7 February 2018
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for their belief that strict adherence to the Law would make them clean and righteous in the eyes of God. For the Pharisees, the religious life is primarily about avoiding the practices that defile a person as well as performing the religious rituals that will purify them from their uncleanness.
Jesus is strongly critical of this attitude. In an earlier passage, he quotes from the book of Isaiah where it says
“This people honour me with their lips
But their hearts are far from me.”
Sometimes we can become so obsessed with the externals of the law, the secondary expressions of it that we forget the law itself, the undergirding, the core of it. When we do this, we end up paying God a kind of lip service. We focus on the secondary and miss the essential.
Jesus calls such people as being like whitewashed tombs as they appear holy on the outside while rotten inside. It is not that the religious rituals are wrong, but the problems of sinful desire are not solved without a change in the operation of the heart.
Matthew 12:34 tells us that, “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” What we say reveals the condition of our hearts. We can try to keep up an appearance of godliness, even as the Pharisees and scribes did, but eventually, our words will reveal our true character.
The prophets and psalmist say Gods’ law is beautiful, that it shapes and forms the people in accordance with God’s mind and with God’s deepest intention. That’s why they rightfully exalt in it – it’s the center of their life. However, the Law could not remove a person’s moral defilement, and it could not cleanse their sinful hearts.
Laws won’t make us clean, only Jesus does.
Perhaps this is something we should consider as we approach the season of Lent. We can ask ourselves whether we are just ticking off our ritual obligations and ignoring the condition of our heart or whether we are using it as a time to truly respond to the call of God in our lives.