Proper 17 - Year B (Service in the Park)
August 31, 2015, 10:57 AM



Proper 17

Year B

Worship in the Park 



    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 


    I was driving up Church Street here in Quincy this week, and I drove by the Lutheran Church and saw their marquee. “Worship in the Park 10AM. Potluck 11AM,” the sign read. And I thought to myself, “Wow! Kendrah is being optimistic…there’s no way lunch will start at 11 with an hour long sermon.”

    For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Father Matt Warren, I am the Vicar of Christ the King Episcopal Church here in Quincy, and many of you will be relieved to discover that I don’t anticipate preaching for a full hour this morning—it’ll be fifty-five minutes, tops…

    I am so happy to be here this morning joined by our Christian brothers and sisters from other traditions. It is a wonderful moment for us to come together and witness to the Body of Christ which is the Church. A Church, that, one day, will be reunited, when we lay aside our pride and remember that we proclaim the same Christ crucified, the same baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and we all await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. 

    A Sunday in which we come together to worship in spite of the differences of our traditions makes an interesting backdrop to examine this morning’s gospel lesson, as Jesus engages the Pharisees in a debate over tradition itself. The Pharisees and the Scribes notice that some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands, that they ate without first ceremoniously washing them. Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees, arguing instead “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 evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

    All too often, the Pharisees are simply understood as the “bad guys” of Jesus’ time. Time and time again, they are described as interested only in the legalistic minutia, convinced that if they rightly interpret and follow all of scripture, then they can earn their lofty place with God. For us Protestants, the Pharisees’ worldview strikes as works before faith, and we know that Paul and Luther put that line of thinking down 500 years ago. But, what if, for a moment we could understand the motivations of the Pharisees? What if we understood that their interest in ritual purity comes from a place of reverence instead of one-upsmanship? What if we shared their concerns that Jesus and his disciples could not possibly represent a new revelation of the Holy if they held the holiness customs of Judaism with such contempt? As it turns out, Jesus’ teaching this morning is far more forceful when we understand the Pharisees not simply as “the bad guys,” but as ardent followers of the Jewish faith and Law. 

    To fully understand the Pharisees you need to take a step back and look at the larger context of Jewish history. For 1200 years, the holiness of the Jewish people has been inexorably linked with their fortunes. From the Exodus; to the wandering in the desert; to the giving of the promised land; to the battles with foreign nations. From Moses, through the Judges and Kings, from the exile and back to Jerusalem, their holiness or lack thereof is linked to their success or lack thereof. 

    The Pharisees then, arise in as a people obsessed with maintaining the ritual purity demanded by scripture. They saw the law as creating a holy nation, and it was only through their strict observance of the law could they lay claim to be God’s people. Their religious fervor was a demonstration of how seriously they believed the law of God was to be taken. These aren’t the bad guys, the Pharisees simply wanted to live into God’s call to be a holy people. 

    It is through this understanding that we can begin to understand just how shocking Jesus and his disciples must have been to the Pharisees. I mean, this fellow Jesus is going around claiming to be God’s anointed one, his messiah, his Christ, but instead of helping the Pharisees call people into a holier state of religious observance, his followers can’t even be bothered to was their hands before eating. How can this man be God’s messiah if he doesn’t even follow the Law?


    Now, I said that understanding the centuries long history of the Jewish people was key to understanding the Pharisees’ concerns for ritual purity. But that same context also allows us to understand Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees. When the “Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.”

    When the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ relationship to God based on his cultic purity, Jesus responds by drawing upon the tradition of the prophets in asking about how the Pharisees’ can claim to have a relationship to God based on holiness instead of compassion. That is the heart of the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees this morning—do we define holiness and sinfulness through observance of dietary laws, or by the inclination of our hearts?

    This is the question which the prophets asked Israel again and again during it’s history. Time and time again, Israel believed that it could return to God’s favor through returning to the letter of the law rather than by observing its spirit. A man desperate to right himself with God approaches the prophet Micah, asking him “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? With the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten though sands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my souls?”

    Micah, in perhaps the greatest summation of religion ever delivered, responds “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”


    Brothers and sisters, God has told us what is good and what the Lord requires of us. It is not cultic purity, nor is our holiness based on dietary laws—(I’m sure that comes as a great relief to those of us who were planning of have a Cheeseburger after the service!) What God is concerned with is the inclination of our heart and our capacity to reduce the suffering of our fellow man. 

    It is there, within the human heart, where Jesus’ concern lies. Multi-grain rolls and cotton-polyester blend table cloths are not what will separate us from God. It is our heart, and whether it is drawn towards the service of other or to the service of self, which ultimately will decide our righteousness. 

    Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees represents more than a mere quibble over a legalistic interpretation of the Law, it is an attempt to correct the very structure of how we define holiness and sin and how the word of God should regulate the life of God’s people. Too often, the Bible tells us, people search for a way to justify themselves before the letter of the Law rather than obey it’s spirit. It’s the line of thinking which Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and other prophets rejected outright. They, like Christ, hoped that the Law would tip the heart towards God, not prop up a corrupt and broken society. 

    If I may be so bold as to speak for the Almighty: The Law was meant to incline our hearts towards God. There are 613 mitzvahs or commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they are meant to orient every facet of our lives. Yes, there are restrictive dietary laws, and yes, there are commandments which we, with our modern eyes, dismiss as antiquated. But each of these laws had a purpose. They reminded the Israelites of their relationship to God and their dependence upon it. 

    There’s an old rabbinic admonition that insists, of anything and everything, “If you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.” The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the air you breathe, the people and the things of your life, if you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.That’s because giving thanks for something puts it in its proper place, it places the thing as part of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. 

    I think that is a wonderful understanding of how the law was meant to operate in our hearts. We should pause and think about the blessing of food before we eat. Whether that takes the form of a ritual washing of the hands, or if it merely means saying grace at every meal instead of only at dinner, the hope, the intention of the law, I believe, is that it will bring us closer to God, and make us more fully aware of the Grace of God which operates in our daily lives. 


    The Pharisees believed that they could earn their righteousness before God by their strict observance of the Law. And I want to underscore the point that there were some Pharisees who were motivated by a deep reverence. But we should not assume that the Pharisees are extinct. While they may not identify themselves as such, there Christian Pharisees in our own time. They seek to weaponize Scripture, to shame and separate God’s people by their own definition of sinfulness. They have the gall to label others as impure. 

    But the Good News this morning is that we have been given the template of how to respond to those Pharisees ancient and modern: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”

    Where are our hearts? How do we honor God? How do we demonstrate our thankfulness for the Grace God has poured out in our lives? With what fast do honor God?

    The answer, once again, lies with the Prophet Isaiah, where God describes perfectly what the law requires: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

    The Good News this morning is a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand, we freed from the draconian dietary laws that governed our Jewish ancestors; on the other hand, we are bound that much more to the spirit of the law of Moses. The responsibility we cannot shake or shrink from is to love and care for our neighbor and the least among us. When that happens: when we feed the hungry, when the naked are clothed, when the sick and the dying are tended to, at that time, we will find ourselves once more brought into the unity of the faith of Jesus Christ, and can proudly bear the mantle of His name. 


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