(no audio this week... sorry.)
Proper 17b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGA few weeks ago I spent a few days in Baltimore at my future retirement home. The abundant rain and warm weather — and when they say “warm” in Baltimore they mean it! — had produced a huge amount of growth in the modest back yard. The worst of this was that most of the growth was of weeds! In particular, a plague of morning glory vines had covered almost everything else in the garden, strangling two rose bushes and knocking them to the ground, and wrapping around a peony and a fig tree. By the time I pulled up all of the morning glory vines, and a few other weeds, I had a four-foot high pile of garden refuse to dispose of. Fortunately, the local hardware store supplies five-foot high brown-paper refuse bags for just this purpose — a purpose they are fit for, as I noted last week!
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”
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Would that it were as easy to get our lives in order as it is our gardens! We heard a reading from the Letter of James — not our Saint James (the brother of John and son of Zebedee) but the James referred to as the brother of the Lord, and who served as an early leader of the church in Jerusalem. In it we hear some good advice about the sort of spiritual gardening that is necessary if we are to bear fruit. James tells us we need to strip away the “rank growth of wickedness” so that the welcome and implanted word — the word of God that Jesus himself had likened to seed scattered on different kinds of soil — might germinate within us, so that we ourselves might become, as he says, “a kind of first fruits” to the glory of God. Just as in a garden, this can be hard work, as we strip away the parts of our lives that are keeping us from proper and productive growth.
The problem with this kind of personal reform, as with some garden weeding, is that it isn’t just an external sprucing up that is needed. Weeds have roots, and if you don’t pull up the root with the stem and stalk and leaves you may just have made the problem worse, or at best deferred the problem until the stem and stalk and leaves pop up once more from the stubborn root underground. Many weeds, as you likely know, are even gifted with the ability to break off their stem just at ground level and make you think you’ve solved the problem, only to pop back to life in a few days twice as strong as before. I spent a good bit of my time a few weeks back, as I wrestled with some crab-grass, twining my hand around and around on the stalk, down to the ground so I could dig my fingers in to grasp the root and pull it up.
It is the same way with our bad habits — it is so easy to make a list of New Year’s resolutions that are forgotten within a week. Saint James gives us the example of one who is a hearer but not a doer — “all show and no go” as they say in the Islands. Such people look in the mirror, but the moment they step away, forget what they look like.
The point Saint James is making is that righteousness isn’t about appearances, about the outside — but what is going on inside. If that inner word of God is smothered by vice it will perish; but if allowed to breath and grow and bear fruit, it will eventually show on the outside. Good roots from good seed bear good fruits, if they are planted in good soil with depth to grow and freedom from weeds.
And our Gospel today addresses this distinction between inside and outside directly. It might appear at first glance that Jesus is being a bit hard on the Pharisees and the scribes. After all, their criticism, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled” — could come from the mouth of many a mother or grandmother or aunt talking to a son or granddaughter or nephew or niece. At least I was brought up that way — and so it was a tradition in my family home, as much as it appears to have been for the Pharisees, as Mark observes. It is not that unusual to be expected to wash your hands thoroughly before you eat — particularly when you are eating without knife and fork, by dipping your hand in the bowl and breaking the loaf with your bare — and, one hopes, clean — hands.
But as Jesus notes, there is more going on here than hygiene and table manners. The thing that seems to pull Jesus’ last nerve is the tendency of the Pharisees and the scribes, at least the ones who confronted him, to miss the point of God’s law, and to substitute their own rules and regulations, and focus on those hand-made laws, rather than on the deeper matters of justice, truth, and love, embodied in God’s sublime law: the Law summarized so well in the commandment to love God and neighbor.
As important as washing your hands may be, there is something superficial about it. It cleans only the outside; it does nothing for the inside. In another Gospel passage Jesus will accuse the Pharisees of being like whitewashed tombs: lovely and clean on the outside, but full of corruption within. A lick of paint to cover the evils of the heart, like weeding that fails to get the root as well as the stalk, is a half-way measure that may be worse than doing nothing at all! Jesus contrasts the talkative lips that honor God with literal lip-service, and the all-too-fallible and sinful human hearts that conceal God-only-knows what evil mischief deep within, where sin crouches for employment, ready to leap out at the first opportunity.
In the present case Jesus addresses the question of food — for the Pharisees would hold that even kosher food would be contaminated by eating it with unclean hands. But Jesus goes beyond the food question to expound on one of his favorite themes: what does God really want from us? Does God want merely the appearance of righteousness, a superficial ship-shape on deck while down in the engine room is all is filth and confusion? Does God only want clean hands and a clean slate, or rather a clean heart, an inside cleaned of all the impurity that lurks within, and defiles as it comes out?
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Surely that is the message for us today, and it is echoed in the teaching of Saint James. He calls for the inside of the believer to be purified — weeded of the rank growth of wickedness, and transformed inwardly by the implanted word of God, like a seed planted in a cultivated garden plot, ready to grow inside the heart of a faithful person, so that the righteous person can actually do what God requires — not only hearing the word with the ear or speaking it with the lips, but actually doing what it requires; not being like those who look at their superficial reflection — their outside — in a mirror, but who take the word in, in to the heart, where it empowers the righteous to act rightly, and the good to do good.
Ultimately goodness does not come from within us, as James testifies: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” But if we allow this graceful gift to enter us, to cleanse us inwardly of all our faults, allowing the hand of God to weed our garden even as God plants the seed, then we can bring forth things other than those awful and defiling things that are all we could do on our own, without God’s grace. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, “Clean the inside of the cup and then the outside will be clean.” The vessel that needs cleaning — inside — is us, and only God’s grace and God’s gift can do that cleaning, deep down where it matters, in our heart of hearts.
God’s hand is working on us now — twisting around the stalk and reaching down into the ground where sin and unrighteousness take root. May we be ready to allow this gardener to do his work in us, to cleanse us from all sin, that we may be prepared to bring in a plentiful harvest on the great last day!+