Sunday, August 14, 2011

Jesus, Our Muckraking Savior

Texts:  Jeremiah 17:5-10; 12-14; Matthew 15:1-20   
        IN AMERICA ABOUT A HUNDRED years ago, there were people called muckrakers.  Not your ordinary farmhand who spread the manure on the field, but magazine and newspaper reporters, men and women both, who specialized in bringing to light the hidden evils of American society.  The title "muckraker" was a pejorative: it implied that these writers were so busy focussing on what was wrong with American politics, business, and manufacturing that they never looked up and saw what was good.

    But the muckrakers didn't care.  They believed that our country could only be truly great if someone had to guts to dig below the beautiful, glittering surface and reveal the disease and evil that was hidden below.  It wasn't nice, or pleasant, or socially-acceptable to talk about such things, but it had to be done for America to be healed.

    In our passage from St. Matthew, chapter 15, our Savior Jesus operates as a muckraker.  He goes beyond the religious leaders' obsession with the clean surface and reveals the uncleanness of the human heart.  And just like the crowds and His disciples, we have to understand the dire sickness of our own hearts, if we are to turn to Jesus and be cured.

    Our scene takes place in Galilee.  Some Pharisees and teachers of the law arrive from Jerusalem to investigate Jesus.  Now, the Pharisees started out well.  They were a reform movement after the Babylonian Exile, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.  It's thanks to them that the Jews of Jesus' day weren't still bowing down to pagan idols.  The scribes and Pharisees were very zealous for keeping the law of God: so zealous that their rabbis and elders kept adding interpretation upon interpretation, rule upon rule to the law, just in case anyone should violate the commands in the slightest way.  And the Pharisees of Jerusalem were the most zealous of all.

    Trouble was, they were like some 21st century Constitutional lawyers, who get so wound up in the latest case law that they forget what the Constitution actually says.  And now the Pharisees have heard disturbing things about Jesus.  They've been informed He isn't making His disciples keep the tradition of the elders.  As a Rabbi, He's responsible for their moral purity.  He needs to be challenged on this!

    So, Jesus, why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  Why, they don't wash their hands before they eat!

    Don't imagine that the Pharisees were concerned about keeping germs out of the food.  No, it was spiritual and ritual cleanliness they cared about.  Washing hands before eating had to be done in the right ritual way, with repeated pourings of water over first one hand, then the other.  Because if you didn't do all that, it made the food you ate ritually unclean and that food would make you spiritually and morally dirty inside, too.  But doing the ritual washing kept you clean and acceptable to God.  At least, that is what their tradition led them to believe.

    So what they were really saying is, "Jesus, you pretend to be a rabbi and teach the way of God, but your disciples are unclean in His sight and you encourage them to be that way.  You are a dangerous fraud."

    You or I might be tempted to get defensive and make excuses about the no-hand-washing charge.  But Jesus sees past it and turns their real accusation back on them.  Do they pretend to be rabbis themselves, true teachers of the law of God?  Then why do they break the true law of God, given through Moses, for the sake of the rules and interpretations added on by their not-God-inspired, johnny-come-lately predecessors? 

    Jesus ruthlessly exposes how they operate.  For instance, the real law of God, recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy, commands us to honor our parents with our obedience, our words, and our financial support.  But the scribal tradition had come up with a concept called korban.  It means "sacrifice," and it originally meant the animals and so on that God commanded the people to offer to Him in worship.  But in the practice of the Pharisees, a man could declare anything to be "korban," that is, a sacrifice vowed to God, and since God takes precedence even over one's mother or father, why, you could declare anything to be korban and not have to use it to help your needy parents.  And so, Jesus says, the Pharisees "nullif[ied] the word of God for the sake of [their] tradition."

    Oh, yes, on the surface it looked as clean and holy and legal as can be.  But Jesus our Savior took the muckrake of His word and dug down and showed how selfish and wicked and unloving this practice of korban really was.  The religious leaders put on a great show of loving God's law, but it was all hypocrisy.  They claimed to be the only ones who were truly worshipping Him, but as Jesus quotes Isaiah, it was all for nothing.  They weren't teaching the people the word of God, just a lot of rules made up by themselves and other men.

    Jeremiah, in the seventeenth chapter of his prophecy, also condemns those who depend on what men say and do for their life and strength.  He says that those who trust in man are like bushes in a wasteland: stunted, dried up, bearing no fruit.  Do you think this habit of abandoning the real law of God and following manmade rules began and ended with the Pharisees?  Not at all!  It's the oldest human habit and sin-- it's as old as Adam and Eve-- and it'll continue until Christ returns. Every day of our lives we're swimming in manmade rules telling us what we're supposed to do and what we're not supposed to do, all promising that if we keep them we'll please God or at least be happy, healthy, well-adjusted human beings. These rules and promises come from our secular culture and from misguided leaders in the church.  You know how it goes: A preacher says you'll go to hell if you take one sip of beer, so you think, "OK, if I avoid all alcohol, I'll be all right with God."  Or some worldly pundit says you're an intolerant bigot if you tell an unbeliever about Jesus Christ and His death for their sins, and your response is, "OK, I'll keep quiet.  Don't want anybody to think I'm not kind and loving."  But following these manmade rules don't make us "clean," they just hide the real uncleanness we have deep down inside.

    Jesus will not allow that unhealthy uncleanness to be hidden.  It has to be brought to the light and be washed away and cured.  So that day in Galilee He called the crowd to Him and told them frankly, "Listen and understand.  What goes into a man's mouth does not make him ‘unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'"

    The disciples are astonished.  Didn't Jesus realize He'd offended the Pharisees, the way He'd answered them?  They were the ones everybody thought were getting it right.  Their very name means "Separated Ones" or "Saints."  How could Jesus dare to get on the wrong side of the separated saints of God?

    But Jesus knows their corruption and He does not hesitate to reveal it.  These so-called saints haven't been planted by God, and they will be uprooted.  The disciples should ignore them; don't even think of following their lead.  The Pharisees claimed to be guides for the spiritually blind, but they were blind themselves.  Go after them, and you'd end up in a spiritual pit.

    In our day we, too, have people and parties who claim to be able to tell us what to do and how to live.  Whether they speak from the right or from the left, don't follow them until you've compared what they're saying with the word of God.  Jeremiah says that the one who trusts in the Lord is like a tree planted by a stream of water, never going dry and always green and fruitful.  Remember to follow God first, even when your own party or group is demanding you accept or reject something just because they say so.  Stay out of that pit.

    When Jesus had warned the crowd and the disciples against the corruption of the Pharisees, Peter said to Him, "Explain the parable to us."  The disciples took it for granted that you could be spiritually corrupted by something you ate.  It didn't dawn on them that there was a literal meaning to what Jesus had said. And it frustrates Him that the disciples don't get it.  Are they still so dull?  Hasn't He been teaching them ever since the Sermon on the Mount that the seat of sin and corruption is the human heart?  The Pharisees were wrong in thinking that spiritual uncleanness came from eating unclean food with unclean hands.  Our culture is wrong in thinking that people are basically good and human evil comes about due to bad parenting or economic deprivation or some other outside influence.  No, says Jesus, food is food, it's swallowed, it does its job in the body, and the waste ends up in the latrine.  But what comes out of the mouth, that comes from the heart, and that is what makes a human being unclean. 

    Brothers and sisters, every last one of us was born with a dirty heart.  As Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure."  We all have evil thoughts, we wish others were dead, we cast the eye of lust on those who are not joined to us in marriage, we steal or wish we could steal, we lie about ourselves and against others, we speak ill of God and our fellow man.  We act out these urges in continual thoughts and acts every day of our lives, and if we haven't done anything to get arrested for, it's because we haven't yet had the nerve or the motive.  Even our so-called good deeds are selfish and corrupt and unacceptable in the sight of our holy God.

    So what can we do?  Jeremiah says our hearts are beyond cure.  Are we condemned to the muck forever?

    We are not.  What is impossible with man is possible with God.  For in Jeremiah 17:14 the prophet cries, "Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved."  We can't clean up our own hearts, by keeping rituals or following rules.  But Jesus who reveals the muck of our hearts is also the Savior who makes them clean.  The blood He shed for us on Calvary is sufficient and effective to wash away every sin: not just the ones we commit, but the sinfulness of our hearts as well.  If you belong to Christ, He has put a new and clean heart within you.  It's at war with the old heart and its evil attitudes, but slowly, bit by bit, His Holy Spirit is shrinking that old heart and taking away its power over you.

    It's not pleasant to face up to the filthiness that's in our own hearts.  But it's the mercy of our Lord Jesus that reveals it to us and calls us to repentance.  It's His grace that keeps us clinging to His Holy Spirit and His word, so that we come to Him again and again to be made pure.  And it's His love that will bring us at last to stand with Him on Zion's holy hill with clean hands and pure hearts, united by faith with Him the holy Son of God, the only Man whose hands are truly clean, and whose heart is wholly pure.

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