September 2, 2018 – 15 Pentecost B, Proper 17
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing take us to exactly the same place: alienation from God and the need for God to save us. Doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing take us to exactly the same place.
There are two kinds of people we often say. There are those who do right and those who do wrong. There are those who polish their shoes and those who don’t. There are those who make their beds and those who don’t. There are those who get up early and those who sleep in. There are those who are smart and those who are not so smart. There are those who are productive and those who are lazy.
Lazy people, for instance, have it pretty hard in life. They are plagued by guilt. Inside they want to get moving and do lots of things. They constantly think of things they should be doing but they don’t get around to most of them. They keep putting things off until there are so many things undone that it’s impossible to do them. They get kind of paralyzed. And then they feel regret and guilt. All the things they haven’t done stare them in the face and they carry the tremendous burden of regret around with them. Regret and guilt and take us to a place of alienation. We feel isolated and all alone.
Productive people, we might think in comparison, would be happy and peaceful. But productive people are plagued by resentment. They get lots of things done and then they look around at everyone else not working so hard and they get ticked off. The fact that others aren’t doing everything they are irritates them. They feel superior and think less of those who are lazy. All the things they have accomplished stare them in the face and, after feeling good about having gotten a lot done, productive people then feel self-righteous and judgmental. No one else is working as hard as they are, they think. And all those accomplishments get pretty empty. Resentment and self-righteousness and judgmentalism take us to a place of alienation. We feel isolated and all alone.
Lazy people and productive people end up in the same place, alienated from others and themselves and God, feeling isolated and all alone.
There are two kinds of people, we might conclude after the gospel lesson, those who wash their hands and those who don’t. Those who don’t, feel dirty and have regrets. Those who do, feel clean but they also feel like they are better than those lazy bums who don’t wash their hands and people are never worse than when we feel better than the rest of the world. That’s when people are the most dangerous, when we think we’re right and better and doing good. That’s when we get defensive and protective and mean-spirited and condescending and distant and cold-hearted and arrogant.
“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”, the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes are the folks who are productive and do right, who make their beds and polish their shoes, who get up early and are smart and work hard all day long. And yet they are defensive and protective and mean-spirited and condescending and distant and cold-hearted and arrogant. That’s what happens when you devote your whole life to doing things the way they’ve always been done. You lose your soul and are just going through the motions. And you think your motions will give you some peace but you can’t sleep at night because there’s something gnawing at you telling you this obsessive little world you’ve constructed is going to come crashing down at any minute. You go around acting superior but inside you’re scared to death. It’s really hard to have to be right all the time.
There are two kinds of people in the world: Pharisees and tax collectors, scribes and sinners. One feels so much regret that they are all alone. The other feels so much resentment that they are all alone.
So where do you fall today? And what is to be done?
Jesus points out that, as long as we are focused on what we have done that is better than others or what we have done that is worse than others, we are alienated from God. It is when we shift our attention to our inner hearts, our intentions, that we are able to see God’s abiding grace which upholds each of us. When we focus only on what we have done right or wrong, we slide into a subtle dishonesty and dishonesty, above all, keeps us alienated from God. When we come to focus on our hearts, our intentions, we have to get really honest. Honesty, facing the real truth about ourselves, reveals some very hard things about us but it also reveals God’s love for us.
As a young priest, it hit me one Sunday that I was really a lot more concerned about what the congregation thought about me when I gave the sermon than I was about what they thought about God. Wanting people to think well of me probably got me to work pretty hard on those sermons but it was an empty endeavor. I’m not sure what prompted me to get that honest but admitting my intentions really changed the way I approached sermons. They’re probably not any better now than they were then but I feel more connected to God now when I prepare them than I did back then.
A daily practice of sitting with your thoughts and seeking to be more honest with God is really the only way that we are enabled to change and grow. Doing wrong is obviously harmful. But doing right, if that’s all we think about, isn’t any better. Open your hearts to God each day. Adore the work of Christ on the cross. Invite the risen Christ into your heart, and watch yourself grow in the image of Christ.