Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 16B, preached on Sunday, August 26, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
“It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Have you ever heard this before? Of course you have, we all have. This goes right along with “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” These two well-known clichés speak to the idea that what’s seen isn’t what’s always true. What’s true comes from the inside. What’s true comes from the heart. This can be said about our worship. True worship comes from a faithful heart. This is in essence what Jesus said to the Pharisees as He rebuked them in our Gospel reading.
The Pharisees were concerned with what could be seen, with visible action, with visible worship. And what they saw was Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands. Of course we know washing our hands before we eat is a healthy practice, but the Pharisees weren’t worried about the disciples’ hygiene. The Pharisees pointed out this lack of washing because it went against the Jewish traditions and purity laws.
Part of the OT Law dealt with ritual cleanliness. Being ritually clean was important to have access to God. God is holy and therefore nothing unholy, nothing unclean or defiled can come into His presence. We see this in God’s Word to Moses about the Tabernacle. God instructed Moses to build a large bronze basin to hold water and to set this basin in front of the Tabernacle. Aaron and the other priests were then required to wash their hands and feet before they entered the Tent of Meeting. God said they had to do this so that they didn’t die (Ex 30:21). Elsewhere in the book of Leviticus, it talks about washing after coming into contact with unclean things (Lev 22:4-7). This ritual purity was a way of separating God’s people from the unclean idolatrous pagans that surrounded them.
The Pharisees were concerned about defilement. They didn’t want to be separated from God, so they washed, and they washed often. They washed their hands after returning from the marketplace, where they inevitably came into contact with Gentiles and unclean people. They washed their cups, and pots and cooking utensils. They even ritually washed the dining couches they sat on.
This might sound a little excessive to us, but for the Pharisees it was important. Pharisees get a bad rap as being opponents of Jesus, and this is rightly deserved when they reject Christ. But not every Pharisee was an evil hypocrite. Many were faithful men who tried to live according to God’s laws. The issue between Jesus and the Pharisees wasn’t the fact that they were trying to live a pious life, it was the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus and their relying on that pious life for salvation.
The Pharisees in our Gospel today weren’t being faithful. Their questioning of Jesus and His disciples wasn’t about the disciples’ piousness, it was about their own, showing that they were better, holier, and cleaner than Jesus and His followers. This is why Jesus rebuked them. Quoting our OT reading, Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mk 7:6-7; Is 29:13). These Pharisees were hypocrites, pretenders. They were just paying lip service to God. They had no faithful trust for God in their hearts. Instead they trusted in themselves and their pious worship life. They trusted in their own doings, even the traditions that they made up.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their made up tradition of corban. Corban was a gift or offering above and beyond the required tithe. Now, this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it could even be a faithful thing. However, Jesus explains that some would give this gift of corban in place of caring for their parents. This man made tradition replaced God’s commands to honor father and mother, and yet, the Pharisees saw it as a greater work.
Do we do this? Do we neglect the good of God’s commands with our own traditions, thinking they’re greater, thinking they’re more pious and holier than what God has given us? Do we look at our visible worship life and compare it to others? Do we trust in it, thinking we’re safe for our actions’ sake? Do we only give our Lord lip service? Are we pretenders and hypocrites, or do we have faithful hearts?
Faithful hearts trust in Christ. Faithful hearts look to and rely on God’s grace and mercy. Faithful hearts bring true worship to the Lord. Faithful hearts don’t look upon our own piousness, thinking it’s worth something. The Lord is concerned with faithful hearts. He wants you to trust in Him and His mercy. He wants you to trust in Christ Jesus for salvation, because Christ and His cross is the only way of salvation. Our prayer then is to have faithful hearts...and God answers this prayer.
We can’t make our hearts faithful. We can’t turn our unclean sinful hearts into clean faithful ones. Only God can do that, and that’s exactly what He does. Through His Word and Sacraments, He cleans you of the sin that defiles. He takes what is unholy and through the Gospel message of Christ heard and received in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, He makes you holy. He gives you a faithful heart, and it’s with this heart that you bring true worship to the Lord.
The faith you’ve been given, trusting in Jesus, in His death and resurrection, it resides in your heart. But even though it’s inside, it’s still seen.
Last Sunday, Pastor Peters quoted that famous verse from the book of James that we Lutherans often cringe at, “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:17). Faith doesn’t just sit idly by, hidden in your heart. It moves you. It moves you to worship and it moves you to do good works. All of this is seen. Your faith is seen and lived out in worship, in faithful pious lives that are lived out according to God’s Word.
Our faithful worship is seen as we gather together every Sunday here in this place. It’s seen as we sing hymns, proclaiming God’s power and might, His grace and mercy. It’s seen as we reverence and bow before the crucifix and altar, acknowledging our Savior is present here in His Word and Sacrament. It’s seen as we cross ourselves in remembrance of our Baptism, when we kneel in confession and prayer, acknowledging our humbleness before God. It’s seen as we boldly speak the Creed, as we stand together as the body of Christ, giving voice to our faith in Him. It’s seen as we place our offerings and tithes in the plates that are passed up and down the pews, giving back a portion of God’s gifts with thankful hearts so that He might continue His work here. And it’s seen as we leave this place and live out our vocations all in His name and for His glory and the benefit of others. Faith and true worship come from within, from the heart, but it’s lived out with our hands.
The hypocritical Pharisees were concerned only with outward actions. Their worship was void of faith. It was done only with their hands. It was just lip service. They made up their own traditions that looked good and God pleasing, and yet they went against the pleasing actions God commands. Empty words and actions don’t make true worship. True worship comes from faith in the heart, faith that trust in God and His salvation through Christ. This doesn’t mean however that true worship is void of visible action. The faith we have on the inside is lived out in visible ways. It can be seen in what we do and say. Our prayer and desire is for true worship that is made up of faith in our heart, faith that’s visibly seen through the actions of our hands. In Jesus’ name...Amen.