15th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 17) LSB #704
Text – Mark 7:21-22
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
OUT OF THE HEART OF MAN
A teacher, active in Japan around a hundred years ago, received a university professor who came to inquire about the Zen religion. As the teacher served tea, he poured his visitor’s cup full, & then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself: “It is overflowing! No more will go in!”
The Zen teacher responded, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions & speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you 1st empty your cup?”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a group of Pharisees & scribes. Like the university professor, they are full of their own opinions & speculations. They need to be emptied if they’re going to receive His message.
The group has made the trip from Jerusalem because of Jesus, & Mark’s Gospel has already told us of the conspiracy to kill Him. (Mark 3:6) Since He will die in Jerusalem it seems particularly ominous that these people have come all this way to gather around Jesus.
What is it that they say to him? Do they look for some teaching that will guide them to live a better life? Do they seek some word of hope & encouragement? No. What they do instead is to find fault. They lack the nerve to confront Jesus directly, even though He’s violated many of their cherished traditions, so instead they find fault with some of His disciples.
What they criticize is not a huge failing, moral or spiritual, but that these disciples omit a law of human origin. Certain disciples of Jesus are caught eating with unwashed hands – a scandal to the scribes & Pharisees. But the hand washing in question is not for hygiene as we practice it. It was meant to wash away religious defilement, such as that caused by touching something or someone considered unclean. The Law of Moses mandated hand washing only for priests attending to their duties within the area set aside as sacred.
The Pharisees, however, extend the practice to other circumstances. They use this hand washing as what one scholar calls a “boundary marker,” a way for them to set themselves apart from the surrounding pagan population.
So these scribes & Pharisees who gather around Jesus ask Him why His disciples fail to keep the tradition of the elders. They are cups filled with their own opinions & speculations. Anything more poured in would only be wasted. They’ve pegged Jesus & His disciples as bad people. This condemnation absorbs their energy, leaving them with none for anything better.
Jesus recognizes these Pharisees & scribes as examples of a spiritual danger threatening all of us. He calls the people around Him so they can hear the warning He is compelled to offer. In effect, Jesus tells the crowd:
“Look out! Purity is not a matter of keeping external rules, without regard for what’s inside you. Righteousness is not simply how you behave when people are watching. Keeping rules is not what it’s about. You must pay attention to the condition of your heart!”
What Jesus means by heart is not the muscle in your chest that pumps blood, nor our emotional aspect – the Valentine’s day heart. Jesus understands the heart in the Hebrew sense as the center or core of the person. It’s the inner self. Jesus announces that the heart is where the problem lies. Our hearts are full.
What fills them is, all too often, poison that kills our spirit & the spirit of people we influence. Jesus lists these poisons. He names evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Like the tea cup, our hearts overflow. What they are full of is not simply our opinions & speculations, but poisons that can prove lethal for ourselves, & for others. Without Christ, you & I are not just partly sinful. We are completely & totally corrupted by sin.
The teaching in the Gospel of Mark is not intended to render us helpless, but to make us see a true problem, the challenge before us as people of faith. We live in a consumer society bombarding us with messages about how consumption can solve our problems. But it cannot solve this problem that Jesus exposes.
What we need is not to pour still more tea into our overflowing cup. What we need is to empty & detoxify our heart from the sin flooding forth from it. The problem is not external, & neither is the solution. What we require, at the center of our being, is for God to create a new heart. Earlier, in the Introit, we called for that, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”
This needs to happen, not one time only, but continuously. Over & over again, the overflowing cup must be emptied, the poison purged from our hearts & lives, so that the transforming grace of Christ can build a home within. We must be set free from our opinions & speculations in order to wonder at the miracles Jesus causes around us & within.
In Leviticus, God had forbidden His people from eating unclean foods such as pork or camel. In the Gospel reading for today Jesus tells His followers: “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, & is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18b-19 ESV)
Since Jesus had come to fulfill the Law of Moses, He was now taking the focus of the people away from regulations & putting it firmly onto relationships. Clean or unclean foods were no longer an issue. God’s foundational will is detectable in the Law of Moses, because it is a helpful legal version of it. Yet, God’s will is larger & far more encompassing than the Law of Moses. In fact, the will of God can never be adequately put into writing in the form of rules & regulations. For this reason ‘love’ – love of God & love of one’s neighbor – fulfills all that the Law seeks to articulate & command. Love is about relationships, & so is the will of God.
It’s not what we put into our bodies, in the form of clean or unclean food, that breaks our relationship to our heavenly Father. Rather, the sin that comes out of your heart or mine breaks the relationship; things like evil thoughts & sexual immorality. When Adam & Eve chose not to trust God, & ate the forbidden fruit, they broke the relationship with their Creator.
Jesus came to earth as God & as a human being. At His conception in Mary’s womb Jesus reunited God & man within Himself. He restored the relationship between us & our Creator. Love is to define that relationship, not rules & regulations. If we love God above all things & love our neighbor as ourselves, then our relationships will be in perfect order.
The Law of Moses, or the Old Covenant, was mainly a ‘surface’ covenant designed to regulate outward human behavior. Yahweh responded to human success or failure, over against that standard. The New Covenant operates on a deeper level, concerning itself with what’s really happening in your inmost being. In it, Yahweh responds to the success of Christ on our behalf.
Jesus did pay the price for the sins of the world, successfully. It is finished. The New Covenant got to the heart of the matter with human beings, but it also facilitates in us a true understanding of God’s will, & of His actions in judgment & in grace. The Law helps us to relate to God & to His creation, but mostly in a superficial way. It can easily be faked.
The other problem is that we simply cannot keep the Law in any way, shape or form. So Jesus came to do that for us. He came to remove your cold & legalistic heart so the Holy Spirit might replace it with a living & loving heart. When we are emptied of ourselves & filled with Christ, then our energy will not constantly be absorbed by condemnation of others. Instead, our energy will be available for use by the Holy Spirit who guides & directs us in this New Covenant where the Law has already been fulfilled.
The Word of God & Baptism & Holy Communion, the three means of grace that our Lord has promised to work through, are there to empty us of ourselves & to fill us with Christ. May we always put them to use in order to receive the blessings that our Savior longs to give us. Amen.
Renew me, O eternal Light, & let my heart & soul be bright, illumined with the light of grace that issues from Your holy face. Remove the power of sin from me & cleanse all my impurity that I may have the strength & will temptations of the flesh to still. Create in me a new heart, Lord, that gladly I obey Your Word. Let what You will be my desire, & with new life my soul inspire. Amen. LSB 704:1-3.
 Paul Reps & Nyogen Senzaki, compilers, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen & Pre-Zen Writing” (Tuttle Publishing, 1998), p. 19.
 Morna Hooker, “The Gospel According to Saint Mark” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), p. 445.
 Much of the first 2.5 pages of this sermon are from a sermon written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker, titled, “The Overflowing Tea Cup.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet