Proper 17, Year B
August 29, 2021
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
St. Mary’s is known, amongst other things, for its beautiful liturgies. If you’ve spent much time here, perhaps most poignantly back in the sacristy, you know that we are fussy about the tiniest liturgical nuance, including when we stand/sit/kneel, whether the server hands the priest things with the right hand or left hand, how to pronounce Latin words like aspergillum (the brush used to sprinkle Holy Water), to name a few. We know what the historic Anglo-Catholic ceremonial guides have to say about all of this and more, and we pride ourselves on following them to the best of our ability.
It’s easy to see ourselves as the Pharisees in today’s gospel lesson. They had gathered around Jesus who seems to be OK with not following the proper Jewish protocol for handwashing. Yes, there was a hygienic benefit to handwashing then just as there is now, but there was a profoundly religious reason for this protocol: in ancient Israel, as we know from the book of Exodus, priests were required to wash their hands ritually before serving in the Temple, and by Jesus’s day, this practice had become commonplace across Judaism (not just the priests). The Pharisees and scribes are scandalized as Jesus, despite his Jewish upbringing, seems perfectly fine with his disciples not keeping the ritual purity rules that had become the norm.
Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah, describing the way that God looks into the human heart. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”, Jesus quotes from Isaiah. In other words, the Pharisees and scribes are focused on the wrong thing. In focusing on human tradition and looking only at the outward appearance of things, they had failed to honor God, because it is what is in the human heart that matters to God.
Jesus didn’t throw out “human tradition” in its entirety, nor did he throw out specific commandments or ritual practices. I don’t think that Jesus would say that attention to ritual detail during our liturgy is unimportant or should be minimized. Rather, insisting on the ritual while overlooking the deeper truth behind it is like honoring God with our lips while our heart is far from him.
It’s easy to stop here and say that we understand what Jesus was saying, but then we miss out on his much harder message about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy refers to the disconnect between moral values and standards that we espouse and those that we actually practice in our behavior. Living hypocritically means that we try to fool others by taking on a role and pretending to be something that we are not. It is a denial of our authentic self in favor of the fabricated persona that we wish to be.
When Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes of being hypocrites, he’s not attacking them for pretending to be good when they were really evil. In fact, they were mostly good leaders. He’s saying that their self-righteous convictions about their own goodness had built an arrogant wall around them, isolating them from their fellow believers and making them deaf to any further word from God. Jesus wasn’t upset that the Pharisees observed ritual handwashing, and likewise, he’s not upset that we continue that same practice when the priest ritually washes his hands before celebrating the Eucharist. Believing that your righteousness in God’s eyes comes to you because you’ve followed the external ritual to the tee, and then judging others by how externally pious they are or aren’t – that’s what Jesus means by hypocrisy.
Jesus continues and tells the crowd that “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.” This isn’t a list of sins that Jesus wants us to avoid, though that may not be a bad thing to do, it's simply a description of the human condition. We aren’t great people, no matter how hard we try. It is only when we acknowledge the sinfulness within our own hearts and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness that we can live an authentic spiritual life, free of hypocrisy. Just as Jesus saw through the external piety of the Pharisees and scribes, God can see right through our fabricated personas and fake piety and sees the evil in our hearts. And he loves us anyway.
Using the words of the older confession, let us “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”. Let us stand before God acknowledging who we really are without pretense and receive his unconditional grace and mercy. And let us continue to approach the liturgy of the church with great reverence, not to appear pious before God and others, but rather as an outward and visible reflection of the inward and spiritual grace we have received in our hearts. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 20.
 Mark 7:15, 21-23.
 Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird Ministries.
 1979 BCP p. 331.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!