Notes from Rutton – for Sunday 29th August 2021
Are you a tidy or a messy housekeeper? Most people would like to live in a tidy house, but of course, that requires effort and discipline and strength to keep the place clean and tidy. Some of us of advancing years may be unable to do this, or may need help. Others of us may be less interested in keeping a tidy home and prefer things ‘lived in’. But I suspect no one would move into a messy hotel bedroom, for example. We probably all recognise, therefore, the value of neatness, tidiness and cleanliness. So, I suppose, it’s just a matter of how we go about achieving those things. Or indeed not.
In our passage today, we meet a group of people, the Pharisees, who seem to have the whole kitchen cleanliness thing down to a fine art. But my goodness, it all sounds like hard work! They seem to have a tradition of washing even the smallest items before eating: utensils, pots, kettles, you name it. And you might say well, that’s a good thing, to keep clean and tidy kitchenware. Good hygiene. But, of course, it wasn’t about that. It was about the holiness and piety which they took upon themselves – that was the problem. They thought they could earn their way to heaven by keeping both law and man-made tradition to the nth degree. And the problem with that is you can’t. Worse, it starts to trivialise the sin of the human heart, as if it were of no account, or could be washed away as easily as the dirt on those cups.
Elsewhere Jesus calls these folks whitewashed tombs. A dramatic analogy indeed, of whiteness and cleanliness on the outside, but of the worst type of decay within.
And we might well wonder why Jesus is so harsh on these folks?
Interestingly, Jesus does not condemn them for trying to do God’s will in this way. He condemns them rather because they do not seem to take sin seriously.
The idea is common throughout culture and history. For example, in Great Expectations, Dicken writes about a character called Mrs Joe, who “…was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable and dirt itself. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and some people do the same by their religion.” (!)
I think we all recognise such people: those who concentrate on the external, at the expense of the compassion and the empathy that really matter in life.
There can be few of us who have not been thrown into despair at the current news from Afghanistan. Where a brutal, tribal and mediaeval people have taken over, people who once again prosecute external religious observance at the terrible expense of compassion and mercy and freedom. And disastrously, yet again, in the name of God and religion.
What can we do? We can do better. We can acknowledge that externals in the end do not matter. We can acknowledge that we have sinned against God and neighbour, and that there is no good in us. We can ask God to cleanse us from the inside. If He starts with us, then who knows what good can follow.
I look forward to seeing you next Sunday so that we can explore this great passage further!