reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. And I was struck throughout the speech by the call to right actions, to right treatment of one another, the call to be good citizens living in harmony with one another. One commentator characterized the speech afterwards by using four words: courage, compassion, character, and civility. All good words, all admirable traits. But how does one get a nation of people to be good neighbors? People of character and compassion, people who do not pass by when they see the wounded traveler on the road to Jericho. I found myself drawn back to this story in Luke, and I realized for the first time that there is a major assumption made in this text regarding the two great commandments. The assumption of the lawyer, and by us when we read this text, is that it is the second of the two commandments that is the problem. “Who is my neighbor?” is the question that requires justification. But what about the first commandment? Love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. Should we assume that the lawyer has this one right when he needs to justify himself?
And that led me then to start thinking about the wording of the greatest command. The quotation is from Deuteronomy 6, when Moses speaks the Shema: 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. You may note the slight variation in wording—in the lawyer’s account the word “mind” is added. Something similar happens in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 when Jesus recites the commandment in response to a scribe. In Mark, Jesus says Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. In Matthew, Jesus says, You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. My point in all of this is the word “mind” is either added or it replaces the word might. Evidently this came about somewhere in the translation process from the Hebrew of Deuteronomy to the Greek of the New Testament. On the one hand, it is all insignificant because the point of it all surely is the claim that one should love God with the whole person, one’s entire being. But here is why I am interested in all of this: No matter what you have in these texts regarding soul, strength, and mind, the command invariably starts with loving God with all your……HEART. Why do we all understand what that means? Or do we? Exactly what part of us is that? Somehow we all immediately know that we’re not talking about this organ beating in our chests. We intuitively understand that the heart has to do with the core of our being—call it the seat of our emotions, or all that is good about our conscience, or our inmost self. We also instinctively understand, that loving God with all of our hearts is more than a feeling—somehow it involves right thinking, it even involves right actions, at least toward God. If one doesn’t love God with one’s whole heart, the “heart” will be filled with other things. In fact, right actions may or may not be an indication of right heart. That often apparent in the struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. A great example of that is in Mark 7.
Jesus, the son of God, the living embodiment of the greatest command, is perceived by the people who think they best understand the commandments as the opposite of one who loves God. The people living next to Jesus, the people who thought they best knew how to define loving God in that time, perceived Jesus as foe, not friend. For them, Jesus was a complete contradiction of what it means to love God, to be holy as he is holy. If the opposite of holy is secular and pagan, that is how they thought Jesus acted at every turn. The people most interested in holiness in the first century were the Pharisees and scribes—the copiers of the Law. The meaning of existence for Pharisees had to do with holiness and the sanctity of life. Their leaders had spent years pouring over scripture, studying the Law to determine what one had to do to be holy. They discovered in the Law how important it was to be ritually clean, that is to be qualified for worship and sacrifice at the holy place—be that the tabernacle or the temple. The knew all of the washing procedures the priest had to go through before he could present a sacrifice to God; they knew all of the rules for touching unclean objects or animals or persons that could defile a person and thereby render one unholy, unable to offer sacrifice, unable to worship. Their leaders would read these laws and then expand them, just to be on the safe side. If washing was good for the priests, it must be good for the non-priest as well. But even pagans wash their hands occasionally, so they developed ways of washing that were religiously more acceptable than other ways. Just as priests had instructions for washing, so all those wishing to be holy had to wash in specific ways before eating. It was not just a matter of clean fingernails at the dinner table. It was a question of being holy, and it was serious business, just like observing the food laws was serious business. For that matter the food laws still are serious business to many. When you buy pickles at the store that are labeled "Kosher dills" you are reminded that food laws still count for something, not for health reasons but for religious purity reasons. Mark explains to his audience in vv. 3-4 some of the basics with regard to their practices. The “traditions of the elders” are the commentaries of famous Jewish rabbis on the law that were intended to more practically define the law for modern use. These traditions were later recorded in Judaism in what we today call the Mishnah. As commentary on the Law they came to have equal standing with scripture in terms of authority.
The words we are most familiar within these contexts are clean and unclean. The Pharisees were the people of their day most interested in being clean, in preserving themselves for worship. So they ate the right foods and washed themselves the prescribed ways and avoided everything that was unclean. All of this was primarily to make them holy, right with God. But it had some dangerous side effects: It tended to create a sense of pride and arrogance towards those who were less clean, less holy. It tended to separate them from other people and make them feel superior to others. It tended to make the Pharisees think that they were better than others, closer to God than others.
A major dilemma was faced by these pious ones when Jesus came on the scene. People began to identify Jesus as “the holy one of God.” Indeed he was a powerful miracle worker who spoke with authority as though he was in close contact with God himself. The problem was he ignored all the rules of cleanliness for worship. He touched lepers and defiled himself. He worked on the Sabbath. He allowed himself to be touched by an unclean woman. He touched a corpse. He ministered to a man who lived in the cemetery in Gentile territory filled with pigs. He ate with sinners. Beyond all of that, he didn't even use the prescribed methods of washing to sanctify himself and his food, and he let his disciples get away with such laxity as well. How could he be the holy one of God when he ignored all of the rules for holiness?
When some of the Pharisees and scribes finally work up the courage to ask Jesus' disciples about this problem, Jesus takes them to task, and he is not particularly fond of their judgmental attitudes. He begins by calling them hypocrites, people who claim to be seeking holiness and abiding by the law while in fact rejecting the law. Their traditions, he says, actually contradict the law rather than upholding it. As an example he takes the very pious practice of dedicating one's property to God. Property could be dedicated to God, though still controlled and possessed by its owner. He accuses these religious leaders of using the practice of Corban to withhold support from parents. The scenario is this: A man's feeble parents are too old to take care of themselves and need to be cared for by the children. The children say, Sorry folks, all of the money and goods that I would have given to you have been dedicated to God, for his work, so I can't help you. Jesus says that's just one example of the ways in which their elevation of tradition has compromised God's original law. The traditions of the elders not only are inferior to God's law, they contradict that Law.
Then Jesus returns to the original complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that his disciples are defiled before God. In sweeping statements that Mark later interprets for us, Jesus redefines the nature of being clean or unclean before God. You see the Pharisees measured holiness by external acts of piety. Jesus says the correct measure is internal, not external. It is not the outside but the inside that determines holiness. VV. 17-18 are critical for us to hear in understanding the complete reversal of understanding that Jesus is suggesting. The disciples don't understand what Jesus is saying. “What do you mean it’s the things that come out of a man that defile him?” They are as locked in as the Pharisees are to the belief that defilement comes from touching and be touched by the unclean object. Jesus has to rebuke them for their lack of understanding and then explain that it is the heart, not the stomach that is the determining organ for what is clean and unclean. Mark tells us in v. 19 that with that statement Jesus declared all foods clean—he wiped out all of the rules about Kosher and un-Kosher. What comes out of a man is what defiles him.
Jesus then lists thoughts and actions that are generated from within, rather than produced by touching or not touching, washing or not washing. The list of vices is rather extensive: evil thoughts (not spoken evil thoughts, just evil thoughts), fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness (one of those big words we rarely take time to explain—it means immodest behavior, behavior that takes license, goes outside the boundaries of decency), envy, slander, pride, foolishness. These evil things are all generated from within a person—these are what defile.
Jesus knew that a person could attend every church service, even pull a guy out of the ditch occasionally and still be unclean. He knew that you could fool most of the people most of the time. You can wear the outer garments of holiness and go through enough religious motions to look holy and pious to other people, while inside the defilement continues. The evil thoughts persist, the coveting continues to make us want more than we have, the pride continues to make us put others down so that we can feel better about ourselves, we keep stretching the boundaries of our behavior, pushing the limits on what constitutes modest clothing, still deceiving ourselves and others, wanting folks to think we are religious when we are not.
Out of it all comes one stinging word that outsiders love to use as a defense for their own ungodly behavior—hypocrite. There is a sense in which I always want to say that church is where hypocrites ought to be—but that is true only if the sinner is trying to get well. I wonder how many times we still erect our own traditions and make those the measuring stick for holiness so that we too can worry about the outside instead of the inside. I wonder how many times loving God with all of our heart—with the core of our being—ends up being replaced with self-love for our own religious traditions and convictions? And in the name of God, we stop loving God and his people because we harbor such evil thoughts about others, perhaps even about others in our midst.
You see, we know Jesus is right. We know that what defiles comes from within, not from external rituals and traditions. That which we uphold as holy tradition could even stand in the way of our being and becoming holy if we elevated those traditions and gave them precedence over what really is commanded of us by God. If we keep right heart, then the first two commandments always restore a frame of reference, always call for a heart check and a focus check. Is defending our tradition, or watching out for slippery slopes in doctrine—is that producing right heart?
The good news of the gospel is that God has acted in Jesus, to fill us with his holiness, to root out of our hearts all of the evil. But the only way for him to work is for us to tell the truth about our lives. To come clean with all that is unclean within us. What does it mean, this morning to incline our hearts toward God? To start where the commandment starts—not with our doctrines, not with our expertise in contemporary worship, not even with our actions of kindness and goodwill, but with our hearts. If the Lawyer had understood the first commandment, would he have needed to justify himself concerning the second?
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, January 21, 2001.
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