In the first congregation I served in Detroit Michigan, there was a member—I call her Monica since there was no Monica there. She was a dedicated church person and leader who served on Council, participated in Bible study, cooked for church meals, and volunteered in whatever she could to help the church. She did all the right things in her mind, to be right with God—she was a servant and worker bee, committed to the church of Jesus Christ. But Monica had one thing that “stuck in her craw,” as the saying goes, and she mentioned it frequently.
It bothered Monica that some people would receive God’s grace and forgiveness at the end of their life, even if they did not deserve it. “Those death-bed conversions are just not fair!” she would exclaim. “They can live however they want, and then at the last minute, believe in Jesus and get into heaven. Here I have been in the church, serving my whole life, and they have not done anything.”
Monica often experienced her service in the church, and doing the right thing, as a duty and obligation, which did not bring her much joy. Her work in the church become a source of judgment on others rather than an activity that expanded her heart with love.
Deathbed conversions may not be the issue that sticks in our craw, but all of us are Monica, are we not? We hold to a standard of behavior—what is good and right and meaningful to us, and judge others for not holding to these same standards. We see it played out in each political party, in the “cancel culture” of some progressives, and the news and talk shows that delight in catching someone behaving badly. Our social media culture reinforces our own opinions as the ultimate measure by which we judge others, asking us to “like” or comment on every picture, activity, event, or pronouncement posted.
This human predicament is nothing new: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” the scribes and pharisees ask. The religious leaders have built their life around following the Jewish law, holding it as the sacred gift of God, and modeling for others how to live with this gift at the center of their lives. Their intentions are actually quite good—they are trying to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life during Roman occupation. This washing tradition developed over time as the priestly cleansing ritual at the Temple, expanded to include everyone before mealtime, bringing all areas of daily life under the canopy of God’s law. But rather than bringing joy and expanding their hearts with love and gratitude for God, the religious traditions became a source of judgment on others. Even worse, they used it to accuse and discredit Jesus as one who disrespected and undermined God’s law.
Notice Jesus, in his response, expands his audience to include the crowds and the disciples. This is not a problem with religious leaders or the committed faithful, but it is within the hearts of every single person, including us as disciples of Jesus.
“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Rather than drawing them closer to God and to their neighbors, the religious leader’s efforts at remaining faithful built walls of alienation. A spiritual hierarchy developed between the “clean” and the “unclean;” or between “right” and “wrong.” Rather than expressing the holiness of God, their ritual purity became a tool of exclusion, distancing them from those considered contaminated or unworthy. How easy it is to slide from our own efforts at faithfulness into judgement of others, and the sense that we are more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than they are. When our piety separates us from others, it separates us from God.
In so doing, we have lost the whole point of faithfulness and the heart and purpose of the law: “to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is not disrespecting the law at all; he is rebuking the religious leaders and us, for not upholding its true purpose of loving God and neighbor.
So, Jesus grabs the attention of the crowd and all of us to underscore his teaching that it is time to stop judging others and instead, pay attention to the condition of our own heart, for that is where the real problem lies.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Jesus shifts the whole notion of ‘consuming something that defiles’ on its head. Notice that most of these vices are sins of consumption in some way—theft, adultery, avarice, envy, pride—they all spring from a desire to take, to grasp, to own or to devour. Unbridled desire and self-satisfaction corrupt our heart towards harm and judgement of others. When we let such self-centered desires run rampant, we become insatiable consumers of things, of pleasure, even people and our own energy. We use people and God’s gifts instrumentally for our own purpose, moving our heart far from love of God and neighbor.
Think of your thoughts and conversations this past week—how many were laced with criticism of others? Think of your attitude toward those who felt differently than you did on the unsolicited offer to purchase our building—how many times did your belief in the rightness of your own views diminish your expressions of love toward God and your fellow members?
I ask these pointed questions because even as I wrote this and know this sin is absolutely true for me, there was a little part of my ego protesting—"well, others might do that, but I don’t!” Which is a perfect example of the sin Jesus points out in all our hearts. (I can’t tell you how bothersome it was to commit the very sin I am preaching against while I was writing it!—this is truly a pernicious sin!)
I remember Monica vividly after thirty years, because I know her desire to have others “earn” grace like she does, and judging them accordingly, lives in my own heart as well.
But Jesus does not leave us in sin and walk away. He sees clearly and directly into the corruption of all our hearts but does he not abandon us. As professor Elizabeth Johnson says, “Jesus sees right through our highly edited versions of ourselves, knows what lurks in our hearts, yet loves us still.” He loves us all the way through death into life—sending his Holy Spirit to dwell within our hearts, empowering us to love as God loves, to see as God sees, to desire what God desires.
He washes us clean each week and welcomes us to the table of grace, giving us a tangible taste of love, and drinkable form of forgiveness, so that we might consume Jesus’ love into our being. Jesus fills us with his heart, his love, his power to live out God’s desires in our daily life. Shaped by God’s desire for all to know and experience the grace of Jesus, we listen, embrace, and pray for those we want to judge, asking Christ to cover them in love and to cleanse our own hearts anew.
Then Jesus sends us into the world to share God’s heart, God’s love with those deemed unclean or wrong in our society. Jesus shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by risking to love those who are social outcasts, by healing those who were untouchable, by serving and giving his life for all people—lepers and tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees, the homeless and the hungry, the deathbed convert and our political adversary, you and me.
The indwelling Spirit and Jesus’ claim on our hearts, calls us to follow him in getting our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside. Our passage from James exhorts us to be “doers of the Word,” who live our faith in loving action toward others. Filled with Jesus’ undeserved, yet complete and total love for us, we live with joy however and wherever God has gifted and called us to serve.