Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 29, 2021
What is around us is a small thing compared to what is within us. Our heart, and not our circumstances, determines who we are and what we do. When it comes to defining our life, the interior is superior to the exterior.
People faulted Jesus for letting His disciples grow lax in the practice of traditional regiments about washing and eating. Such disciplines about external behavior were meant – like, say, the regular study of scripture or attendance at worship – to advance an internal development of the soul; and, when done right, they did. After all, what we do with our body influences what goes on in our spirit. (Think about we bow our head to pray.) But we can easily make too much of exterior practices, and transform mere means into ends, ones that trump the deeper concerns they were designed to serve. Thus Jesus decried how folks prioritized keeping human traditions above the keeping divine commandments.
So, while our external actions (our works) prove and promote our internal commitment (our faith), the interior remains superior to the exterior in terms of importance and impact. For, as Jesus said elsewhere, our heart is the source from which our life flows. The quality of the heart determines the quality of the life. So, if our heart is “far from [God]”, as was the case with Jesus’ critics, the practice of external disciplines does little good. A discipline, say, about what we eat never gets to the core issue. This is why Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” What comes out of us comes from our heart; and a bad heart defiles us whole just as a good heart sanctifies us whole. A bad heart is a great danger, Jesus said, for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Our problem then is that we need a better heart, and we can’t give ourselves one. We can only ask God to take away our old heart and give us a new one Himself.
A pastor was holding a glass of water as he began the children’s sermon. He acted as if he were nervous about public speaking and shook with pretend fright. As a result, he spilled water on the Chancel carpet. He then asked the kids, “Why is there water on the floor?” They giggled because the answer was obvious. “What I mean is,” he continued, “why is there water on the floor and not, say, milk?” “Because you had water in the glass!” a child patiently explained rolling her eyes. “That’s right,” the pastor replied, “there’s water on the floor because there is water in my glass. But why did the water get out of the glass?” “Because you were shaking!” “True!” answered the pastor. “I made a mess because I was shaken by this big moment. But aren’t I still responsible for bringing water into the church and spilling it?”
The pastor then told an age-appropriate version of the story of David’s affair with Bathsheba. He concluded by saying, “If someone asked David why he committed adultery, he might have said, ‘Because I was shaken by the stress and pressure I was under, so shaken it made me lose my head and do wrong.’ But what David did in fact say, in Psalm 51, was the truth, not an excuse. He said, ‘I committed adultery because there is adultery in my heart. My exterior deed shows my interior nature. Evil came from me because there is evil in me.’”
David was honest enough to admit that he himself was his own worst problem, and he couldn’t fix himself. He recognized he had no hope but to ask the Lord to do for him what he couldn’t, saying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
Our exterior gets right only when our interior does, and for that we have to depend on help from beyond us.
Consider this analogy. Imagine you are an ardent environmentalist; and, on a nature hike deep into the forest, you find a polluted stream, with filthy plastic bags floating in it and rusty beer cans lining its banks. You scoop up trash and pack it up to carry it out. But you see you’ll have to return to the site to finish the job. Yet, when you return the next day, the stream looks just as gross as it did before. It then occurs to you that there’s a problem upstream. So you climb the hillside and, sure enough, you find a garbage dump whose refuse keeps sliding into the water. You realize your cleanup efforts only free up space for more foul slop to slip into the stream. You also realize that the work that needs to be done is more than you could ever do. So you call in waste disposal experts, with heavy equipment, to remove the dump out of there and to restore the land to its previous pristine condition.
If our heart is the source of our life being polluted, we are only wasting time and energy by trying to fix the problem ourselves. Our only hope is that we call upon an almighty God to remove our old trash-generating heart and create a new heart in its place. The interior is superior to the exterior; but only a Superior Force, God Himself, can give us a new interior. Let us invite God to take over and transform us at the core!