Saturday, March 07, 2009

Sermon on Matthew 15:1-20 for Lent 2, "Why do your disciples...?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Tonight we continue our sermon series on “Questions about Jesus that they don’t want answered.” The text is the reading you heard from Matthew 15:1-20, the Pharisees question about traditions. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Arguing with the Son of God is never a winning proposition. Whenever the Pharisees or others tried to catch Jesus in His words, or trip Him up, they ended up being snared in their own words. Jesus could quickly turn the tables on them, and expose the lie in their hearts. The Pharisees’ question today, was about why the disciples broke the tradition of the elders by eating with unwashed hands. This referred to certain ceremonial laws that the rabbis had recorded, but were not scriptural. Instead of answering their question, Jesus puts another one of their manmade traditions or laws to the test. Why? To show that they really weren’t concerned about obedience to God, but obedience to their own traditions.

In his parallel account, Mark (7:11) records the name of this manmade tradition that Jesus was going to expose. It was called the Corban rule. This rule basically said that if a person wanted to will their money or other material inheritance to the temple, after their death, this money couldn’t be transferred to anyone else. However, it could be used for your own benefit while you were alive. Therefore, according to the Corban rule, a son could say to his parents: “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” and he didn’t need to honor his father or mother. In effect, it gave the greedy son or daughter an excuse for not supporting their parents, and keeping all their money to themselves by saying that when they died, all their inheritance was pledged to God. So for their parents to expect any help or support from them, would be tantamount to robbing God. Or so went the pretense. So it appeared pious and reverent toward God, by promising future help to the needy—while it denied help to the parents who were concretely in need. The book of Proverbs comments on this attitude, saying: “Whoever robs his father or his mother and says, “That is no transgression,” is a companion to a man who destroys” (Prov. 28:24).

So here, by using the Corban rule, the people would honor a manmade tradition, but would disobey the divine commandment to honor your father and mother. The tradition made void or nullified the fourth commandment by making it ok to hide behind a tradition while robbing your parents of their rightful care. The fourth commandment teaches us that we should “not despise or anger our parents or other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” Since our parents or legal guardians went to great expense and sacrifice to raise us, it should be a joy for us to willingly support them when we are able, and to return the love that they showed to us.

Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites for holding the doctrines of men above the commands of God, and calls it lip service to God. Quoting Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Is. 29:13). This kind of devotion to God angers Him, because it hurts other people (Bruner, see below). The lips give service to God, and make a show of holiness, but the heart is corrupt and wicked. What is true worship instead? To honor God’s commandments and teachings above those of men, and to worship God in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24). His Word is Truth, and His Spirit is active through His Word.

Jesus follows up this discussion with the crowds and His disciples, explaining to them what really defiles a person or makes them unclean. It’s not the failure to wash your hands, as the Pharisee’s question assumed. Jesus goes further to say that it’s not even a matter of the food you eat, which was an important thing for Jews considering their kosher laws. Jesus says none of these things that go into a person make them unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of their mouth, which flows from their heart that makes them unclean. Breaking God’s commandments, not human commandments, is what defiles you. Jesus replies: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Jesus’ answer is another one we don’t want to hear. We always want to assume that our hearts are the source of our best motivations and desires, and that even if our outward actions don’t always measure up—at least our heart is right. But Jesus lays the heart bare as the source of the evil thoughts that give rise to such transgressions against the 10 Commandments as murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. Why are all these things the fruit of the heart? Because Jesus says, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34). Like a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit, so the condition of our heart will be reflected in the words that flow from our mouth and in the actions that follow. Jesus’ examples were from the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th commandments—which are directed at protecting our neighbor’s life and health, their sexual purity and that of their marriage bed, the protection of their property and possessions, and the protection of their reputation.

We see this “bad fruit” and the result of evil thoughts from the heart in many ways. Oftentimes even disguised behind a veil of legitimacy, just as the Pharisees’ Corban rule gave honor to human laws and traditions, while disobeying God. Hiding behind so called “rights” that give permission to take an innocent life in the womb, honors human law but disregards the Divine commandment. So called “protection” for “safe-sex” offers no protection against the loss of sexual purity, or dishonoring the marriage bed. Using legal means to dishonest gain, whether someone else is hurt by it or not, is still theft in God’s eyes. False witness and slander may be the regular fare of gossipers, and there may be an endless number of excuses to legitimize it, but it still disregards God’s command and takes the prerogative on yourself to judge another. But these and other examples of evil thoughts and deeds have at their root a heart that is far from God.

So what is the solution? How do we bring about the godly virtues and obedience to God’s commands that flows from the heart, and is more than just empty lip-service? First of all, there is no amount of moral reform or coercion that can bring about the old sinful nature to more than just an outward obedience. More than just lip-service. Secondly, we can never fulfill the law to the complete and perfect extent that God requires. The solution is more drastic: we need a heart transplant. We need God to give us a new heart, a heart of flesh, not the sinful, hard-heart of stone. Our sinful heart with its immoral intentions, with hateful and lustful thoughts, with greed and gossip and slander, cannot give rise to real change. But God, who by His Word and Spirit can “Create in me a clean heart,” and through the washing of baptism can give us rebirth, can transform our lives and actions into true worship that flows from a pure heart, and worships God in Spirit and Truth.

If the Pharisees and chief priests had known who they were speaking to, and that Jesus was the Son of God, they would have turned to Him in repentance for a clean heart. He would grant them the Holy Spirit and faith, that they would then worship Him and His Father in Spirit and in Truth. They would recognize in Him the perfect fulfillment and obedience of the Law, as God requires…the One who fulfills the Law in our place. It is my prayer this Lenten season, that you and I both would seek after Jesus in repentance for the evil thoughts of our hearts, and that we would cry out to Him for a clean heart and a clean conscience, forgiven through His shed blood on the cross. That we’d trust in Him as the One who fulfills the Law in our place. That we’d recognize our own role in the death of Jesus, by contributing our own sin—but pleading for His mercy upon us poor sinners. Then we will find as the Psalms say, that God is near to the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18), His salvation is near to those who fear Him (Ps. 85:9), and that He is near to those who call on Him, who call on Him in truth (Ps. 145:18).

With this attitude of repentance and sorrow over sin, and seeking God’s mercy in Christ, we are surely near to Him, and not far away. And because He is our great High Priest, we can in the words of the book of Hebrews: “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:22-25). Then we will have the obedience that God desires: “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). God is near to us. Christ is near. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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