Which would you prefer for your best friend: a person who always says courteous words, or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a husband or a wife: a person who always behaves well and speaks politely, or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a child: a child with excellent etiquette, or a child with a good heart?
It is wonderful to have a friend who is polite. It is wonderful to be married to a husband or wife who behaves correctly and says the right things. It is wonderful to have a son or daughter who shows respect and uses good manners. But as wonderful as those situations are, none of them compare to having, a friend, a husband, a wife, a son, or a daughter with a good heart.
When you discuss polite behavior, you are discussing the quality of a person’s outward self, their ability to adhere to social norms. When you discuss a good heart, you are discussing the inner quality of the person. This is the true focus of today’s Gospel. But there is also the bit about social protocol and in regards to that I would like to relate a story.
It is said that Queen Victoria was once at a diplomatic reception in London. The guest of honor was an African chieftain. All went well during the meal until, at the end, finger bowls were served. The finger bowl is a small bowl of water brought to the table at the end of the meal so that the guest may dip one’s fingers into the bowl to rinse them off. They are then to discreetly dry them on their napkins. Well, the guest of honor had never seen a British finger bowl, and no one had thought to brief him beforehand about its purpose. So when he received his finger bowl, he looked at it and then 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. And then all the whispering stopped as they looked at their Queen. Queen Victoria looked to her left and then to her right and then silently took her finger bowl in her two hands, lifted it, and drank its contents down to the last drop! There was a pause and then a moment later 500 British ladies and gentlemen also simultaneously drank the contents of their own fingerbowls.
The social issue in today’s gospel was about washing one’s hands not finger bowls. Now you might feel sympathetic with the Pharisees because it is gross to eat food with one’s hands without first washing them. But having clean hands before eating was actually not the issue. The Jews were known throughout the Roman world as being fastidiously clean. Cleanliness was not the issue. The issue was the Pharisees were upset that the disciples did not have “ceremonially” clean hands. What is the difference you are no doubt wondering? In the book of Leviticus there are regulations for the priests to wash themselves, including their hands before they began their priestly duties. This is like what I do right before we have Holy Communion. The LEM pours water over my hands and I pray certain prayers. The Levitical priesthood also had a ceremony that included prayers and special rinsing and dedication of oneself before the priest began his priestly duties. Somewhere one hundred or so years before Jesus was born, one religious leader thought it would be appropriate for everyone to have these little dedicatory prayers and rinsing before they ate because after all, meals and everything we do ought to be an offering to God. Well the idea apparently took off and all the really religious people began doing this sort of thing. It was not something everyone was expected to do but since Jesus was a Rabbi the Pharisees were expecting his disciples to do these religious activities like all the other really religious people did. This was not what God had ever commanded. This sort of ceremony really did not have even the right meaning outside the context into which God had placed it. So the disciples were not eating with defiled hands. The Pharisees were trying to humiliate the disciples and ultimately they were trying to discredit Jesus because they were inferring that as a rabbi he did not have high religious standards.
Jesus points out their standards were wrong and so was their thinking. It does not cause a person to be defiled through any failure to follow human traditions. But the Jews were rightly concerned about being defiled. We should be concerned about that as well. Defilement in this context refers to a person being dirty or polluted before God. God sent the Jews into captivity by the Babylonians because as a nation they had become polluted, defiled. But it wasn’t because they had not been keeping their hands clean before they ate. They had been ignoring His commandments. They had been worshipping other gods. When the nation finally got back from being in exile they were very concerned about keeping clean before God. But as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees, they were still missing the point! Being undefiled is more than following correct outward motions. Being undefiled is more than adding more religious ceremonies. Being undefiled is not about the correct usage of the finger bowl! It is about one’s heart.
Jesus points out the problem is an inside problem it is our hearts. It is that evil stuff from our inmost being that defiles us; it is evil inclinations and actions that make people polluted before God. Jesus says fornication—which is having sex outside of marriage, theft, taking stuff that belongs to others, murder, taking the life of an innocent person, adultery, having sex with someone who is not your husband or wife when you or they are already married, avarice-which is aching for stuff you do not have, deceit, which is being dishonest with others, licentiousness, which is being sexually corrupt like getting into pornography, envy, wanting what another has and wishing they didn’t have it, slander-putting another person down with your words, pride, thinking I am better than others, and folly, which is being foolish—not remembering that God will judge me and my actions; all these things Jesus says are what cause a person to be defiled. It is not clean or unclean hands.
And when we consider this list we see that every human being struggles with one or more of these things! That means all of us are polluted before God! And that is why Jesus came to earth. That is why he had to die on the cross to pay for our sins and to clean the pollution from our souls. And as it says in our reading from James, we who are believers in Christ have been given a new birth by the word of truth. We are to become new people. As new people we don’t simply hear the word of God, no we actually try to do it. As new people we are careful how we speak; as new people we care for those who are in need. As new people our hearts are changed!
Finger bowls—are we judging others by whether or not they are following human protocol and etiquette? I love the example of Queen Victoria! In order to make sure that the guest was not humiliated she by her actions put herself next to him. She was more concerned about him and his feelings than about the rules of protocol. That is having a good heart. What about us? Are we more concerned about how we look to others and what we want or are we concerned about the needs of others and their feelings? Are we able to give to the church and to those in need or do we want to keep all our money for ourselves? Being concerned about others, being able to give back to God are indications of the kind of hearts we have.
May God help us to be new people with good and clean hearts so that we are able to live for him! Amen