The Gift of Goodness
Topic: Christ's Love & Power Scripture: Mark 7:1–7:8, Galatians 5:22–5:23
This past Friday my granddaughter and I put Grandma on a plane to Montana, and then we went to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Two favorite exhibits are the starfish pool and the stingrays. Both are touchable exhibits—you can reach in and be tactile with these creatures. But first, you have to wash well. In the case of the stingrays, there was a staff person standing there to make sure everyone washed all the way up to their elbows. This washing isn’t just a ritual: it protects the animals from germs. In Psalm 24 we read:
Who may ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Or who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol,
Nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive blessing from the Lord,
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
The traditional cleansing was the sacred sign of a heart devoted to God. It brought blessings and goodness as a gift. Over time, the holy purpose of scrubbing hands and dishes had been lost. The connection between inner and outer spiritual life broke down. Pharisees harshly judged disciples with unwashed hands, while they themselves, had unclean hearts and lives.
At the end of our passage, Jesus names all the stuff that comes from within the heart. We could call it a top ten list of awful—except there are twelve, and the list is not exhaustive. The impact of his naming them one after another like that is a deluge of deceit, a mudslide of malice, a river of wrong. We wonder, is that really an accurate description? Then we look at the news and think, yeah, pretty much. We don’t really need to look further than our own hearts.
The New Covenant of Christ brings the promise of different “stuff” proceeding from within genuine goodness. Not by putting on a front, trying with all our might to seem good, but by the Spirit - making goodness our natural impulse. For instance, when I’m under pressure, or attacked, or tempted, my natural and first response can be Christ-like—not because I’m so wonderful, but because the Spirit dwells in me, and the Spirit is in control. Those difficult or impossible commands, such as love for enemies, are fulfilled by the One who commands them. “Take my heart,” goes the old hymn, “it is thine own. It shall be thy royal throne.” Humanly speaking, it’s not realistic to think we can love enemies and do all the other things. But the Spirit can.
How does goodness happen? It’s a question the Thursday morning group has pondered. We never arrive at that destination, but we can board the train bound for goodness. The classic practices of prayer, scripture, worship, and service move us in the right direction. Like the rituals of old, any of these can be empty gestures. But when we put our whole selves into them, they propel us toward our goal.
Religious observance can be a cover for spectacular unrighteousness. It’s an old story. It shakes the confidence of the faithful when spiritual leaders—deeply loved and trusted—betray that love and trust in stunning ways. I don’t mean a momentary lapse that can be followed by repentance and forgiveness.
I mean a web of deceit woven over the course of decades. It’s devastating. But there’s also this. Sometimes we get “reports” from our granddaughter about the behavior of other kids at school. We say, don’t worry about them. You’re responsible for yourself. We are each responsible for our own journey through life, and our own faithfulness to God, and to what we know is right.
How does the gift become more and more our own? At some point, we embrace our bad. But what does that mean? I’m a beloved sinner. I don’t have to pretend to be something else. Pharisees went wrong when they covered up their own need for forgiveness. A commentator this week said of John McCain, “He had a volcanic temper, but he was quick to forgive, and quick to ask forgiveness.” It’s a good way to be.
When we embrace our bad and freely admit our fallen-ness, we can open gratefully to the gift. It’s like grabbing a lifeline. Though I am helpless to remake myself, God is more than up to the task. We pray with King David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We pray it not just once, but over and over through a lifetime. We can’t always see our faults. We can look in a mirror and not see what’s there. God can bring to our awareness of what needs to be confessed or changed.
Then we live the gift. Jesus said, “Let your light shine that others may see your good works and give glory to God.” The interior gift finds expression in the world, sharing the goodness with others. Food for the hungry, kindness to all, visiting prisoners, acting for justice: this too, is God at work through God’s people.
Does inner holiness always match outward goodness? I am reminded of the story of Oskar Schindler, of “Schindler’s List” fame, and the book that inspired the movie, “Schindler’s Ark.” Oskar was nobody’s idea of a saint, with his infidelities, alcohol addiction, shady business practices, and massive debts. Yet, during the war, he acted to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish people who were destined for the gas chamber. His wife Emilie—who had every reason to dump him—stayed and helped him in this daring operation. Oskar died on Oct. 9, 1974, and is the only member of the Nazi party to be honored by the state of Israel. He is buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem—the hill of the Lord. Clean hands? A pure heart? Israel has named him one of the “Righteous among the Gentiles” Author Herbert Steinhouse wrote, “Schindler’s exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity, which our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him.”
Emilie said this of her husband: “In spite of his flaws, Oskar had a big heart, and was always ready to help whoever was in need. He was affable, kind, extremely generous, and charitable. But—not mature at all. He constantly lied and deceived me, asking to be forgiven one more time—and then we would start all over again.” Emilie loved her scoundrel-hero to the end of her days. Maybe she is the real candidate for sainthood.
Our communion—like the ancient washing of hands and utensils—is a visible sign of an invisible reality. There’ always the danger that we could lose the full meaning. It could become a mere ritual. But when we focus, we know that this sign means Christ for us, Christ in us, Christ changing our hearts.