My sermon for today was based on Mark 7:1-23.
To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.
In quoting the Book of Isaiah, Jesus says something in the Gospel passage for today which I consider to be one of the most profound statements ever made: "These people honour me with their lips, but there hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines".
I think we all know regular churchgoers who are actually total assholes, and we know people who have never set foot in a church but who are nonetheless awesome human beings.
The fact is that that regular religious observance does not make you a good a person. You could still be a bad person who just happens to have good time-management skills.
The corollary is also true: not attending church does not make you a bad person.
Jesus hits this particular nail on the head when he says, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile".
This would have been anathema to his listeners who were mostly orthodox Jews. Orthodox Judaism in Jesus' time was marked by a morbid preoccupation with ritual cleanliness: an observant Jew had to follow in excess of 600 ritual purity laws that governed what they could eat, when they could have sex, how and when they should wash their hands, and whose hands they could shake without becoming ritually impure.
The reason was this: to be ritually pure was to be loved by God, and to be ritually impure was to lose God's love.
To be blunt, what this boiled down to was that you could beat your wife as long as she was not having her period, you could murder someone as long as you didn't touch the dead body, and you could rob someone as long as they were carrying Jewish currency.
OK, I am exaggerating, but the point is that Orthodox Judaism in Jesus' time was focused exclusively on avoiding "contaminants" and had little or no focus on how people treated one another. The story of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example: people felt it better to let someone who was ritually unclean die in the gutter rather than to sully one's hands.
There are rules and there are regulations, but as we are all probably aware, laws are flawed and sometimes you need to know when it is better to follow the letter of the law, and when you have to follow the spirit of the law.
Jesus called his listeners to be better people. Jesus called them to be more concerned with what came out of their hearts that what went into their mouths. Jewish Law at the time was all about what went in very little concern with what came out. And Jesus calls us to reflect on ourselves in light of this oversight.
I have an enduring complaint about the New Atheists: they accuse religion of being the source of all evil in the world, but they are only able to quote examples and statistics of individuals and sometimes groups of people acting shitty in the name of religion.
You might consider this splitting hairs, but bear with me: religion is just a philosophy. It has no life by itself, no volition, no conscience. Same with a hammer. A hammer is not good or evil, it is just a thing. It is how I as an individual wield a hammer that determines whether it is good or evil. If I pick it up and build a house, good. If I pick it up and bop someone on the head and steal their wallet, evil.
Religion, like media, like politics, like philosophy can be wielded for good or evil purposes, but it is the individual human heart that must be tamed, that must be tried and tempered in order to do good. In that sense, the arguments of the New Atheists are, by and large, grossly irresponsible because they do not acknowledge the culpability of the human heart.
Jesus places the responsibility for our actions squarely on our own shoulders. This is deeply terrifying, but also deeply empowering because it means we are active players in the story, not just NPC's in life.
Today I hope that we can all operate from a good and clean heart, and that only goodness and kindness will flow from us.