Hand sanitizer and a box of chocolates

Published 11:00 am Saturday, September 21, 2013

by Brandon Robbins

One day, Jesus’ disciples are eating, and some religious leaders notice that they haven’t washed their hands. Now, in those days, washing your hands wasn’t a matter of hygiene. They didn’t use hand sanitizer or apple-cherry-chocolate-pumpkin spice-scented soaps. Hand washing was a form of ritual purification. It was a religious ceremony that had arisen throughout the centuries. And Jesus’ disciples don’t do it.

Well, the religious leaders don’t like this, so they confront Jesus. They criticize him for letting his disciples “run wild,” ignoring what they deem to be the important traditions of their elders. They’re focused on empty ceremony. But Jesus sees things differently.

Unfazed by their attacks, Jesus retorts, “You hypocrites! You do the same thing! You teach the command to honor your father and mother, but then you let them suffer from poverty so that you can look extra-generous in the gifts you devote to God. Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me!’” (Matthew 15:3-8)

Ouch! These are pretty harsh words. But Jesus isn’t done. He later goes on to say: “Woe to you Pharisees! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert. But then when he becomes one, you make him twice the son of hell that you are!” You can just feel them thinking, “Wow, Jesus! Tell us what you really think!”

So why is Jesus so harsh? Why does he unload on them when the story appears to begin with his own disciples at fault?

Maybe this will help. Have you ever been to a church that seemed like it was just going through the motions? As you looked around, people may have been ecstatic on the inside, but their faces looked like they had just learned Mickey Mouse was having an affair. They appeared to be miserable. The songs they sang, the lines they read, and the prayers they prayed felt as if they had lost their meaning. Perhaps it was all once inspired, but now it was rote, dead. But they hung onto it because they had chosen the ritual over the spirit.

This is what makes Jesus so angry with the Pharisees. They have chosen the ritual over the spirit. They do things without even really remembering why they do them. And worse yet, they place their traditions above the things that truly matter to God.

They will give 10 percent of all they have to the church, but they won’t actually help anyone in need. They will pray for hours on end so that people admire them, but they won’t mean a word of it.

Now, it’s not that any of these things are bad. Prayer is good! And the Bible teaches us to give 10 percent of our money back to God. But they both mean nothing if our heart isn’t in the right place.

It’s similar to this: my wife loves chocolate. Now imagine I bring a box of gourmet chocolates home to her one day. She’s going to get excited over this. But what if I say, “Well, they were on sale, so it wasn’t really a big deal” or “I like chocolate too, so I got them for me; but you can have some”? Is she really going to want them after that? Maybe. But it’s not going to mean nearly as much because what she really wants isn’t the chocolate. What she wants is my heart!

That’s how God is. God doesn’t just want us to go through the motions. God wants our hearts! The actions are simply the visible reflection of our deep love within.

It’s like the Bible says in the book of Psalms, “You don’t delight in sacrifice; otherwise I would bring it. Instead, my sacrifice is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:16-17).

So ask yourself, “Is my faith an outpouring of my love for God? Or am I just going through the motions?” Do you find yourself doing things because you’re supposed to, or because you always have? And have these things kept you from focusing on what truly matters in God’s eyes?

The truth is we all allow things to get in the way of our relationship with God – especially our habits and traditions. That’s why on Oct. 6, our church, Courtland United Methodist Church, is going to be starting a series called “Country Style,” where we look at the lyrics of country music songs and see how they reflect the truths of the Bible. And one of the first songs that we’re going to look at is a song called “Hello, World” by Lady Antebellum, which addresses this very subject. It talks about how, eventually, we all come to the realization of what truly matters in life, and what’s been keeping us from seeing that. The question for us is: how long are we going to wait before we let that realization happen?

May you become aware of the traditions that have become barriers to your relationship with Jesus. May you gain a perspective that allows you to reset your priorities, putting God first in your life. And may you decide to respond – perhaps by coming to our brand-new sermon series called “Country Style” – taking the initiative to discover exactly how to do these things.