In today’s Gospel Lesson (Matthew 15:1-20), we find Jesus and the Pharisees engaging in a debate that continues to occupy the attention of God’s children, in spite of Jesus’ rather definitive teaching on the subject. The Pharisees notice that Jesus and his disciples aren’t observing various traditions, in this case — ceremonial hand-washing before meals. Of course, Jesus notes that the Pharisees have a regrettable habit of using human traditions to skirt God’s commands. But then he gets to the point that attracts my attention this morning:
“Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them….(for) the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.” (Matthew 15:11; 18)
Why do the Pharisees (and so many believers ever since) have a tendency to focus on “external conformity” rather than “internal transformation”? One answer, which comes from Pastor John Ortberg, has to do with the way that certain practices identify us as members of a group. He calls these practices “boundary markers;” and he defines them as “the highly visible, relatively superficial practices that allow people to distinguish who is inside and who is outside the family of God.” (The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 35)
Of course, such boundaries are not evil in and of themselves. In fact, they can be extremely valuable in cultivating group cohesiveness and resilience. The challenge, however, comes when these “boundary markers” of faith start to get confused with the “essence” of faith, which for followers of Christ is the transformation of our hearts by the power of the Spirit. This is why Jesus declared, “You’ve heard it said: Don’t do certain ‘external’ things, like commit murder or adultery — but I say to you: pay attention to the condition of your hearts, where hate and lust begin” (Matthew 5). That’s why Paul wrote that speaking in tongues, and prophesying, and giving, and suffering for one’s faith are fine — “but if I have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13). That’s why the “fruit of the Spirit” isn’t defined by which drinks we do and don’t imbibe, or which political party we do or don’t support, or which version of the Bible we do or don’t read — but by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5).
I have felt the powerful allure of various “boundary markers” over the years. Let’s face it: it can be very encouraging to have something that we’re doing on the outside that gives us some assurance that we’re “on the right track” or “on the right team.” But the far more important issue — and the one that’s so much harder to perceive and to be honest about — is who we are becoming on the inside.
What are the “boundary markers” that we tend to look for in ourselves and others? And more importantly, what’s the condition of our hearts? Is what comes out of our hearts defiling us…or honoring our Lord?
May we push “below” and “beyond” our boundaries today, as we open our hearts to the transforming power of God’s Spirit — and open our lives to surprising encounters with the Savior who continues to call us to follow.