Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
It’s not really about washing hands, is it? That’s NOT why the religious leaders in Jesus’ day are all riled up. They say it is, sure. It’s really about who has the power to say what matters. It’s about their sense of control being challenged by someone new on the scene. Someone who claims authority simply by virtue of a closer connection to the divine. I’m the son of God, so I know what’s up. “Oh really, Jesus, you think what you have to say trumps the teachings of our elders, of YOUR elders? What you teach your disciples is better than centuries of lived wisdom and teaching?
Jesus’ answer is great. He says no- it’s not WHAT I teach that’s better, it’s WHY. I teach spiritual freedom from human doctrine. WHY? Because God is bigger than your ways. Sure, wash your hands- but why? If it’s to love your neighbor, then great. But if it’s to hold power over your neighbor, then you are simply not connected to the God you preach.
My fourth grade school pictures are missing something. And the only two people who know it are mom and me. (and well, now you!); My mom sent me to school that day wearing a yellow shirt and a colorful vest that I sewed in 4-H. I didn’t want to wear that vest, and wouldn’t you know- that when I took it off for recess that morning, I just plain forgot to put it back on! They whisked us away for school pictures, we got them back weeks later- and when my mom saw that plain yellow shirt- she was upset. I tried explaining that I’d taken it off for recess and forgot to put it back, but she was having none of it. All these years later- as we’re both able to chuckle about the incident, I think: It wasn’t really about the vest was it? It was about a mom who was watching her daughters grow up, make decisions of their own, sometimes against her will. It was about a daughter carving her own place in the world, sometimes against her mother’s will. It’s really about who has the power to say what matters.
Moments like these (vest or no vest) challenge us to look under the hood- to question WHY it is we feel the need to control others. What’s your “vest” story? Maybe you’re the one who thinks there’s ONE right way to load the dishwasher; Fold the clothes; Spend your money; Seek justice; Prepare for a career; Raise your children; Be in relationship; or like the Pharisees, wash your hands.
However your need for authority and control manifests, we hear Jesus ask the hardest question of all. Why? What’s hiding in your heart that makes you need to be so RIGHT all the time? To control how others make decisions?
Eugene Petersen interprets Jesus saying, “It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.”
I think about this list, how all of us are prone to at least a few of these evil ways, and I do think it’s because of our need for control. I slander someone else when I feel out of control in my own life. I am arrogant when I’m not confident about my self worth. I make foolish choices when I’m concerned about controlling what others will think. All the while, the truth remains clear: I can only ever make decisions for myself, no one else. If some day my kid WANTS to wear a vest on picture day- I won’t be able to control them any more than my mom could my decisions.
I can, however, control how I respond- what my behaviors say is really going on in my heart. I have officially been on both sides of this “what to wear to school” issue. On the second day of school, Blaire chose to wear mermaid pants with a cheetah-print dress. And I felt this deep urge to make her change. I wanted to control how her teachers thought about my parenting skills. I didn’t want to be perceived as the mom who sent her kids to school in crazy outfits. But I took a deep breath, I accepted the truth that my clothing values are not shared by my dear daughter- and that’s okay. Not just okay, but GOOD; In hindsight I’m glad she proudly wore that outfit all day, because I learned a valuable lesson. I was “this close” to foolishly telling a 5 year-old that what she wore mattered more than who she was...and having to sit with that is hard. I had the impulse to act as if that were true, even though I Of COURSE don’t believe it. This change of the heart stuff, it’s hard work...and it’s totally worth it. Jesus says, It’s not what you wear or how you wash your hands that defiles you, it’s what comes from the heart that matters.
Here’s a question for us- what’s your “vest” story in our church? Or our collective “cheetah print & mermaid pants” story? Where in our rituals of worship have we demanded that others hold the same values we do in aesthetics? Or musical tastes? Or theology? Or use of finances? The term “sacred cow” is used whenever there’s a part of church culture that simply cannot be questioned. Like the Pharisees ritualistic washing of hands.
NIB Commentary: “People come to hold on to merely human traditions as if they were divinely revealed. At the same time, the very basic virtues of love, reconciliation, and the good news that God has come among us as savior get lost. It would, in fact, be much easier to follow any number of ritual practices than to transform our hearts.”
I read that this week, nodding along, until I realized we claim the ritual practice of worship as THE single-most important act of heart transformation.
So which is it? The outward act or the inward change? Or maybe a better question is- do those two things happen simultaneously? Are we open to being changed by the common rituals that bring us together? Are we also open to changing those common rituals to be inclusive of new ideas and people? Jesus’ teaching always ask us to go one step further, to ask the question that lies at the heart of it all:
Why are we doing what we do? Why do we worship? At our best, we usher in God's kingdom, in which Jesus takes the impossibly evil intentions of our hearts and changes us. Gives us a way where there was no way. For only God has the power to illuminate our hearts and bring resolution and peace within each of our “vest” stories. Only then can we release our need for control of others into the arms of our ever-loving Savior.
Jesus, may your kingdom come to us today on earth, in our hearts, as it has always been and always will be in heaven. Amen.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Stand, Paul says. Stand firm in faith. Find your strength in the Lord, Paul tells us. Why? There exist forces around us humans that can overcome our faith if we’re not watchful. Paul should know. Anyone recall what Paul was up to right before getting blinded by the truth on the road to Damascus? Before Paul “saw the light” of Christ’s love, he was making life pretty darn difficult for people who called themselves Christians...so even though Paul now writes in Ephesians as one of Christ’s most loyal followers, he gets it. He knows the “wiles of the devil,” because he’s lived them. He’s taken part in them. And I take a strange comfort in this truth, especially when Paul employs imagery of battle. Because what it tells me is that the armor of God is NOT for battle against other humans. And least, not exactly. Stand firm, Paul says, against spiritual forces of evil, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Sure, sometimes these forces of evil are seen in human behaviors and choices, but evil’s origin is deeper than any one person.
And that matters, because at the core of our humanity is this truth: we can only change our own behaviors, not those of others. Wanna know my favorite piece of God’s armor? “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” It’s so practical. Whatever works, Paul says, to support your journey, to steady your pace, toward Christ’s vision of peace for your life, for your neighbors, and for this world.
How do we put on this armor of God? The answer comes toward the end of this passage: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”
One of the most fundamental shifts in my relationship with myself and God has come through prayer. In the midst of introspective moments of prayer, the kind that “keep me alert,” I’ve learned this: I am not entirely good. And I am not entirely evil. Do you know what I mean? Maybe it’s a prayer of desperation or a vulnerable conversation with a good friend, perhaps it’s a moment reading a scripture or book and it hits you. “I am a person created “very good” in the image of God AND some days, I am in need of serious help to actually live like that.
The world has never been black and white- spiritual forces of good and evil simultaneously exist everywhere- even within us. Paul knows this, so he directs 1st Century & 21st Century Christians alike to put on spiritual armor. Give ourselves the best chance possible to live into the image of God which is our birthright. Paul says that’s when God's word is made clear. Logos- the living word. To be a living testament of God’s good news, it takes:
The breastplate of righteousness, to stand firm against the forces of complacency and gluttony and violence.
The belt of truth, To stand firm against manipulative rhetoric that makes false claims about God and your own belovedness.
Sturdy shoes, to stand firm against the lie that violence ever creates peace or restores relationships.
The shield of faith, to stand firm against the forces that want us to believe God has given up on us.
A helmet of salvation, to stand firm in the belief that salvation is in God's hands, not our own.
Sword of the spirit, to stand firm in the Word of God as made known to us in Jesus our Christ.
What’s your favorite piece of armor? Or maybe a better question: “What piece of God’s armor are you most in need of today?” Good questions for us to ask on this journey of proclaiming the gospel of peace in the name of Christ.
Stand firm, my friends, I need your strength and you need mine to weather the evil forces in our midst, especially the ones that lurk closest to our own hearts. And may we always go about it in a spirit of prayer. Amen!
We enter this story today as King David, flaws and faithfulness alike, passes away leaving God’s people in the hands of son Solomon.
“Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you." And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life."
Do you remember being 20 years old? Maybe it’s not been that long- or you’re not there yet- or perhaps those days are a bit fuzzy. Where you lived, what interests you pursued, who you spent time with, the values you held, how you spent your days? 20 is such a beautiful age- filled with potential, when a young adult mind often begins contemplating “the meaning of life.” Maybe it’s a book or philosophy class, or an experience- like heartbreak, losing a loved one; perhaps it’s a falling out with friends or family; maybe it’s simply anticipating a job; Young adulthood is filled with possibility, AND the beginning of a real weightiness to decisions made. Solomon, son of David, finds himself at the tender age of 20, occupying Israel’s throne. The guy in charge. 20 years old. Despite his youth, the gravity of his situation is not lost on him. Young King Solomon recognizes there's a lot he doesn't know yet; and rather than puff himself up with feigned confidence, Solomon does something that perhaps not all of us were capable of at 20 years old, and maybe still have a hard time doing: acknowledging his need for guidance, for wisdom.
“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
We often equate older age or “the school of hard knocks” with wisdom, and there’s truth to understanding derived from experience, for sure. But Solomon’s story asks us to think of wisdom in terms of attitude rather than age. Upon hearing Solomon’s request for wisdom, the LORD grants him a wise and discerning mind...but really, he kind of already has it, right? He was wise enough to know what truly matters.
We hear in his response to God the irony in this attitude of wisdom: it’s knowing you’re not yet as wise as you could be. Wisdom starts there. You have made me king, but I am so young. I don’t know what I’m doing. I want to govern your people well. Help me in my decision-making. That's what I want most… “And it pleases the Lord that Solomon asks for wisdom.”
As a teenage Christian, I recall my fascination with all the young people in the bible who God calls into ministry. King Solomon included, my youth pastor emphasized these folks because he believed God works in the lives of those who desire MORE wisdom...and often youth are positioned well for this: listening and obeying God’s call in their lives. Saying YES without reservation. Teen Miriam is a vital instrument of grace in her brother Moses’ path to leading the Israelites to freedom. Solomon’s dad David himself, called from shepherding the flocks to lead God’s people. The young boy in our story a few weeks back who offers his loaves and fish for Jesus’ miraculous moment, he is the one who steps up to a challenge the adults had a hard time wrapping their minds around. Teenage Esther, literally saving the lives of thousands of Jews with her bravery. Jesus’ very mother- Mary, setting the course of human salvation as a pregnant teen. Jesus himself, completing his earthly ministry at the age of 33.
Wisdom is an attitude, not an age. And we know it in our gut- there’s something compelling and refreshing about the keen insights children and youth bring forward out of curiosity and wonder. The same curiosity and reverence that led Solomon to seek first the wisdom of the LORD. “I’m in this position of leadership, and I desire to do it well- for God’s glory!” Now there’s a twist in Solomon’s story. See he’s promised this wisdom (and because he didn’t ask for it- wealth and longevity as well) so long as he maintains relationship with God. Those are the terms for wisdom. “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life." He is called to a life-long pursuit of God in his quest for wisdom, And it’d be so nice to insert “and he lived happily ever after” here, but that’s not exactly true; here’s what really happens: he loses sight of God’s guidance along the way.
Years pass, Solomon's kingdom is great, and maybe his sense of humility is lost as his reign grows stronger? What we know is this: In the end, Solomon let temptations pull his allegiance from the God who granted him wisdom. 1 Kings 11:2 "For when Solomon was old, he turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David."
That life-long path of seeking wisdom? We’re always on it- even King Solomon. And the second we think we’ve got it all figured out, we in a sense turn away from God too, turn away from the source of surprise and wonder, guidance and wisdom that draws us closer to true wisdom.
Solomon forgot that no amount of earthly wisdom is enough to make us righteous. Here’s a confession, sometimes I forget this too; I have a memory from my youth that draws me back into an attitude of wisdom. In my church youth group, graduating HS seniors were asked to give a piece of parting wisdom to the younger kids. I’m not sure what possessed me to say this, but I stood up and simply offered this, “The older I get, the more I realize, the little I know.”
Seventeen year-old Emily possessed an attitude of wisdom, and this current version of Emily,more than twice her age, often needs to be reminded of that moment in time, that precise orientation of the heart. Faith as an attitude of wisdom, and regardless of age, able to say, “I have more to learn. Teach me thy ways, O Lord.”
We all are still growing in our faith, and despite the fact that each of us has a unique relationship to God, we need others to be a part of our journey too. So let’s devote ourselves to graciously reminding one another that wisdom is an attitude, not an age, and it’s accessible to all of us who desire the path young Solomon directs us toward:
“If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.” When I need a reminder that I don’t have it all figured out yet- I look to the young people around me, and I trust that God is already hard at work, forming an attitude of wisdom that I can learn from. I came across a wonderful thought just last night that speaks to God’s insistence on using young people to move us:
“The great events of this world are not battles and elections and earthquakes and thunderbolts. The great events are babies, for each child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged with humanity, but is still expecting goodwill to become incarnate in each human life.” - Marian Wright Edelman
Young and old alike, wisdom prevails when we are able to joyfully acknowledge all we do not yet know about God’s love, the greatest mystery of all. May it be so, for you and for me, Amen!
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.