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15th Sunday after Pentecost

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!  In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, Do you know how to wash your hands the right way?  Believe it or not our government’s center for disease control and prevention has specific guidelines on how to properly wash your hands.  First wet your hands with water, apply soap, rub them together without forgetting the backs of your hands or between your fingers, continue doing this for at least 20 seconds (if you want you can hum the happy birthday song twice to yourself), rinse your hands, and then dry them with a clean towel.  Have you noticed how germ conscious our society has become?  Just about wherever you go today there are those instant hand sanitizer machines, if you walk into the grocery store or Wal-mart there are the sanitizing wipes to disinfect your shopping cart handle, moms often carry little bottles of sanitzer in their purses.  For the most part our society is very conscious of living with clean hands.  Well, hand washing was also a major concern at Jesus’ time as well, but not for the prevention of diseases.

The time of our text is about the 3rd and final year of Jesus’ public ministry.  You remember that this final year was characterized primarily by rejection from the Jewish people and predominantly by the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  Here they have traveled from Jerusalem all the way to Galilee in order to spy on Jesus and hopefully be able find some way to discredit Him.  And as they’re watching Jesus they think they’ve got something, his disciples ate with unclean, unwashed hands!!  How could they!!  At first we might look at that and think, “Well, other than poor hygiene, that doesn’t seem really like that big of a deal.”  Well it was to the Pharisees, but it had nothing to do with personal hygiene.  You see, for many centuries before this the Jewish leaders had come up with an oral tradition of laws.  They decided that the moral and ceremonial laws which God had given them in the OT were insufficient so they developed an elaborate system of some 600 additional laws regulating the lives of every Israelite down to the smallest detail.  From the time you woke up in the morning to the time you went to sleep there were laws to follow.  The purpose of these laws were to kind of put a “hedge” around the Laws of the OT so you wouldn’t even get close to breaking them.

Well, one of these laws happened to do with this thing called “ceremonial washing.”  The Pharisees insisted that the Jewish people would do a special washing of their hands before they eat because, God forbid, you might have brushed by a Gentile or might have accidently touched something that had been touched by a Gentile or even unknowingly handled something that someone with “unclean” hands had previously touched.  So, you made sure that you always went through this ceremonial cleansing before you ate so there wouldn’t be a chance to become “unclean.”  Plus it seems like there were even special directions on how to wash your hands; you’d cup the water in your hands and let the water flow down your wrists.  But the Pharisees didn’t stop there; they also washed their dining utensils like cups, pitchers, and kettles- who knows?  What if a bug landed on it and made it unclean somehow.  They even washed their dining couches- what if an unclean person had sat on it before you!  Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this ceremonially cleaning, that is, if you did it with the right attitude.  However God nowhere in Scripture commanded that it be done or required it in anyway.

But not only did the Pharisees and religious leaders make this human law mandatory for all Israelites, they also tried using it in order to trap Jesus.  “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”  You see, the Pharisees had elevated these traditions and human laws to make them on par or even higher than Scripture itself.  They felt that since these traditions have been passed down for so many years that they must be equal to God’s Word.  They thought here’s a case and point that WE are more respectable and more honorable and closer to God than this Jesus and his disciples because WE keep all these rules.

So Jesus responded, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”  Jesus calls them exactly what they are: hypocrites.  They portray themselves outwardly as good and model children of God, but inwardly, in their hearts, they couldn’t be further from God.  In a sense they had created a fake idol in their minds which became their god.  Then they made up rules and regulations to follow in order to serve this false god of their mind.  And then they determined that this god was pleased by their outward, visible actions and their obedience to their own man-made laws.  But in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth, further from worshipping the true God, they were hypocrites- people who pretended to serve the true God outwardly, but were only play acting.  “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”  They had elevated their own rules and made them more important than God’s Word.

Then Jesus went on to explain to the crowd the difference between what goes into a person versus what comes out of a person.  “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him.”  The food that you eat does not have a moral component.  Food in itself cannot make a person clean or unclean.  “Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’”  Why?  Because “from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly.”  All those disgusting evils originate in the heart and make themselves visible in words and actions.  Those are the things that make a person “unclean.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the law had successfully made up their own religious system and turned worship to God into a mere external thing.  “As long as we put on a show outwardly for everyone to see, God will think we are pretty good people.”  But what is hidden in the heart must eventually show itself.  So, the unclean sin in their hearts of harboring attitudes of anger and animosity towards Jesus would soon become visible as they carry out their plans to murder Him on a cross.  God is foremost interested in someone’s heart.

And the same is true today.  God is foremost interested in our hearts too.  Does our service to God flow from a grateful heart or is it simply an outward, external, “going through the motions” lip service?  Do we think God likes us because we have not physically committed the act of adultery, but still entertain lustful thoughts?  Do we think God likes us because we haven’t stolen something, but still flood our hearts with greed and envy?  Do we think God likes us because we have our body in church on most Sundays of the year- whether or not we pay attention to what we are saying or what we’re hearing?  God is foremost interested in our hearts.

When God looks into our hearts He sees a cesspool of evil – evil thoughts, sexual immorality, greed, malice, deceit, etc.  And who of us could deny that fact?  Who of us would want all of our thoughts for just one day published in the newspaper for everyone to see?  Who of us could deny that we are struggling with this sin or that sin in our lives right now?  Who of us can claim a perfect slate of perfect, clean, kind, caring, selfless thoughts and attitudes all the time?  Each of us here has a “heart problem” of the most fatal kind.

But isn’t that the very reason why Jesus was on this earth to speak the words that He did?  Yes, by nature our hearts are rotten, filthy, and disgustingly sinful, but the fact that Jesus was present in our text is proof of God’s grace, proof that God doesn’t want our condition to be eternally fatal.  You see, Jesus knew that God wanted people with clean hearts for His kingdom and He knew that we couldn’t keep our hearts clean from sin.  So what did He do?  He came and His whole life He never entertained sinful thoughts, never had a single sinful attitude, He lived perfectly in every way, in your place.  Then God took the filth of your sins and placed them all upon Jesus who paid their penalty and punishment on the cross.  So that we can rejoice, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  As we cling in repentance and faith to the forgiveness freely provided by Christ our substitute God sees us with hearts that are righteous, pure, clean, and holy!

It’s by that very power of God’s forgiveness in Christ, in the cleansing power of His Gospel that our thoughts, attitudes, and lives are changed.  Just like it would be senseless for a bride decked out in her beautiful white wedding dress to jump into pig pen and role around, it’s senseless for us, with cleansed hearts to jump into sin’s filth.  Our service to God is not just outward, but also inward, as our hearts in service to God want to focus on what we are saying and hearing and want to live rightly.  When someone else has something we don’t have, we thank God that He has blessed them so, instead of harboring greed or jealousy or envy in our hearts.  When things don’t go the way we wanted them to, we leave things in God’s hands, instead of harboring bitterness and anger in our hearts.  When someone upsets us with something they did, we respond with kindness taking their words and actions in the kindest possible way, instead of harboring hateful thoughts or gossiping about them.

We don’t do those things because that’s not who we are, not who God has made us to be.  You have been washed, you have been cleansed, you have been forgiven.  In God’s eyes you are clean inside and out, covered with Christ’s perfection!  So, next time you are washing your hands or rubbing sanitzer on them be reminded that far more important than clean hands is a clean heart.  And by God’s grace in Jesus that is what you have a clean and pure heart for this life and for the next!  So live, live your life with such a clean heart!  Amen.