Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2018
Defiled by Inheritance
Our dog is a good dog, but he has always been prone to wander. So, when we moved to our current house, we bought an electric radius transmitter with a shock collar to keep him close to the house. At a certain distance from the transmitter, the collar will shock him to let him know that he has reached his limit. But a few feet before the shock, the collar will beep to give a warning that the shock is coming if he continues in that direction. Some of the oral tradition that Jesus was speaking against last week and now this week as we the events following were like the beeping of our dog’s collar. They are to warn of the infraction and guard against crossing the line.
You have certainly heard stories of those that continue doing things the same way because that is the way that it has always been done. Sometimes things that were never intended to be traditions become traditions. Whether the washing of hands began as a profitable practice to remind the faithful that evil always lurked about, I don’t know, but it and several others like it, had become more than just traditional practice, they had become laws that were expected to be followed. They were things that were seen as righteousness not just guards against or warnings of impending infraction, so that not doing them was viewed as sinful. These traditions had become more laws that had to be followed.
In today’s reading, Jesus goes beyond the traditions and the laws devised by men to guard against sin. He actually starts talking about the law that God had given and explains how even the things consumed in violation of it are not the things that defile a person. They are not the things that distinguish a person as being set apart by God.
There are many creatures that God forbade the Israelites from eating but as St. Mark notes in his parenthetical statement, that Jesus declared all foods to be clean for eating. He went well beyond showing that tradition is not law. Here He actually teaches something contrary to the Scriptures. Where God had declared that lobster shall not be eaten, Jesus now says that it is of no matter. It is not the lobster that will make a person unclean and so it is not the refraining from eating lobster that will keep a person clean either.
Jesus is teaching exactly what he has been doing as He has been doing all the things that the Pharisees and scribes would say that a person cannot do. Jesus has been eating with sinners. He has rubbed elbows with Samaritans and Gentiles. He has touched the lepers and the dead bodies. All of thins and we have not had one instance of Him going through any period of prescribed cleansing or observing any traditions that were supposed to make Him clean that He might re-enter the worship life of the Jews.
We may have fewer questions about what things we can eat. We might like lobster but few of us have a hankering for crickets or centipedes. Not many of us pick up one of the hundreds of squashed squirrels on the roads unless with a shovel. But we might question other things that we put in our bodies such as the things that enter our eyes and our ears. Some of the music that is carried on the airwaves is certainly not wholesome. Some of the books that line the shelves of stores or movies that fill the screen are far from being clean. Should we not restrict their use? Would it not be prudent to establish a law or at least a tradition to protect against sin? It is kind of the argument that was made against violent video games by some a few years back as they believed the games were defiling the children and making them violent. Jesus paints a different picture as He explains that all that filth and unclean behavior is already in the heart of man.
St. Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, elaborates on this a bit in his first letter to the churches in Corinth (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23) where he says that “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. [Nor do they] build up.” In other words, it might be good to refrain from vulgar and explicit music. It may be a good idea not to watch or read those suggestive movies and books. But it is not the music, movies, or books, not even the food that God once forbade that defiles a person. It is not the things that the eyes see, the ears hear, or the stomach digests that make a person a sinner. Each of us is already sinner at our core.
Jesus was turning around their way of thinking. With the washings, they had a way of making clean what had become unclean by accident. The adhering to the dietary laws was seen as a way to keep from becoming defiled. It had become for them a way to display their righteousness because they were so good at keeping such outward laws. They were guarding themselves from becoming defiled. Jesus exposes such thinking as not only misguided but deadly. Just because somebody doesn’t eat a particular thing doesn’t mean that they are preserving some kind of cleanness. Their inner being, that which is in their heart by inheritance has already defiled them.
But don’t get the idea that Jesus is doing away with the laws that were given by God in the Old Testament. He is not simply dismissing them, He is fulfilling them. He is embodying the holiness in man that none other could possess. He is the One that is undefiled in the heart, the One that has no evil lurking in His heart. It is His obedience to God’s Law, that is God’s will, that makes man clean and undefiled despite our inherent wickedness.
As violations of God’s Law cannot make us defiled because we already are, neither can adherence to God’s Law cleanse us of our defilement and make us righteous. Again (Ro 7:7) St. Paul explains a bit of the Law’s purpose for us: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” The law does not exist to make us or keep us righteous. The law exists to expose our sin so that even we may know that we are not and cannot be righteous by what we do or but what we don’t do. Righteousness comes apart from the law (Ro 3:21). Righteousness comes from outside and apart from sinful man. It comes in the person of Jesus Christ.
We are called to a different kind of obedience than an obedience to the Law. We are called to the obedience of faith. We are called to believe that Jesus is the one man who was born and has remained righteous, the one man that was not defiled by Adam’s sin nor was defiled by the manner of His life or the things of His heart. He is truly righteous and His righteousness, He gives to us freely, through faith.
Becoming and remaining undefiled is not a work that the Pharisees could do, and it is not a work that any of us can do. It is the work of God as we sang in today’s Introit, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” This He has done by His Word, not simply as an outward washing but a washing of the heart tainted by sin.
By grace! None dare lay claim to merit;
Out works and conduct have no worth.
God in His love sent our Redeemer,
Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth;
His death did for our sins atone,
And we are saved by grace alone. (LSB 566:2)
In the name of Jesus. Amen.