Sunday, August 30, 2015

clean - inside and out

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I always think today's Gospel reading, where Jesus does not seem too fussed about washing one's hands, must bring a smile to the face of children. I know that as a father, when we sit down to a meal as a family, I am constantly having to remind my boys about the need to wash their hands before eating. Perhaps girls are different. And I imagine children gleefully telling their parents that they were paying attention that morning when the Gospel was read and that Jesus didn't think hand hygiene was all that important – in fact, he seems to frown on it – so that it is OK for them to tuck into their Sunday lunch with their own little paws as dirty as they like – it is the Christian thing to do!

Alas, for these mucky children – Jesus is not talking about hygiene here at all. In fact the knowledge that cleanliness and good-health are connected is quite a modern thing. As late as the mid-19th century, for example, doctors were quite happy to go from patient to patient without cleaning their hands in between, causing quite a number of deaths as a result, because at that time no body knew about bacteria. Of course once they knew hygiene in hospitals became quite rigorous; and today even as a visitor you are expected to disinfect your hands before entering one.

No, the washing that is being talked about in our Gospel is ritual washing – notice that the Scribes and Pharisees do not accuse the disciples of eating with dirty hands but with defiled hands; that is ritually unclean or impure. It would have involved pouring water over ones hands and then rubbing them together – no soap involved and certainly no disinfectant or anti-bacterial liquids like we have today. It was a religious custom of the day designed to try and bring a religious significance to the meal and had nothing at all to do with hygiene.

Jesus responds to their complaints by repeating the words of the prophet Isaiah 'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.' What our Lord is talking about is what is the point of following all the customs and rituals and seeming to be 'pure' on the outside when inside your heart is far from pure. 

To continue with the theme of hygiene: you could well imagine a doctor telling you that there is little point in engaging in a huge amount of personal hygiene – showering carefully, brushing and flossing your teeth after every meal, and thoroughly washing your hands before eating – if everything you put into your mouth is total rubbish – loads of sugary and deep-fat fried food, free from all taint of fruit and vegetables or anything healthy. A diet like that would do you more damage than the occasional set of dirty fingers; you might be clean on the outside, but inside you'd be full of all the rubbish that the fast-food industry can provide and the damage that it does.

And it is like that with religion too. There's not much point in following all the outside trappings of religion – in Jesus' day all the different kinds of ritual washings we read about in the Gospel; in our own time it might be going to Church every Sunday and Holy-day, fasting during Lent, saying our prayers morning and evening, and reading the Bible regularly – if our hearts are full of vile and sinful thoughts. 

Because the sins we commit begin first in our thoughts – before we steal, we think about wanting the object we steal; before we commit an act of violence, we are first angry with the other person in our hearts; before we say horrible things about another person, whether they are true or not, we think about saying them first; and anything else wrong that we do, we first imagine doing them. And even if after we have thought about these things in our hearts we do not later do them, that does not mean we have not done wrong. For Jesus teaches us elsewhere that it is as wrong to have such sinful thoughts in our hearts as it is to carry them out.

So what Jesus is teaching us here is that his followers are to have absolute purity of heart. Now that is not to say that we are therefore to neglect the practise of our religious duties; that would be like your doctor telling you that you didn't need to wash yourself or brush your teeth as long as you ate healthy food. No, the obligation to practise our faith remains the same. 

But with purity of heart, that practise becomes different. Will not the heart that no longer seethes with evil thoughts and desires partake more worthily and joyfully in the Body and Blood of of our Blessed Saviour in the Holy Eucharist? Will it not give more fervent and sincere worship to the God who created and sustains us? Will it not be more eager to pray and more alert and focused as it does so, freed from the distractions and temptations of unholy thoughts? And will it not be filled with desire to hear and read his Holy Word as revealed to us in Sacred Scriptures, more open to the promptings of his Holy Spirit, more aware of how it shows his great love for us, and the purpose for which we were created, to be be with God in heaven for all eternity?

So, I am sorry to disappoint any of our young people here today who thought our Gospel today might serve as an excuse when they appear at the dinner table with hands looking like they had spent an hour pulling up turnips followed by another mucking out cow stalls followed by a third taking apart the engine of a tractor. But I hope they have learned something far more important – the Christian needs to be clean, in the sense of being pure, on the inside as well as the outside. And it something that I pray that everyone else here today has learned as well. Amen.

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