The Heart of the Matter

Text: Mark 7:14-23
Date: Pentecost XIII (Proper 17) + 8/30/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

St. Mark, in his Gospel, has been telling us of the initial criticisms of the Jewish leaders against Jesus by blaming Him for not training His followers correctly, that they are guilty of breaking the religious rules regarding ritual cleanliness and purity. As Mark tells it we discover that the real problem with Jesus’ enemies was their own hypocrisy, that is, relying only on the outward appearance of following God’s Word, as He quoted to them the Bible passage, Isaiah 29:13, “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Is. 29:13). Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ final words to them here, before moving on, revealing the heart of the matter, namely, sin. When it comes to God’s Laws of ritual purity, it is not, as they were thinking, what you eat or what enters your body from the outside that makes you unclean, but rather what proceeds from the inside, “from the heart.” It is the same with any sin or evil a person does. It is not, ultimately, the fault of the environment or of poor training or upbringing. “The devil made me do it” is not an acceptable excuse. By “the heart” the Bible means, of course, the center of a person’s personality, where the ego, the self and its will and its thoughts dwell. Like the physical organ called the heart, it is that center also of your personal and spiritual being.

It is not what goes in but “what comes out of a person that defiles him.” The issue is sin. In confirmation instruction I often write on the chalkboard the two words “Sin” with a capital “S,” and the plural word “sins,” and then ask what is the difference between the two words. On the surface and at first blush one thinks only in terms of only one sin verses a number of sins. But my point is more with regard to the capital “S,” and I mean to draw the distinction between “sins” as individual actions that violate God’s commandments and “Sin” as a condition of our heart and inner being even apart from any particular sinful act. Jesus makes the same distinction as He illustrates what He means by listing twelve sins. The first group of six are plural words listing actual sinful acts. The second group of six are words in the singular that describe the condition of moral defects or vices in a person.

Sin is the condition of our heart and inner being, inherited from our parents and the generations all the way back to Adam and Eve. Sin is separation from God. Sin is separation from life and health and all that is good. Sin is the cause of death. You sin, you die. You don’t sin, you don’t die. The Bible says, “All have sinned,” therefore all die. This inner condition affects everything, every thought, every word, every deed, even when we are not thinking a thought, uttering a word or doing anything. The unbeliever sins against God eating breakfast. Not because of the act but because the person is an unbeliever.

Now, as we said, in our text Jesus describes the inner condition of sin with six actual sinful acts and six moral defects or vices. I don’t recall spending much time in my sermons emphasizing or describing actual sins or moral defects or vices, presuming that most people know what sin is. However, we live in a day not only of increasing relativism—the belief that certain issues may be sinful or wrong in certain situations but less so in other circumstances—but also a day when the prevailing theology among the world religions no longer seems to rest on the objective Word of God, the Bible as the Divinely inspired, inerrant Word, but on the philosophy that even the Bible is a human product, not of or from God but only about God, and therefore subject to error or changing philosophies or opinions of men. This, after all, is how the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) came to their tragic and divisive decision last week to allow homosexuals in so-called monogamous unions to serve as clergy in the Church.

So maybe it’s worth our time to look, briefly, at this list of twelve “fruits” of the sinful heart, to “call out” sins lest there be any question.

First, the six evil acts, each stated as a plural implying any number of different individual acts under each category. Jesus begins with “porneia” meaning any and all sorts of sexual immorality or fornication. You can hear we get the English word “pornography” directly from the Greek word. Now this should not be so mysterious, except you will remember a former President of the United States trying to excuse his immoral acts with the statement, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In that we all basically let him get away with it without any guilt or punishment, this now has led to young people making distinctions between sexual activities as being, variously, acceptable or not. So also the confusion of the stated recent decision by the ELCA. The opposite of this is sexual purity.

Next is “klopai” from which we get the word “kleptomaniac,” meaning theft or stealing. Few of us, I suppose, are guilty of stealing cars or jewelry or anything of great value. But then there is the fudging of numbers on tax forms or the stealing of ideas or intellectual property, violating copyright by using them without giving appropriate credit or acknowledgement. The opposite of this we learn from the 7th Commandment is to help our neighbor to improve and protect his possessions, property and income.

Next are “murders.” One, of course, doesn’t need to actually commit physical murder to be guilty of breaking the 5th Commandment but only to hurt or harm the neighbor in his body or even just hatred as Jesus reveals in the Sermon on the Mount. The opposite is to help and support our neighbor in every physical need. So also the neglect of help and support is to break this Commandment.

Next are adulteries, everything against the 6th Commandment, pretty much like the first thing Jesus mentioned but with more emphasis on the vow of faithfulness of the marriage relationship. I played the organ for a wedding and, at the rehearsal, the pastor said, “at this point I will ask the parents to stand.” When he did, at least six people stood up! Divorce and remarriage has become epidemic in our society. It is not right or good. Sin is separation. When that happens in the marriage relationship it is called divorce. The opposite is for husband and wife to love and honor each other in their vow of faithfulness.

Covetings” remind us of the 9th and 10th Commandments. It is that “thin line” between envying our neighbor’s situation or possessions and doing something to get them for ourselves by deceit.

Finally, the first list of six evil acts ends with wickedness or deliberate acts of malice causing injury, either physical, emotional or to one’s reputation. As the 8th Commandment says, we are called to defend our neighbor, speak well of him and explain everything in the kindest way, or, as we used to say it, “put the best construction on everything.”

To the list of evil acts Jesus adds six moral defects or vices. Deceit is the opposite of honesty. I’ve always believed that I couldn’t run to be elected to a political post mainly because I just can’t lie effectively, which often seems to be a prerequisite. Have you been dishonest in your dealings with anyone?

Sensuality is the opposite of purity. “Envy” is a good translation of the Greek phrase translated literally, “an evil eye,” and refers to stinginess or grudging jealousy, the opposite of generosity. Has envy of riches affected your ability to be generous?

The word “slander” translates the Greek word “blasphemy,” and refers to any railing or affront to the majesty of God. Pride or arrogance is the opposite of humility. And foolishness describes a person who is morally or spiritually insensitive, who does not know God and does not wish to know Him. These acts and dispositions, Jesus says, are what defile a person and they have their source in the fallen, sinful heart.

“From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts…and they defile a person.” It was a volatile combination of evil intent that ultimately took out its wrath and rage against Jesus, convicted by a cowardly judge, condemned to death by an enraged mob, mocked, whipped, spit upon, nailed to a crucifixion cross and left to die by a corrupt government. Yet herein is the greatest mystery of God’s love. Yes, this is the extent to which God so loved His creation, that He took on our own human flesh upon Himself, being born in the likeness of men, and yet without sin. But then He gave Himself to death not for His own sin but for the sin of the world, for your sin and mine. It was my immoral thoughts, my neglect or hurt of the neighbor, my envy, pride and foolishness that caused the Son of God to die. Yet His death was so holy and powerful, and God’s gift of faith so real and so free, that now I hear God say to me, “For the sake of Christ and His death and resurrection, I forgive you all your sins; you will now live forever!”

When I come to know and believe that forgiveness and eternal life is a completely free gift for the sake of Jesus Christ and by faith in Him, there is no more need for hypocrisy, no more need for thinking about how to follow the rules in order to be saved.

By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless!

By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying;
In Jesus’ promise I rejoice;
For though I know my heart’s condition,
I also know my Savior’s voice.
My heart is glad, all grief has flown
Since I am saved by grace alone. [LSB 566]