Living in the Law of Love

 

Pastor Jim Kniseley prepared this sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2006.  The text is Mark 7, the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees over the observance of ritual laws.

 

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

One of my favorite stories is about the wife who always prepared her beef roast for cooking by cutting off the ends of the roast.  Her husband could not understand this because they did not do it that way in his side of the family. Since this was becoming an irritating subject, they decided to call her mother and ask why it was important to cut off the ends of the roast.  Do you remember what the mother said?  “The reason I cut off the ends of my roasts was because the pan I had was too short for my roasts…”

 

I like that story because it beautifully illustrates a tendency we all have to simply do things in life the way we’ve always done them, irregardless of whether they make good sense or not.

 

In today’s gospel story, Jesus has an encounter with some Pharisees over the importance of observing Jewish ritual and ceremonial laws.  The Pharisees had observed Jesus’ disciples eating without properly washing not just their hands but also the food itself according to certain rituals that were called for in the Book of Deuteronomy.  These Pharisees take the opportunity to criticize Jesus and his understanding of the laws and the effects of his teaching on his disciples. 

 

Jesus, in return, concisely teaches his understanding of the place of law in the lives of God’s people.  It is a very different understanding from what the Pharisees practiced and taught.

 

In defense of the Pharisees, they were just doing what they had been taught.  For generations and generations, the Israelites had been taught to obey all the ordinances and statutes in Leviticus and Deuternonomy, all 600 of them.  We heard today in our first lesson that Moses, speaking on behalf of the Lord, told the Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land, probably about 1200 BC:  “Give heed to the statues and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe…You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you…” (Deuter. 4:1-2)

 

Why were the Israelites given so many laws to observe?  Think of it this way.  God is giving them this new land as He had promised.  Now he is giving them another gracious gift, that of teaching them how to live harmoniously and successfully in this new land.  This is new thinking for them.  They have not been taught before that they are to live in a right relationship with God and with each other in order to lay claim to being God’s people.  Besides, the wilderness journey has shown God that these people do not do well when left to their own devices.  They sorely needed direction.

 

What is driving Jesus’ understanding that there is more to pleasing God than obeying all the statutes and ordinances?  Why does he defend his disciple’s actions rather than taking them to task?

 

Because Jesus knows the heart and desire of God.  He is God.  So he can very easily recall his words through the 8th century prophet Isaiah:  “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 traditions.”

 

Do you also remember God’s words through the prophet Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21).

 

In other words, God and Jesus look at the heart to understand why a person is acting the way they do.  If it is purely perfunctory and not done out of a sense of loving and honoring the Lord, the Lord takes no pleasure in such actions. 

 

Jesus said today to the assembled crowd:  “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 come from within, and they defile a person.

 

So, what does Jesus want from us?  What is his teaching about obeying God’s laws?  Jesus lifted up this commandment, the one we call the Great Commandment:  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  If you do this at all times, you  will automatically think and live as God wants you to.

 

One last story.  Supposedly Queen Victoria1 was  at a diplomatic reception in London.The guest of honor was an African chieftain.  All sent well during the meal until, at the end, finger bowls were served.  The guest of honor had never seen a British finger bowl, and no one had thought to brief him beforehand about its purpose.  So he took the finger bowl in his two hands, lifted it to his mouth, and drank its contents - - down to the very last drop!

 

For an instant there was breathless silence among the British upper crust and then they began to whisper to one another.

 

All that stopped in the next instant as the Queen, Victoria, silently took her finger bowl in her two hands, lifted it, and drank its contents!  A moment later 500 surprised British ladies and gentlemen simultaneously drank the contents of their own fingerbowls.

 

It was “against the rules” to drink from a fingerbowl, but on that particular evening Victoria changed the rules –because she was, after all, the Queen.  It is “against the rules” not to wash your hands before you eat and on that the Pharisees called the hand of the disciples.  But Jesus calls us to observe a greater commandment, the Law of Love.  In this way we show that we truly understand how God wants us to be His People.

 

Amen.

 

 

1  Winfield Casey Jones in eSermons