Your Lying, Cheating, Cold Dead Beating, Two-timing, Double Dealing, Mean Mistreating, Unloving Heart
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If you look in the worship folder you’ll notice the sermon title listed as “Blame It on Your Lying, Cheating Heart,” a play on the lyrics of the Patty Loveless country hit from almost twenty years ago. When Maxine asked me, that was the working theme I was using. I’ve since had time to refine it. Now it’s “Your Lying, Cheating, Cold Dead Beating, Two-timing, Double Dealing, Mean Mistreating, Unloving Heart.”
I know; it’s a pretty long title for a sermon. But it seems fitting for our Gospel for today, where Jesus gives a rather extensive list of sins. Beginning with sexual immorality, Jesus combines twelve kinds of evil thoughts and actions in a dreadful litany of vices. The first six are in the plural form and describe behaviors. The last six are in the singular and have more to do with attitudes. These twelve vices leave no doubt as to the wretched impurity of the human spirit.
Let’s hear those words of our text, Mark 7:19-23, one more time:
“[Jesus said]: ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And He said to them, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”
|From Agnus Day, the only lectionary-based comic strip on the planet|
I know, it seems counterintuitive. Not at all the way that we would think about it. We think that what makes us “unclean” comes from outside ourselves. A man becomes a drunkard by taking in drink. A person becomes an addict by taking in drugs. A kid becomes a member of a gang by hanging out with the wrong crowd. From our vantage point, we are defiled from the outside in.
That’s why what Jesus says in our text gives us pause. It’s the opposite of what we expect. We expect spiritual things to work just like everything else. We expect spiritual purity to come with our efforts to “keep ourselves clean and pure.” Read the right books, watch the right movies, associate with the right people, stay away from the “worldly things.” That was the whole basis of monasticism: withdraw from the world, set yourself apart from the “unclean things,” and then you can be pure, untainted by the unspiritual, unclean world.
That was also the wrong impression that religious Israel got when applying the purity laws of Leviticus. It’s an easy mistake to make. All those “clean” and “unclean” regulations touching almost every aspect of life—what you ate, what you touched. There were certain animals considered “unclean” for food, things like pork and shellfish. If you so much as touched them, you would be ritually unclean. And all sorts of other ways, too. So it was an easy, logical step to think that it was what went into you that made you unclean.
The mistake is to confuse ritual purity with spiritual purity. Ritual purity was what set Israel apart from the other nations. They had a unique diet, unique regulations and rules governing every aspect of their lives, reminding them who they were—a peculiar, chosen people set apart for a purpose, that is, to bring forth in the fullness of time the Messiah—the Savior. But none of these rules and regulations could purify the heart of the person spiritually speaking. In fact, all the Old Testament rules served to show how difficult to impossible purity is. If you could barely keep ritually pure, how on earth could you ever be spiritually pure?
Jesus turns it all upside down and inside out with this sentence: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” That’s right. You heard it. You become spiritually unclean from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s what comes out of you, not what goes into you, that is the problem.
I hope you have an appreciation for how radical this concept is. The crowd didn’t understand. The disciples didn’t get it, either. When they were apart from the crowds in the house, they ask Jesus about it, and Jesus seems to be a bit impatient with them. “Don’t you get it? Are you also without understanding? Foods don’t make you unclean. Food goes in, it gets digested, and is expelled as waste, never touching the heart (unless, of course, you include cholesterol and artery-clogging plaque, but even then it doesn’t matter because the “heart” Jesus is speaking about is not the organ of muscle that pumps life-sustaining blood to every part of your body. The heart, as the word is used here, is the soul or spirit).
As a little aside, St. Mark tells us: “Thus He declared all foods clean.” This is a good verse to remember the next time someone asks you: “If you’re going to still follow all those outdated rules about reserving the marriage bed for husband and wife, how come you don’t still follow the Old Testament dietary restrictions?”
Jesus declares all foods to be clean. In effect, Jesus lifts the distinction of clean and unclean from the book of Leviticus. He can do that. He’s the Lord! And He needs to do that, since the distinction of clean and unclean was only intended to pave the way for His coming as the Christ of Israel, the Savior of the world. And with Jesus having come, the Old Testament laws with all their distinction of clean and unclean come to their fulfillment and end.
But Jesus does something even more important personally for you than allow you to participate in Lobster Fest and all-you-can-eat crab legs or to eat barbeque ribs and bacon. With these words, Jesus also indicts your heart and points the finger of the Law toward it as the culprit. It’s not the world that soils you, unclean as the world may be. The finger that points at the world and blames it for everything unclean is pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction. It is out of the heart, your heart, that sin proceeds.
Listen to the excrement that is expelled from your sinful heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality (take your pick as to which variety), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All this comes out of the heart that is unbuckled from God, the heart steeped in sin, the heart that is turned inward on itself.
Evil thoughts are the beginning of all sorts of evil deeds. Murder includes anything one may do to hurt or harm (or even fail to protect) his neighbor or support his bodily needs. Adultery and sexual immorality include all kinds of indecent words and deeds as well as desires. Theft is the consequence of covetousness, the sinful desire to have something one has no right to have. False testimony seeks selfish gain or advantage at the expense of someone else. Slander is an effort to promote oneself by running someone else down. All these evils find their roots and beginnings in the filthy, dark recesses of your cold, black heart.
This is good to know. You need to know this. You’re prone to go looking outside and blaming others for your condition. Like Adam and Eve in the garden. “The woman You gave …” The serpent lied to us; it’s his fault…” “The devil made me do it.” And secretly in the recesses of your heart: “It’s Your fault, Lord. You made this way (or at least You allowed me to be born this way).”
But the finger of blame and responsibility needs to point back to where it belongs—squarely on yourself and your rebel will and your sinful heart that wants it your way instead of God’s way. Out of this depraved heart of yours comes all the things you hate in the world—all the murders, adulteries, deceits, you name it—they all begin in the heart.
This then is not only the end of the Old Testament’s kosher laws; it is also the end of all “heart religion,” the business of giving one’s heart to God. As Bo Giertz writes in The Hammer of God, “What sort of gift is that for a King, that rusty old tin can of a heart of yours?” That heart of your is a septic tank by the words of Jesus. It’s a sewer pipe with sludge spewing out of it. So any religion that includes “following one’s heart,” “praying from the heart,” “the goodness of one’s heart,” or anything “from the heart” is on the wrong track. You need a new heart. A heart transplant, if you will. The prophet Ezekiel says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).
It’s not as though you can rehab this old hardened sinful heart of yours. You can’t. It was steeped in sin from birth, from the time of your conception. Your heart is hopelessly mired in sin and is the source of all the stuff that comes out of you—the corrupt thought, the loveless word, the ruthless deed. This is the whole nature of “original sin,” or as the Lutheran Confessions call it, “concupiscence.” You are conceived and born this way—with an unclean heart that gives rise to unclean thoughts, unclean words, and unclean deeds.
This is a fundamental thing and something you need to keep straight. You are not a sinner because you sin; you sin because you are a sinner. It’s a heart problem. It comes from your heart. Even a tiny, “innocent” baby has this heart capable of all the evil things Jesus lists and then some. The only thing that prevents him from acting them out is lack of development of gross and fine motor skills, of intellect and reasoning. It’s only a matter of time before that little heart begins to spill out bilge, too—from a defiant resistance of a parent’s will to the willful assertion of her own will to do as she pleases. And so it goes with you, too. Out of your heart flows your own idolatries, adulteries, murders, lies, deceits, confess what you will, it begins in your own heart.
The answer lies not in your lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, unloving heart, but in the loving heart of God. In the undeserved kindness and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. A heart transplant. A new heart. A heart that beats to the rhythms of God’s Word and Spirit. A loving heart—a heart that’s alive and burning with faith toward God and love toward neighbor. That’s what God wants for you. That’s what God gives to you!
And it’s not so much like a heart transplant where one heart is removed and another is put in its place. If that were the case, you would already be without sin because the source of sin would be gone. But then, He would have to kill you and raise you to life, which He will do, in good time.
Instead, God does a kind of “piggyback operation,” and puts a new heart next to your old heart that is the source of all kinds of evil. Those two hearts beat together for awhile, the old heart of Adam, the new heart of Christ. Luther called this being at once a sinner and a saint. To be certain, having two hearts is not an easy way to live. It would be much easier to reject that new heart and just deal with the old, dying one. But you know how that turns out, don’t you!
So for the time being, God leaves you hanging in a bit of tension between the old and the new, between death and life, between sinner and saint, a life where by the power of the Holy Spirit you strive to live according to God’s will and Word, but repent and trust in God’s grace when you fail.
And the Lord says to you: “Trust me, I am your God. You are My child. I have rescued you from your sins in the death of My Son Jesus. I have washed you clean, baptized you with My Word, claimed you as My own. Trust me, that I know what is best for you. Don’t give Me your old lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, unloving heart; instead, I will give you My heart, the loving heart of My Son, Jesus, whose heart always beats to My will.”
It’s not what goes into you that makes you unclean. But it is what goes into you that makes you clean. Spiritual purity comes not from within, but from without, outside yourself. Baptismal water poured on you. Forgiving words spoken into you. Christ’s Body and Blood fed to you. Those are what make the unclean clean. God alone can do it. God alone has done it. And He does it for you, here today through His means of grace.
For the sake of Jesus and His ever-loving heart, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.