Scripture: Matthew 15:10-20
Last Sunday my son got to go to the Pennzoil 200, the NASCAR race that takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He went with my dad who has been attending the NASCAR races at the speedway since the first Brickyard 400 back in 1994. For decades now NASCAR has been the major leagues of stock car racing. The companies that field drivers are multi-million dollar corporations. NASCAR is highly organized with strict rules to create a level playing field, and by any metric stock car racing today is a respectable professional sport. However, that was not always the case. NASCAR finds its beginnings in places that were anything but respectable. The origins of NASCAR and stock car racing trace back to the prohibition era. In those days, especially in southern states, moonshine runners would modify their cars and enhance them so that they had a better chance of evading police. Because it is what people do, they would race each other as well, and once prohibition ended the former moonshine smugglers kept their faster cars and kept racing them. Then in the 1950s a more formal racing circuit began to take shape. Today stock cars are dedicated racecars, but the name comes from the fact that it started out with modifying regular every day cars.
Back when these cars were modified with the intention to avoid the law, it was done so from the outside the vehicle looked like any normal automobile. All of the modifications were under the hood. They may not have looked like much, but those cars had it where it counts. This concept is the heart of what Jesus is advocating for in this morning’s scripture. Faith in God and following Jesus should absolutely change us, but like those moonshine runner’s cars the change should be within. This morning’s scripture should really cause us to pause and question, just what will Jesus find under our hood?
This morning’s scripture picks up in the middle of a story. This morning, we kind of jumped to the really good part. Jesus was traveling around the Sea of Galilee teaching in the various villages. His reputation must have been spreading because Matthew 15:1 records that some Pharisees and teachers of the law had come up all the way from Jerusalem. I think we have to read between the lines a little bit here to really capture what is going on. We started at verse 10 which states Jesus addressed the crowd. This implies that Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of people that he was teaching, and it is in this very public venue the Pharisees and teachers of the law interrupt to ask Jesus a question, which we find it 15:2, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
In our modern day context with all that we know about germs that honestly comes across as a reasonable issue to address, but that is not quite what the Pharisees and teachers of the law were talking about. The clue here is the phrase the “tradition of the elders”. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law took following the law, the conduct for living found in the first five books of the bible, really seriously. They took it so seriously that starting after the Jewish people returned from exile, they began meticulously creating extra rules around the rules found in the bible just to ensure that they would not be broken. It is these extra rules that they refer to as the “tradition of the elders.” The Old Testament law does some rules about food that can be unclean as well as other occurrences that can make someone ceremonially unclean. It seems to be that this hand washing the Pharisees are trying to call the disciples out on, is some sort of ritualistic washing of the hands that was undertaken to ensure that someone did not accidently make themselves unclean because they had some sort of incidental contact with something ceremonially unclean throughout the day.
So that is the issue that the Pharisees are addressing, they are upset that Jesus’ disciples are not following the tradition of the elders, the extra rules they made up for ensuring purity. Remember, this is not a private conversation over coffee between Jesus and a couple of Pharisees. There is a crowd. This is a public argument. The Pharisees were not asking the question in good faith. They were asking the question to discredit Jesus. They were trying to pull a quick “gotcha” to discredit Jesus by showing his disciples were not really that righteous. In verses 3-9 of chapter 15, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees because they are being incredible literal on tradition while interpreting the actual scripture, the law they are supposedly protecting, in a far less strict way. That culminates with the start of this morning’s scripture reading in verse 10, where Jesus addressed the crowd and specifically answers the Pharisees question with the profound wisdom “what goes in someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
In verse 12 the scripture seems to jump ahead a few hours, because now Jesus is alone with the disciples, and apparently the Pharisees left in a huff, upset at what Jesus had said. I imagine what happens next, caused Jesus to make a big sigh. Because he was in the place that just about every teacher has found themselves where they have taught something, and the teacher thought it was easy to understand. The initial reaction of the students seems to imply they got it, but then one well-meaning student asks a question that makes it clear, that nope the lesson really did not connect. That is what Peter does here, by asking Jesus to explain the parable. While Jesus is exasperated he does anyway and makes the point he had hoped the disciples would get very explicit. What makes someone unclean is not on the outside, it is on the inside. It is not a person’s hands that need to be cleaned, it is a person’s heart. In other words it does not matter how it looks on the outside, it is what is under the hood that matters.
When his disciples did not immediately get this, Jesus did ask them “are you still so dull?” I have to wonder how many times over the centuries Jesus has shaken his head and had the same thoughts about his followers. From generation to generation of Christians this is still a scripture that we get tripped up on. We get so drawn to the outside appearances of righteousness. Just like the Pharisees of Jesus day, we like coming up with and emphasizing little rules about how followers of Jesus should dress or act. We like to create molds of what a righteous person looks like, and then expect everyone to fit that mold. Just like the Pharisees these molds tend to emphasize outward, observable behavior and ignore what is going on under the hood.
We see this same pattern repeated today. We see this on the national stage. It seems like constantly, some person who claimed a prominent Christian position such as being the pastor of a mega-church or a bishop somewhere is disgraced as their not so great behavior comes to light. The presented themselves as an authority on righteousness, only to be brought down and defiled from the evil thoughts that came from their hearts. We see this play out on a smaller stage as well. I know not all of you spend a lot of time online, but one of the cardinal rules of being on the internet is don’t read the comments because usually the comments are on a big news article, popular video, or viral post are generally hateful, toxic, and awful. Unfortunately, some of the worst offenders of these kinds of online comments are Christians. Seven months or so ago journalist Brandon Flannery published the results of a survey he conducted for baptistnews.com. He was specifically researching why people were leaving Christianity. One of the very top reasons was the behavior, especially the online behavior, of Christians. It seems that when given the anonymity that comes from being hidden behind a screen a lot of people who profess following Jesus let the evil thoughts of their heart come out in absolutely vitriolic and hurtful comments or posts. In our modern era this bad behavior is actually pushing people away from Jesus.
Unfortunately this sort of behavior is not new. We can go back several decades and find people making the same observation about a disconnect between the outward appearance of Christians compared to what seems to come out from within them. Author and Hosier Sheldon Vanauken wrote about this in a letter to C.S. Lewis when Vanauken was contemplating with converting to Christianity. Vanauken wrote: “the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians — when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
We can go back even further to find this has been a pattern has repeated time and time again. It is a pattern we see in our collective history. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement learned this first hand. Early in his adult life Wesley was committed to spiritual disciplines. His daily practices of prayer, scripture reading, and fasting would be even the most pious of us to shame. He had a lot to say at that time about the importance of these disciplines, but much like the Pharisees of Jesus day it was all about the outward focus. It was about the actions that were done and not about the internal motivation. When John Wesley fully accepted his need for grace and the salvation that Jesus offered he described it as his heart being strangely warmed. A heart changed by grace is the most fundamental basis of our United Methodist expression. It is our historic perspective that religion is not just about the actions we take to honor God, it is a religion of the heart. Being a Christian is fundamentally being transformed from the inside out to being a more loving person. This emphasis on the “under the hood” transformation is clearly evident in John Wesley’s 1742 pamphlet “The Character of a Methodist”. He begins that work with: “A Methodist is one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart.” Wesley continues on that “[a Methodist’s] heart is lifted up to God at all times in all places.” And he also wrote, “[A Methodist] is pure in heart. Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.”
A Methodist is one who’s heart has been changed by grace. We are to be a people who do have evil thoughts coming from our heart, because our heart- the essence of who we are- has been made clean by the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. As we consider how we live out the character of a Methodist in our modern world, let us reconsider those internet comments. Chances are most of us here are not the ones making the rude or mean off-handed comments. Chances are most of us are not saying anything at all. We think being silent is being polite and nice, but we should do better than that. We should be kind. If the actions of some have Christians a bad wrap for being unkind in their words and behavior, then may our words and behavior be the counter balance. May we be quick to comment in ways that build up and not tear down. May our words convey grace, love, acceptance, empathy, and a desire to care for others. We as a single church can not change the perception of our entire culture, but we can ensure that when people interact with us they do not encounter more bad behavior from believers, but instead may they know we are Christians by our love.
So what is under your hood? If on this day there if there is more anger, selfishness, cynicism, and hatred than you really want there to be then may your deepest prayer be “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” May we all be less concerned with how righteous we appear on the outside and may we be obsessed with what is going on under the hood. Just like car guys are never quite done tinkering with the engine, may we constantly keep pursing Jesus and may we seek to have the character that John Wesley believed is possible for us. May we love God, in all times and places with all of our heart, and by the power of Christ may what we all have under the hood be a truly pure heart.