Is it true that legalists take God’s law more seriously than the typical Christian? Well, that’s at least what the legalist wants others to believe. They love it when others are impressed by their outward show of piety. That’s how it works, whether its legalism inside the church or outside: from the impressive asceticism of the Buddhist monk, to the Amish eschewing of the use of electricity, to the Mormon’s disdain for hot beverages…to the Seminary professor’s pride in his position.
But in reality all legalism really trivializes the law. What legalism does is to find something outward in God’s law – even adding to God’s law as the Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel (Mark 7) with the “tradition of the elders” about hand washing. Legalism looks for something we can master outwardly that makes us look especially pious and holy. And it is especially helpful to my proud heart if I’ve mastered something you haven’t: that allows me to fan my pride into flame as I stand aghast at your clear breech of good spiritual breeding!
But all along, if my legalism is going to be “successful,” there are two things I must avoid thinking about at all costs! As right as my particular self-chosen outward law-works may be, or even as useful as the tradition might be, I must avert my attention from the fact that what God’s law really is looking for is a heart of love for God and neighbor that goes way, way beyond my self-selected acts of obedience. And, most devastating of all, I must not look honestly at the state of my natural heart as the law points within. Because if I look too carefully there, I am going to find the most damning thing of all: there is something terribly, horribly, systemically wrong with my natural heart.
But did you notice in last Sunday’s gospel how quickly Jesus pierced through the veneer of religiosity, the hypocrisy of looking good outwardly, and pointed the Pharisees – the crowd – and us (“Listen to me, everyone!”) – To our dirty little secret? The biggest challenge before us in not cleaning our hands but cleansing our hearts.
To all who will listen, Jesus drives the last nail into the coffin of legalism by showing us how terminally ill our hearts are by nature. No true obedience can flow out of us because the source is polluted. In that heart there is no room by nature for either true love for God or true love for neighbor. And since all true obedience must flow from such a heart, we are lost in impressing God even before we begin. That is a bitter pill that stubborn human pride cannot face. Even as believers we know how hard it is to face that reality about the heart with which we were born.
And so what we need is not some washing of our hands from the filth out there in the world. What we really need is washing our hearts from the filth in here! But there’s the beauty of it. God’s specialty in our Lord Jesus is the cleansing of hearts. We can offer no true obedience unless he washes us. And so he has in the water of our baptism. There we have no ceremonial washing made up from the rules of men. There we have, as Luther put it, “water used by God’s command and connected with God’s Word.” As St. Peter so eloquently put it in his first epistle, Baptism is not the cleansing of dirt from the body. It is God’s guarantee – God’s gift – of a good conscience as we are connected to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There he washed us from our empty hypocrisy and clothed us in real holiness – his own. By that he gives us a heart transplant.
As that new heart ponders how dearly loved we are to our heavenly Father in Jesus, that heart swells with genuine fear, love and trust in God above all things. As we learn that we are not in any competition with others to see who gets the “most holy award,” but that we are all declared not guilty in him, that new heart learns to drop the competition and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Oh yes, I know, that old filthy heart tries to come back from the dead every day. So in order to remain cleansed of heart, we go back daily to our baptism to die and, most importantly, to rise with the same power that raised Christ from the dead! There we find day by day his gift of love that leads to true obedience.
So, should any ask us, “Don’t you wash???” We can answer, “Yes, we do, daily, but not just our hands. God washes our hearts!” Amen.