When I think of Jesus’ day, I must confess, I often picture it as rather dirty. But, as history tells it, were we able to do some 1st century people-watching in Caesarea or Jerusalem, we’d find ourselves among a quite fashionable and fresh society. Ladies and gentlemen distinguished by the cut and color of their garments. Eye-shadows and rouges on the women, wearing sandals and slippers, embroidered and bedazzled; some shoes even poofed perfume with every step. Men sporting meticulously groomed beards. Women veiled in a variety of ways, with gold and pearls up in their curls. Gentlemen with rings and seals and even bracelets on their arms. Women wearing necklaces and anklets, finger, ear, and even nose-rings. In general, we’d find a society in many places just as well-dressed and clean as the weekend worship crowd at Christ the Lord.
It’s helpful to know the fashionably fresh scene that might have crowded the streets around Jesus, if only to understand how much the Pharisee stuck out anyway. Even if his clothing was comparatively drab, he wore his clean-and-holiness like a tuxedo on the red-carpet: he strapped little boxes with the Word of God within to his wrists and to his forehead; he prayed prayers right in the middle of the road or out on the street-corner; and he navigated the crowd in such a way that no “unclean” person or thing might touch him. In ways that stuck out like this, the Pharisees observed over 200 regulations from their Rabbis – about what foods to eat, ways to wash, clothes to wear, work to do, vows to make, words to pray – designed to keep one in every way possible almost unnaturally clean. Which is why they asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” That is, “Don’t you know that truly clean/holy people wash? This is what truly clean/holy people have prescribed! This is what God really wants!”
To be fair, I could understand it. Those Pharisees tried to live for God in a country that belonged firmly to a foreign power. By Jesus’ time, their religious leaders had given in to the ways of that pagan, Roman society over and over again. They watched their people fall into sin, watched them slowly let go every law that marked out some real morality, watched them become less and less the holy people of God set apart. And so they did everything they could to keep life as special as it was supposed to be. You can hear that idea when the Pharisees accused the disciples of being “unclean”; the word they used is literally “common”. The Pharisee did not want to be made “common” by what he touched or ate, didn’t want to become the common, Roman, pagan person that almost every other Jew had already become; and he believed that all the rules tradition handed down helped him be “holy to the Lord”, set apart from everything else, uncommonly clean.
Now, their rules might seem an unnatural kind of clean to us, but don’t they betray something that’s very common? Don’t you often feel like the things around you are what tarnish you and make you “unclean” before God? As though, if we could armor ourselves with the right protections, the right rules, then we could keep life holy? Maybe we arm ourselves with politics – the right kind, the right laws, will produce the right kind of nation – and give us a place in which to be truly Christian. In a more local look, isn’t it appealing to think that it’s these people around us with their crazy lives touch ours and cause us to sin or put our lives out of sync? Maybe there are traditions like the Pharisees’ that tempt us too – where we add to what God has said, find what’s comfortable for us to do – “if I pray this much each week…”, “if I attend church this often…”, “if we say this prayer…”, “if I only listen to Christian radio…”, “if I witness once a day…”, “if I tithe…” – If…then we’ll keep ourselves clean. It’s actually the natural inclination of the human heart to think it has already the way to God and that we simply need to keep away what’s sinful.
Last week Pastor Kolander talked about what a hard teaching Jesus brings. In truth, the words of Jesus over these last weeks have almost all been hard to hear. Just like this one: if we assume that what we do keeps us holy before God, then our hearts may be damnably far away from him and we may simply be hypocrites who put on a good-looking exterior to cover over the failure we feel inside. Which is the other hard thing Jesus says: it’s not the stuff around us, but “what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” Because “out of men’s hearts”, from inside come evils that “make a man unclean.” It isn’t my neighbor that brings lust or greed – it’s my sinful heart that craves what someone else has often no matter what I have already. It isn’t that others are bumbling fools but that my sinful heart is full of pride. It isn’t that people don’t measure up to what’s right, but often that my own heart simply hates them and my mouth speaks it aloud. It isn’t that life is an act of balance above a pool of filth that threatens to defile me, it’s more that a filthy river of sin is flows right out of my own heart and sullies everything.
God pictured that a long time ago for a prophet named Zechariah. In Zechariah ch.3, the prophet sees Joshua the high priest standing in the Lord’s presence and he’s wearing filthy clothes. In the Hebrew language it’s very graphic – to euphemize, as though Joshua decided he’d come to stand before the Lord after crawling through somebody’s septic tank. If you were a Jew, you knew, that didn’t happen. The only time the priest ever went to stand before the Lord in the holiest place of his temple – on the great Day of Atonement – he lived in a separate, holy room for seven days, he stayed up the whole night before focusing on God, and he washed something like five times and wore pure, beautiful white linen, and did everything just so, as perfect as can be. And yet God was saying, even the highest priest, the holiest man, in the best he could bring – looked like toilet filth. But then the Lord did the most beautiful thing. He took away Joshua’s filthy clothes and said, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” And then he promised to bring his servant, the Savior of the world, who would “remove the sin of [the] land in a single day.”
Many years later, the true Joshua, Jesus the servant perfectly prepared himself for the great Day of Atonement. He didn’t have to hide in a holy room, but lived holy and perfect right in the middle of the sinful world. His clothes were stripped from him and he was beaten and bloodied and he died naked and alone. And they bathed him too – in human spit. And when he hung before the Lord’s presence, he did not receive new clothes and happy promises but purging, fiery wrath, punishment for the filth of sin. Paul said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus took every sin so that we might be free of every sin, forgiven of every filthy thing…that we might “rejoice and be glad…” as John says in Revelation, because “fine linen, bright and clean, is given [to us] to wear.” Jesus brings to us the only kind of clean that can overcome what we naturally are – the gracious love of God in the perfect work of his Son, given to us to enjoy and live for free.
The answer for the Pharisees was not more things to do to make themselves confident and clean – it was to see Jesus who would remove their every stain. This summer, we’ve heard many wonderful things, but mostly we have seen Jesus, God’s shining Son. We’ve listened to him and we understand the confidence we have. We do not hold onto traditions and words. We do not have to worry about our work or what to do, but we live in the joy and peace of the gospel we find in the Word of Life, and we speak from the overflow of our hearts – that by his doing we’re already a totally unnatural kind of clean – a pure and holy people whose hearts are close to him, who honor him in word and deed, and who worship in Spirit and in truth holding dearly on to what he commands.