Year B Proper 17: commandments vs amendments

It all starts out so well: “This will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” pronounces Moses, so full of pride and hope, who has led his people, God’s own people, to the brink of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 4:6).

And yet, centuries later, in that very land, Jesus throws back the words of another prophet: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

Their hearts, says Jesus, are full instead with the rank growth of wickedness: avarice, adultery, deceit and envy, murder, theft; all folly. They abandon the commandment of God to hold to human tradition: and look where that leads: to sordidness, slander, pride, licentiousness; evil intentions (Mark 7:21-22).

The Ashley Madison data dump has held up a mirror to our own inclinations to put human folly before the faithfulness of God. The website, if you haven’t yet caught on or caught up, provided dating services to married people seeking actively to have an extramarital affair: paying an online company to arrange adultery, to be delivered at the convenience of their computer screen. I read one report that said that only three zip codes in the United States did not show up on the data hacked and released about the site’s customers: two in remote Alaska, and one in the New Mexico desert. Much has been made of the celebrity info and the gotcha grabs of profiles of supposed Christian crusaders like Josh Duggar and Sam Rader; but the real indictment is of a culture where a company can thrive on the tagline: “Life is short. Have an affair,” making out of infidelity a bucket-list item; making out of deceit and betrayal a game; making the kiss of Judas a thrill worth seeking.

For those whose lives have been affected by infidelity, I am sorry that this is painful. I am sorry that it is hard to wrestle with our own sin, and I am sorry that it is hard to forgive those who sin against us, and I am sorry that our hearts are breakable. Of course, I pray for the healing of those hurt by these affairs and by these games; and still I question a marketplace that thrives on such “sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (James 1:21).

“Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” said Moses. “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” replied Jesus (Mark 7:8). If he had gone on just one verse further, we would have heard him say, “The wisdom of the wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (Isaiah 29:14)

Our public foolishness is not limited to adultery. This week, we watched in horror as a journalist and her cameraman were murdered on live television, one day after a fourteen-year-old took his class and teacher hostage with a gun one state over. There may be no way for us completely to eliminate the “rank growth of wickedness” within the human heart that may lead to murder; but neither is there any wisdom in giving up all discernment, and doing nothing to change a status quo in which 88 people per day are killed by guns in America. Eighty-eight people every day.

And it is simply not true to think that there is nothing we can do, that whether or not the guns kill people, the people will kill anyway. The numbers beg to differ. Women in abusive relationships are five times more likely to die at the hands of an intimate partner if that partner holds a gun, and domestic violence that involves a gun is twelve times more likely to result in death than assaults carried out with another weapon or with bodily force alone.

No, we can’t solve all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness that soils the human heart, but we can use our discernment to look for ways to reduce the risk to widows and orphans, the vulnerable, the innocent, the at risk, choosing God’s law over human traditions.

“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” Jesus accuses (Mark 7:8). What would he say about our relationship to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”; and to the second amendment?

Jesus sounds pretty cynical about the state of the nation, the state of his religion, the state of the human heart in this story. He is angry with those who would let their own pride, avarice, envy, their own folly blind them to the goodness that is in God, that God wills for us. He is angry, and he is frustrated, and he keeps on trying all the same, to open the eyes of the blind, the ears turned deaf, because he loves them.

He loves them. With all of their “sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” and hypocrisy and foolishness and willful denial of wisdom; he still loves us. He still tries to teach us right from wrong, love from hate, life from death.

Our Collect for today asks God to “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works” (Book of Common Prayer, 233).  The letter of James exhorts us to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls” (James 1:21).

Grafted, implanted, growing, the love of God, the love of Jesus Christ has the power to drive out the “rank growth of wickedness” that restricts our hearts and constricts our lives. It has the power to nourish something better, something cleaner and greener, livelier, lovelier than that list that Jesus enumerated to the Pharisees.

You’ve heard the old story that an old Cherokee man told his grandson, about the battle within the human heart between two wolves.

He said “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.

One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?…”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed”

May this wise and discerning people choose to feed, to water, to nurture the implanted word which has the power to save our souls, rather than the rank growth of wickedness.

May we remember God’s commandments before our own choice traditions.

May the good Lord Jesus continue to teach us patiently, and as often as we need reminding, the difference between right and wrong, love and hate, life and death.

In the name of Christ. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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