Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? *
who may abide upon your holy hill?
Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, *
who speaks the truth from his heart.
All of the readings in our lectionary for today are concerned with the same thing…holiness of life….in other words, how are we to live in order to be pleasing to God? Under the first covenant leading a holy life meant keeping faithful to the statutes of the Law. While on the surface it might have seemed as though the Mosaic Law only concerned one’s behavior, rather than the thoughts and intentions of the interior person. But in the writings of the prophets who were considered the mouthpieces for God, there were admonitions about motivation. In the Gospel today Jesus quotes from Isaiah in reference to the righteousness of the Pharisees: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” implying that the religious leaders are saying the right things but their intentions are questionable.
It was not enough to be able to quote from the Law nor were its precepts to be used as a means to control the people. As the religious establishment became more powerful the leaders and teachers added their own interpretations to the basic tenants of the Law and eventually ended up with a set of rules that were impossible to keep to the letter. The Law, which had been intended to be a guide and a tool for those who sought holiness of life became a means of oppressing the people and keeping them in subjection both to the Law itself and to the religious establishment.
We see this in the Gospel account of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees about the hygiene habits of his disciples. Mark writes that the Pharisees called out Jesus because some of his disciples were eating with unwashed hands. The tradition of those faithful to the Law at that time included a number of ritual washings..for food, utensils, cooking and eating vessels, as well as for the hands and body. These were not done only for physical cleanliness but included a component of ritual purity. You will notice that rather than asking why Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands the Pharisees implied religious judgment with the term “defiled”.
Jesus, instead of addressing the lack of personal hygiene of his disciples uses the moment to teach a deeper lesson about holy living. “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:…” Evil intentions lead to evil behavior and this is what makes a person unclean before God.
It seems to me that in our current culture we are confused and conflicted about what God expects of his people or even what it means to be a decent human being. Perhaps that has always been the case and with the lure of social media turning even ordinary folks into self-absorbed narcissists the more outrageous one behaves the more attention and external validation one receives. Even in those who claim to be faithful Christians, there is a tendency to focus on particular sins …especially those being committed by people who make us uncomfortable…with little attention to managing our own thoughts and behaviors to align ourselves with the teachings of Jesus.
While a little self-discipline is a wonderful thing the truth is Jesus was less concerned with keeping the letter of the Law then he was with treating one’s neighbors with kindness and compassion. No one would argue that washing one’s hands before eating is a bad thing but not doing so does not make one a bad person. It might be a good way to spread disease or parasites in certain situations but in most cases is probably pretty harmless and Jesus was making the point that cleanliness on the outside does not translate to holiness on the inside.
While the letter of James may cause some discomfort for those overly concerned with the idea of “works-righteousness” …the idea that one can achieve salvation through the merits of one’s good works rather than as the free gift of God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross…hopefully, no one would argue with the fact that it does contain some good advice for living out one’s faith in the world. The writer of the letter is very practical and suggests that if we keep our focus on Christ we can have some control over our thoughts and actions and can work to become better, more Christ-like people. I tend to agree.
In James we read that it is not enough to just hear the word of Truth; we must then act on it, allowing it to become implanted within our very selves and in humility let it transform us into the likeness of Christ. The letter of James includes some very reasonable lists of good practices that will help one lead a holy life…implying of course, that is something for which we should strive. It is easy in our current time and culture to be corrupted by this world in which those who value wealth and power make the decisions for the populous and our addiction to consumerism leads us to believe that everything and everyone can be bought for a price. However, the truth of Jesus’ teaching has not changed….you cannot worship both God and wealth. You cannot serve Christ and cater to your own interests at the expense of your neighbor’s…even your far off neighbor. We have become so comfortable in our cognitive dissonance that we do not see ourselves for the whited sepulchers we have become….looking pious and religious on the outside but our shiny ersatz holiness hides that we really are dead inside.
Leading a holy life is not about deprivation for the sake of itself. It is not about reveling in one’s self-control or wasting time judging oneself or one’s neighbor harshly for the times we fail. Rather leading a holy life is nothing more than keeping one’s priorities in order. First and foremost in the life of Christian is God as revealed to us in Christ Jesus and our commitment to model our lives on his example and teaching. That, of course, translates to allowing ourselves to be transformed by the love of God in Christ into holy people who share that love anywhere and everywhere with anyone and everyone we encounter. It means being concerned with our neighbor’s welfare. It also means watching what we say so that we do not injure another with unnecessary hateful comments. It means watching what we do so we treat our own bodies and the persons of others with the respect and care due to one made in the image and likeness of God. It means not being wasteful with the gifts of creation and not basking in our own financial or social success while others lack even the most basic necessities of life.
Leading a holy life cannot be done by the strength of one’s will…that is the sure way to failure. Rather, it is by letting the love of Christ permeate all that we are and humbly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we will begin to find the frivolous and empty pursuits of this world will no longer be alluring to us. We will instead be drawn to the deep well of living water that is Christ rather than the shallow pool of what is fashionable or entertaining. Leading a holy life does take effort and commitment. It requires us to study and pray…to be faithful in worship and to seek out the wise counsel of those who are walking the way of Christ with us. It requires us to put aside our preconceived ideas about people and seek to love and care for those who make us uncomfortable…those whose life experience is different than our own but who are struggling to make their way in the world just as we are. We must learn to put avoid judgment seeking rather to understand. At the same time, we must not be afraid to speak Truth…to openly and unashamedly share the Gospel message with others and to be willing to stand alongside the poor, the oppressed, the outcast and the vulnerable in their struggle for justice and equality.
There are two components to a holy life….the interior and the exterior. If we attend to the interior person seeking to develop personal habits of prayer and study…of temperance and self-control…of moderation and self-discipline …of love for others and for self….This will inform our exterior life… how we live out that holiness in community…in our family….in the Church community…in our neighborhood and in the broader world. It is the exterior self that is the example for others…the living witness of our internal commitment to serve Christ.
Just as the Law was intended as a gift rather than a burden for the Hebrew children so too the law of love in Christ Jesus is intended to liberate us…to set us free from the burden of trying to follow a long list of instructions for our behavior. If we point our internal compass toward the true North of love we will find clarity and simplicity. We will not have to agonize over what to do because love will guide our decisions. Holiness of life, like all disciplines, requires practice…but the more we practice living into the love of Christ the easier it will become.
We will, of course, have moments where we fail and fall back into the world. The lure of popularity…of accumulation….of power over others…of venting our frustrations…is very strong. But even if we find ourselves falling back into old habits…even those that cause pain to others in our lives…we can repent and our Lord is faithful to forgive. Life is made up of moments of starting over and always there is hope and possibility that we can do better…that we can be better people…holy people .leading holy lives.
“Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? * who may abide upon your holy hill?
Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, * who speaks the truth from his heart.
Whoever does these things * shall never be overthrown”