Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.
The prospect of becoming full time as the vicar here, which as a proposal has almost finished wending its way through the relevant diocesan processes, is making me think about revising my rule of life. I was first encouraged to develop a rule of life before I was ordained, and I was initially dismissive and frankly a bit scared. I thought it was something for other people – monks and nuns, or at least people a great deal holier than I was.
But I was wrong. The only qualification for having a rule of life is that you want to grow in relationship with God. You don’t need to have reached a set level of holiness to have one, though it might well help you to grow in holiness if you do. And it’s not about being legalistic – at least, it’s not supposed to be. It’s not a list of do’s and don’t’s, but a framework by which we seek to live – a bit like a trellis that provides support for a plant to grow, only in this case the plant is our life in Christ. There are some famous rules – that of St Benedict, for example – and there are some very simple rules, worked out by individuals, sometimes in conversation with a spiritual director or friend. Mine covers my pattern of prayer and worship, of going on retreat and making my confession. It covers what I do with my money and my time, and how I seek to live so that faith is something that incorporates the whole of my life. And I find it helpful to have this because it makes me think intentionally about what it is to live faithfully as a Christian, how to live well, and I know myself well enough to know that if I left some of those decisions up to how I might be feeling on any given day, I would make poorer choices. My desire to pray would often find itself overtaken by my desire to have a lie in. My giving to the church and to charities would lessen as the receipts from Heffers and Aromi mounted up. I would find my time to pray or to read inexplicably vanishing, even while I had managed to watch the entire latest series of The Crown on Netflix…
Having a rule of life, then, is not so much about making faith a matter of things I must and must not do, as about trying to shape my life in such a way that the conditions for faithfulness and growth in holiness are at least there, despite the sometimes opposite inclinations of my heart.
But there is a danger, which is that I confuse keeping to my rule of life with faithfulness to God, and start to think I’m saved by my own efforts. Whereas of course I am not saved by my discipline in praying the office, or by how much I give to good causes, or by trying to be environmentally responsible. These things are consequences of what God in Christ has done to draw me back into relationship with him.
The Pharisees were pretty keen on rules of life, too. It’s too easy to dismiss them simply as legalistic opponents of Jesus, who couldn’t see the Son of God when he was standing right in front of them. But they were the really keen religious people of their day. They cared deeply about living faithfully, and their desire was for holiness. They were lay people, but they took on all the priestly laws as a way of hallowing daily life. They kept not just to the written law, but to the oral tradition, a vast body of additional commandments that had developed and been given authority by various rabbis – fully two thirds of which concerned laws about eating.
So the Pharisees were scrupulous about holiness. This is what they thought it meant to be faithful, and to be holy as the Lord their God was holy, as Israel had been commanded. All of the different laws, which governed every aspect of life, were there as a framework for living in holiness.
That’s why the Pharisees are aghast that Jesus’ disciples eat without washing their hands. Their real target, of course, is Jesus, who seems altogether too relaxed about some of the purity laws, and so poses a direct challenge to their authority.
For Jesus is operating by a different definition of holiness. For the Pharisees, impurity wasn’t just physical but spiritual. There might be practical wisdom in requiring people to wash their hands before eating, especially in a culture where the hands function as knives and forks, but there was also a fear of spiritual contagion – that contact with impurity made you impure. Cleanliness really was next to godliness. And so the law ended up functioning as a kind of fence, to keep the Pharisees safe from defilement. As long as they stayed on the right side of the fence, they knew themselves to be righteous, in right relationship with God. And that, of course, also meant keeping unclean things on the other side of the fence: women, ill or diseased people, corpses, sinners, pigs and unclean food, Gentiles…
Jesus comes to this encounter with the Pharisees having touched a leper and a dead child, eaten with women and sinners, cast demons into pigs, and broken the sabbath. He’s on his way into Gentile territory. He’s unperturbed that his disciples don’t wash their hands. He seems not to care about the fence.
And he challenges the Pharisees’ purity laws. ‘there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,’ he says, ‘but the things that come out are what defile.’ In other words, your fence isn’t keeping you safe and pure. It’s what’s inside you that defiles, what’s in your heart.
In Semitic thought, the heart is the centre of the personality; it’s what determines character and virtue and how people live. And no amount of laws, no rule of life, can save you from that. So instead of saying that what makes you unholy is this Gentile, or that sinner, or that leper, Jesus says ‘look inside.’ What is it that makes you judgemental or envious or proud? What is it that makes you hate, or provokes you to sin? It’s not the convenient scapegoat on the other side of the fence. It’s something in you.
Behind the encounter in today’s Gospel reading is the early church’s struggle over the Jewish dietary laws, and how much of the law Gentile converts to Christianity should be expected to keep. That particular argument is over, but the desire for purity still persists. We see it in racism and white supremacy, in some of the church’s arguments over gender and sexuality, in various forms of nationalism. It is always easier to erect a fence to create the division that keeps us feeling pure from ‘those other people’ – whoever they are – and to lay the blame for our problems on them, than it is to do the hard work of looking inside ourselves and facing up to our own capacity for evil as well as good.
Rules of life are helpful if they take the human heart seriously. They can provide space for holiness and virtue to grow and develop. Where they are simply a means of erecting a fence that pushes all our sin and confusion and shame onto someone else, they are a danger to us and to others, and completely counter-productive. We are not saved by them. We are saved through the life, death and resurrection of the one who was sent to the cross by the evil of human hearts, and whose resurrection is his refusal to let our sin and shame keep us from him. But if the evil of our hearts is what estranges us from God and sends Jesus to the cross, it’s the divine heart of love that brings us back. And here in this Eucharist he carries on his own work of holiness, by continuing to share his table with sinners, transgressing all the purity codes to be among us, and to make us his.