At the Master’s feet - Week 5: From the heart
Read: Matthew 15:1-44
The theme of judgment is the major theme in the second half of Matthew’s Gospel which starts at Chapter 14.
As it happens, in this particular passage the Judgment that Jesus is making doesn’t have to do with the final judgment, rather he’s passing judgment on the Pharisees in particular and also on the human heart in general – all within the context of our worship of God.
Let’s unpack the context a little.
The Pharisee’s as we know liked their rules and regulations. In addition to the Torah Law a whole tradition of rituals and laws grew up and became known as the teachings of the scribes. This second law was observed with the same sort of intensity as the Torah and sometimes even over-wrote it.
In the scene we read in Matthew 15 the Pharisee’s attack Jesus and his followers for breaking the law code around ceremonial hand washing – it was a pretty complex code which had instructions about which part of the hand to wash when and with water from which part of the jug – the accusation that they make is that in failing to observe this ritual and ceremony Jesus disciples are ‘unclean’ or unfit for worship, in some way un-acceptable to God.
Jesus responds by asking the questioner a question – a well used method of response in his day. The question, unlike some of Jesus others, is not cryptic. Indeed it’s striking in its clarity.
“Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” He asks. He then goes on to give a concrete example of a situation in which the Pharisees oppose the revealed law of God for the sake of the traditions that they observe.
As he so often did he then quotes the scriptures. He picks up some lines from Isaiah 29 which form part of a judgment on the City of David. The judgment is coming because the people have failed to recognize that the outward acts are of no significance if the heart is cold, corrupt, or turned from God. That the heart is cold to God can be seen in the failure to observe his laws and the primacy of the other traditions that had been constructed around them.
Actually, this was the single topic that got the prophets in the OT era most animated, the following of the law to the letter (which was deemed one of the key parts of the worshipping life) but failure to love God and love others. It’s on this sort of religion that the prophets pronounce Gods judgment saying that God finds it detestable, an offence, and more.
Q: As you read this passage what point do you think Jesus is trying to make?
If the context of this passage relates to worship, I suggest the point to the Pharisees is pretty clear. Simply washing hands in a certain way, or for that matter following any detailed tradition can not, ever, make anyone acceptable to God as a worshipper. Likewise the reverse is true, failure to follow these prescriptions can not, ever, make anyone unacceptable to God as a worshipper.
So this is Jesus’ complaint
The Pharisees believed in worship as a response to the grace of God. Let’s just make that clear. But the Pharisees response to the loving grace of God was obedience to a detailed precision in worship that meant the duty of a worshipper could be fulfilled even if the heart were cold towards God, and even if the rest of life ignored Gods call to show mercy and justice or any other mark of true faith.
Jesus blasts the Pharisees because their worship was disconnected from the heart and also the rest of life. For the Pharisees it was possible to do the duty of honouring God if the services and rituals were correct…but for Jesus worship was impossible unless hearts were turned towards God.
Q: What does this mean for us?
Q: What about our engagement in corporate worship
Do we come to worship with cold hearts, supposing that simply the act of showing up will be enough to satisfy God – that in being here we’ve done our bit? Or instead do we come to worship on the understanding that what God love is not our simply being here, but our response of heartfelt love to his love lavished on us.
Do we prepare for worship? Or do we just rock up, think about it as we walk through the door…
Do we actively turn our hearts to God, expectantly, looking to meet him by his Holy Spirit?
Do we join in with worship wholeheartedly – even with the bits we’re not that keen on for our own sake and the sake of the whole church?
I’m not saying that our attitude always has to be one of ecstasy and joy, we come before God in worship as we are, but regardless as to what’s going on, or how we are, we may still choose to come as a response from the heart.
William Temple said:
“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind by the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purposes of God.”
It’s so much more than simply some time to sing, pray, and study the scriptures. It’s the place at which together, as a community, we seek God, and open ourselves afresh to him and what he is doing in us and in the world. Now it’s true to say that this can take many forms. Our preference might be for traditional liturgical worship from the Book of Common prayer, more contemporary liturgical worship from Common Worship , or for less structured informal worship. The form and structure is relatively unimportant so long as it allows corporate worship to do what it should do.
Q: What about the level of engagement of worship with our wider life
Do we come to worship God and live out our ‘Christian life here in church and then forget it when we leave.
Is our worship is disconnected from the rest of our lives or are the two integrated, a stream that flows throughout our existence.
Its all well and good to sing praise to God and lift our hands when we’re together on a Sunday but if then on a Monday Christ plays no part in our daily life we have a serious problem.
It’s no good sharing in the Lords supper and celebrating his forgiveness and mercy to us, if we’re unwilling to show forgiveness and mercy in the office on Monday morning, or at the School gate, or in our bowls club on Tuesday afternoon.
Reading the OT it seems God reserves a particular loathing for worship that is isolated from the rest of life and therefore hypocritical. And the message that rings out loud and clear is that Gods not interested in his people doing the right things in worship if their hearts are cold towards him the rest of the time. That what God desires first and foremost is a heart that is warmed by his grace and simply responds in love.
Having challenged the Pharisees on this he then pushes his point further.
He says that the things that are outside of us have no power to make us clean or unclean. Paul talks about a similar thing when he says that food offered to Idols has no power in and of itself to make us ‘unholy’ – it’s just meat, who cares who it’s been offered to! It still goes in the mouth, through the stomach and out…simple as that.
It’s what’s in the heart that makes us clean or unclean…it’s what comes from within that makes us what we are. Jesus makes this point forcefully saying that the things that demonstrate our uncleanness or our sinfulness come from within – he then lists some of those ‘evil thoughts’.
So that means that the real work has to be concentrated on what is within. And in passing judgment on the Pharisees Jesus also passes judgment on the human heart.
Jesus knows the state of the human heart, it’s inherent coldness towards the things of God, it’s capacity for hatred ad anger (alongside it’s capacity for love and peace)
Ezekiel 36 we read a promise made by God to his people – it’s a promise about the heart:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws”
This reviving of the heart is made real in and through Jesus Christ and is sealed in us, the inheritors of the fulfilment of this promise by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. As we receive the mercy and grace of God in Christ and as the Holy Spirit takes us residence in us, we find that the process of our hearts being made new is begun. What was once cold to God, and in rebellion to him, is warm to God and desires to live his way. This is the heart of a disciple.
And so as those who have responded to the mercy and love of God we are at the same time in possession of a new heart (a new attitude, a new disposition, a new state), indwelt by the Spirit, and also in the process of this new heart being made more fully real. It’s a work that is both completed and yet to be finished – as is so much in the Christian life. And it’s a work that is done at least in part through our times of corporate worship as we gather to be transformed.
Revd Simon Butler