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Idol Walls

August 26, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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Idol Walls
Mark 7:1-13

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel text, specifically where Jesus tells the Pharisees and those with them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Contrary to what you may have seen in Indiana Jones, sometimes the most exciting thing an archaeologist can find on a dig is a wall. That may not seem all that exciting to you or me, but discovering a wall is a pretty big deal! You may have found the outskirts of a city or the inner structure of a house or a palace. If you find graffiti, writing, or other artwork, you could be looking at a temple. It could be a treasury, a tomb, or an armory that you would have just started to uncover. See? Walls can be pretty exciting! And you see them everywhere in archaeology, for good reason: in the ancient world, walls meant everything. They meant security; if you needed something to be protected, you built a wall around it – sometimes, multiple walls, if you had something of high value, like a king or a treasury. The idea was, the more obstacles and distance you could put between what you’re trying to protect and those outside who are trying to get in, the better.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Apparently, this concept extended beyond security and defense, because the ancient Jews had done the same thing – theologically speaking. They had built walls around what was one of the most important aspects of Jewish life: the Law of God. Only, we’re not talking strictly about the Ten Commandments. There was a belief among the Jews of Jesus’s time that, in addition to the written Torah that was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God also gave him what was referred to as the oral Torah, rules and laws that were never written down, but were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. These rules and laws, while not written down until well after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, were nevertheless binding on all Jews as authoritative, on the same level as the written Torah. The traditions of the elders that the Pharisees speak of in our Gospel lesson come from this tradition.

Mark tells us that these same Pharisees come out to see Jesus, along with some of the scribes, and they notice something: some of Jesus’s disciples are not following these rules and laws. Specifically, they are eating with hands that haven’t been washed – the general rule of thumb was that one would have to scrub their forearms (from the elbow to the knuckles) with water to wash away any uncleanness before eating, lest you ingest anything unclean. Some of Jesus’s disciples … have not done this. The Pharisees and scribes see this behavior, and they ask Jesus about it. “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” From our perspective, it seems a bit odd to make a federal case of this; obviously, they didn’t know about germs and were thus not concerned about hygiene, certainly not the way we tend to be. So, what was their beef?

Well, the issue comes from a historic sense of caution and even fear, and this is where the walls-within-walls idea comes into play. The Pharisees and scribes knew that their ancestors had transgressed God’s law, and God had punished them for it throughout their history. It seems they were concerned that they were going to transgress God’s law once again, and that God would, once again, punish them for it as He had before. So they put up walls, rules, and regulations for daily life that wouldn’t permit you to get anywhere close to transgressing God’s law. For example, to protect the Second Commandment, against using God’s Name in vain, the people stopped saying it altogether. Instead of speaking God’s name “Yahweh,” even when reading the Scriptures, they would instead say “Adonai,” for fear of misusing the holy Name. They did this for all the commandments, in relation to both the written and oral Torah. They tried to build up these walls around the commandment to keep themselves from crossing that line, because if you keep the rule, you keep the commandment, and if you keep the commandment, you’re safe. More than that, you’re saved.

Which, of course, misses the point of the law entirely, as Jesus points out. In regard to the question they pose, He doesn’t even dignify it with an answer. Instead, in the typical snarky fashion found in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls them out on their hypocrisy: Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. They had turned their striving after the perfect keeping the law … into a god. Their walls of protection around the law – indeed, their keeping of the law itself … had become an idol.

This is what every other religion in the world does – you get to God by toeing the line and being good enough, and yes, even we Lutherans are not impervious to this sinful inclination. Lest we be tempted to nod in agreement, thinking, “Yeah, You tell ‘em, Jesus!” … we need to remember that this is something that we all do. In his Large Catechism, Luther explains regarding the First Commandment, that having a god is having something that you fear, love, and trust in the most. In spite of the theology which we confess, it is all too easy to allow anything to become a god in our lives, and fearing, loving, and trusting our ability to keep God’s law for our salvation is a temptation we all know. Worse, like the Pharisees, we set up silly, arbitrary rules and regulations for ourselves, lowering the impossibly high standard that the Ten Commandments require of us, and when we keep those rules, then we feel really good about ourselves, and think we’re good with God because of it. “I don’t drink, smoke, gamble, get tattoos and piercings. I give to the homeless, work hard at my job, help the little old lady up the street – man, I’m sittin’ pretty good with the Almighty!”

Like the Pharisees and scribes, we miss the point entirely. The law has three uses – curb, mirror, and guide. It cannot save us; in fact, in terms of salvation, it can only kill us. The traditions that the people of Israel followed, the rules and laws that we set up for ourselves, cannot save us! The true Law of God shows us how we are to treat our neighbor … how we are to love our God … and how miserably and epically we fail in our efforts! No matter how many walls we put up to stop ourselves from breaking the commandments, we will blast through them – happily, joyfully, because we are sinners. If our salvation depends upon our keeping of the commandments, then we’re all doomed and damned … and that’s the point!

If it were possible for Man to keep these commandments perfectly, the Father would have had no need to send the Son … but He did! Yes, we would be damned if our salvation depended on our effort, but thanks be to God that Jesus was damned for us! The only One Who ever actually kept the commandments perfectly … died the death that we deserve! That’s Jesus’s whole point as He’s speaking with the Pharisees; by focusing on the law of God, not to mention the worthless traditions of the elders, they had lost sight of that which is infinitely more valuable: the promises of God.

For them, it was the promise that the Messiah would come – indeed, that He had come, and was standing before them. For us, it’s that the Messiah has come. It’s the promise that, because of His sacrifice on the cross, putting sin to death in Himself, we stand justified before our heavenly Father. It’s the promise that, in the same way that He left, He will come back, and restore this broken world! THAT’S where our focus should be – not on walls and laws, as if they could save us, but on the cross of Christ Jesus, where our sins (including our idolatry) is removed from us as far as the east is from the west! That is the ONLY place where we can place any hope of being justified before Almighty God!

We don’t need walls, my friends. They don’t do us any good anyway; we cannot save ourselves by means of our keeping of laws and rules and regulations. Worse still, when we think we can, we make those walls into idols, when the real remedy is … so simple! Instead of trusting in the traditions of the elders, in the rules we make up for ourselves … we simply trust in God’s promise! Jesus’s sacrifice wipes you clean of your sin! Because of Him, the Father shows His grace to you! When Jesus returns, you will be with Him forever! No walls can separate you from THOSE promises!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.