by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Mark: 7

Striving to know and experience the substance of true religion was one of John Wesley’s animating principles, and, therefore, one of the defining characteristics of the Methodist revival that he led. Wesley sought to instill among his followers an honest desire for holiness. He wanted them, and us, to know in the depth of our being that we can drink so deeply from the fountain of God’s love, that our thoughts, actions, and attitudes can overflow with love for others. Practicing the disciplines of self-awareness and introspection were part of Wesley’s prescribed “method” for reaching this lofty goal.

Wesley wanted Methodists to love, and then to think and pray, and then to love better. In order to facilitate that kind of spiritual growth, he often prepared lists of questions or rules with which he expected Methodists to check themselves.

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

That’s the first question in a list that John published numerous times in his ministry.

Here are some others.

2. Can I be trusted?

3. Am I enjoying prayer?

4. Do I pray about the money I spend?

5. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

6. How do I spend my spare time?

7. Do I grumble or complain constantly?

8. Is Christ real to me?

It’s a probing list of loaded questions, isn’t it, ranging from topics whose importance seems obvious to us—Can I be trusted?/Am I constantly complaining?—to those whose association with holiness might seem more tangential—Am I getting enough sleep?/How do I spend my spare time?

But it’s that first question, isn’t it, that sets the tone?

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

Jesus had a lot to say about hypocrisy, especially when it came to matters of faith. For all the religious barriers that he broke down, Jesus had no tolerance for the person who could go through the motions of piety without engaging their hearts. Hypocrites were the targets of some of Jesus’ most pointed invective.

“Hypocrites! You tithe to the penny but you ignore the important things like justice, mercy, and faith.”

“Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of a cup, but inside you are filthy.”

“Hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed tombs. Beautiful to look at, but filled with death.”

“Hypocrites! Why don’t you try taking the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, before pointing out the speck of dust in your neighbor’s?”

These examples are all found in Matthew’s Gospel, but in the seventh chapter of Mark we find Jesus at it once again.

The exchange recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson speaks of an encounter Jesus and his disciples had with some local religious leaders who took exception to the fact that Jesus’ crew didn’t follow their traditions regarding washing their hands before eating.

Now, keep in mind, the group’s concern wasn’t for public health, like the signs in restaurants reminding all employees to wash their hands. Their concern was religious and the implication of their question was that Jesus and his disciples were behaving in a manner that was displeasing to God.

“You hypocrites!” Jesus began. “The old prophet Isaiah was talking about you when he wrote about people who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far away.
You’ve ignored God’s Law and substituted your own traditions.”

Jesus then weighed in on one of the hot button topics of his day.

“You tell people that it’s all right for them to tell their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you because I vowed to give to God what I could have given you.”

The practice Jesus refers to here was called corban and, at first glance it looks like a pretty good thing. To make something corban was simply to offer it or to pledge it as a gift to God.

According to Jesus, though, this tradition was being abused. Community leaders were teaching people that they would be absolved of their obligations to care for the needy, in this case their needy parents, if they made their gifts corban—kind of like a spiritual version of an offshore tax shelter.

“Sorry mom and dad. I wish I could help pay for your prescription medicine, but I already gave my money to God, and you wouldn’t want me to cheat God would you?”

The practice Jesus condemned, therefore, was a clear-cut example of trying to maintain a façade of holiness without cultivating the necessary habits of prayer, devotion, and love.

It was the form of religion without the substance.

“Check yourself,” Jesus said, “and try to understand. You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do!”

I once heard a personal trainer say, “You can look good without being healthy, but if you’re healthy you will look good.”

I’m sure we could quibble with this statement, but I think it’s on point. It also resonates with the truth of scripture.

We can look like pious people without loving God or our neighbors. We can do a whole bunch of religious looking stuff and say a whole lot of religious sounding things, but without love, as Saint Paul says, we are empty; we are nothing.

However, if we are growing in our love for God and our neighbors, then we will not only look and sound pious, we will be pious, holy, and righteous.

So, friends, can you be trusted?
Is Christ real to you?

Are you consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that you are better than you really are?

Yes? No? Maybe?

Check yourself.

Love, think and pray on questions like these, then love better.

And above everything else, know that you are loved—with a love that will not let you go—the steadfast love of the Holy One who calls you by name and promises to meet you at the Table of Grace.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.