This article is linked to the TLW Bible study post for Sunday, August 29, and based on the readings set for that Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, a resource shared by many denominations.
Here are the full Bible passages to read — they are referred to briefly in the article:
OT: Song of Songs 2:8-13 — God’s heart of love in a love poem
NT gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 — Religious tradition can’t disguise how the heart really is
NT letter: James 1:17-27 — The word of God is like a mirror reflecting how our heart is
• Here’s a short and uncomplicated video introduction to the main teaching point How God changes our hearts
The teaching point this week is that God is love — His whole essence is unconditional, sacrificial love for us, who He has created. God is also light, without any kind of shadow, and so how we experience God is the reality of His character of love.
Take a moment to consider how that might contrast with us. When people meet us, do they encounter the whole and true person? Can they see what is in our heart — or do we disguise it and present something of a mask or persona?
Jesus was continually being rebuked by Jews of senior standing in the community, often Pharisees, who prided themselves on their strict observance of the minutiae of Jewish law, as they saw it. But they were notoriously intolerant towards non-Jews, or women, or those who chose not to subscribe to their brnad of legalism. They considered themselves righteous before God and an example to be followed‚ but it was a constructed kind of ‘righteousness’ and carried with it the arrogance that goes with religiosity of any kind or faith. Jesus taught that what we express, in words, actions or values, reveals what is really in our hearts. So we may be claiming to be righteous and at the same time defiling ourselves by what we say and do, rather like someone who claims to be passing the plate with clean hands but has the stains of the farmyard on them.
James teaches that God’s word — the 66 books that make up our Bible — is what God said through human authors years and years ago, and at the same time, via the Holy Spirit, one of His main ways of speaking to us today. So the word becomes more than a collection of phrases and works like a mirror that gives a view of ourselves. It shows us how well we measure up to God’s purity and righteousness, and where need Him to help us make some changes.
OT: A poetic image of God’s heart
The background and the first scene in this story is in the OT wisdom literature, a love poem called “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s”, v.1. This is, in one view, a romantic picture of two young lovers and their passionate love. Why has this found its way into the canon of Scripture? Because it speaks to us about God and His love for us in another way. God wants us to be real about love, and to be aware of His love which is passionate almost to the point of being a jealous lover. God’s love for us — and His desire to capture our hearts — is at least as passionate as any young lover. And when we abuse that love, it is as hurtful to Him as infidelities are to those who are engaged or betrothed.
“Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”Song of Songs, 2:10 and 13
This is God’s heart of love, and He wants to kindle it in us. When we come to know God through Jesus, and become close to Him, He changes our hearts and we become different people. This is a common factor in the many different testimony stories which are told, e.g. at baptisms, when it is usual for a candidate to say a few words about their journey of faith, how they found Jesus (or was found by Him) and how they found themselves changed by that encounter.
NT gospel: The evidence of our hearts
Our second scene opens with Jesus surrounded by Pharisees and other teachers of the law who are remonstrating with Him for not following the minutiae of the ceremonial washing of hands and utensils before eating. This had nothing practical to do with health or sanitisation — it was all done for show, a symbolic demonstration of having washed off contact with anything ceremonially ‘unclean’. Jesus and His disciples, they claimed, were eating food with “defiled hands”.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
” ‘These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ “Mark 7:5-7
And Jesus refutes the criticism, telling them that they are merely acting out their religious prejudice. He goes on to teach that it is not what we TAKE IN that defiles us but rather, rather we GIVE OUT, what we express in thought or speech, that reveals what is in the heart, pure or dishonest, loving or hateful.
“…It is what comes out of a person that defiles them…
“For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”Mark 7:15, 21-23
If our hearts belong to Him, the overflow of our hearts will reveal that. And the person who professes to know Jesus but whose heart is unregenerate will give themselves away by what they say.
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”Mark 7:8
This is where the beauty and purity of faith in God that responds to knowing His love, degrades into an ugly, selfish religious legalism. The Pharisees are mentioned more than 80 times in the NT, with one exception (John 3:1) negatively. And we think, that’s a lot of mentions for a group that doesn’t exist any more. But the problem is, the name has passed but the robes, the rituals and the arrogant behaviour recycles.
NT letter: New birth, new heart, alive to the Spirit
As Jesus said, we are prone to construct our own version of the commands of God to support the traditions we find security in — and any kind of security which takes the place of trusting God in a close personal relationship with Him, is what Paul called ‘another gospel’ and John in His letter warned strongly against as “idols” we must guard against.
How do we do that? Having a healthy appetite for God’s word and an openness to His Spirit who brings the word alive for us. If we have fully trusted Jesus, then it follows that we we will place our trust in His word — much as He placed His full trust in the Scriptures He used in His teaching. The “word of truth” and the new spiritual birth we experience when we put our trust in Jesus are intertwined:
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all He created.James 1:18
So James reminds us, we need to deal with residual anger and resentment and all that is harsh, judgmental or impure.
“Accepting the word planted in us”, is learning to live in the new life of the new birth where Scripture comes alive as oiur day by day and highly relevant guide. This is sometimes criticised as ‘fundamentalism’ but adhering to the fundamentals of God’s way, which Scripture is good at showing us, is wholly good. This is how God saves us and then, by the leading of His Spirit, goes on saving us from wrong directions, day by day.
This is God changing our hearts from within, to become more like His unconditional heart of love.