A sermon preached by Andrew McKearney at Evening Prayer on 29 August 2021.
We’ve just heard the Pharisees criticise Jesus for letting his disciples eat without first washing their hands.
This dispute over rituals and cultic obligations is one that we overhear throughout the New Testament.
‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not
humankind for the Sabbath,’ says Jesus.
‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for
anything; the only thing that counts is faith working
through love,’ says Saint Paul.
The dispute we overhear in the New is also present in the Old Testament as well. The Old Testament prophets denounce the thinking that ritual purity is enough; at times it even seems they don’t want anything to do with rituals and cultic obligations.
So the prophet Micah asks passionately:
‘With what shall I come before the Lord…..?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?’
To which the prophet Micah replies:
‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?’
Jesus stands within this prophetic tradition and this brings him into conflict with the Pharisees of his day:
‘There is nothing outside a person that by going in can
defile,’ says Jesus, ‘but the things that come out are what
The Pharisees had extended the priestly concern for ritual purity in Judaism to include everybody, because their vision was for the whole nation to be a kingdom of priests serving God.
Theirs was a worthy desire for everyone to be totally dedicated to God. So the ritual obligations that had originally been reserved for just priests were now extended by the Pharisees to include everybody.
The down side of their approach was what every biblical prophet thundered against – a neglect of the important matters of the law, and a focussing on outward observance and ignoring inner motivation.
This approach had permeated Jewish culture in the time of Jesus so much so that what was believed was that what goes into someone is what causes defilement, not what comes out!
Jesus reasserts what the biblical prophets had always taught and that tonight’s psalm (Psalm 15) echoes – that motivation starts with the human heart and overflows into moral action.
Purity of heart is the goal of Christian practice and devotion, not ritual or cultic purity.
As we’ve just prayed:
‘O God, make clean our hearts within us.
And take not thy Holy Spirit from us.’