The Heart of the Matter

An authentic faith is lived from the inside out, rooted in the transformation of the heart.  It begins with a desire to please God instead of impress other people.  As we confess our sin and brokenness and desire to produce the fruit of Spirit in our lives, we will be able to grow in our love for God, for others and for ourselves.  

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, Psalm 51


1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly,[a] holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.[b] And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.[c]And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

As I was reading this scripture passage from Mark this past week, my mind took me back to my early years in college.

At that time, I started taking my Christian faith more seriously, claiming it more as my own instead of just something that I did mainly because it’s what my parents instilled in me.  This was a good step in my faith development.

But soon thereafter, because of some other Christians around me, I started to divide people around me into two distinct categories of “Christian” and “non-Christian” almost exclusive based on outward appearance and behavior.  And I had these “litmus tests” to determine that.

For example, a “true” Christian would never drink alcohol or smoke or do drugs.  A “true” Christian wouldn’t use swear words.

A “true” Christian would bow their head to say a prayer before a meal, even in a crowded cafeteria.

A “true Christian” would have some sort of outward symbol to show the world that they are not ashamed of being a Christian- that symbol could be a cross around the neck, a t-shirt with a Bible verse on it, or one of those little fishes on the back of their car.

This kind of mentality led me to be very judgmental of other people.  These litmus tests made it easy for me to see who I thought was a “holy” person and who was not-so-holy, who I thought was going to make it to heaven, and who was not.

Thanks be to God that this stage in my faith journey didn’t last very long, as I was able to grow and mature beyond it.

In some ways, I was like the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders who sought Jesus out in the scripture passage today.  Their understanding of what it meant to be a holy person had all kinds of litmus tests that they judged other people on.

These tests were based on the laws given by God through Moses to the Israelites in the Old Testament, and also based on what the passage says are “traditions of the elders”,

Some extra, more specific laws that were made by Jewish leaders to apply the Old Testament law to their life so they’d know exactly what to do in every situation.

For all the bad press that the Pharisees got in the Bible, we need to give them credit for taking their faith seriously and trying to live it out in their daily lives.

They really did want to live a holy life, “holy” meaning “separate”, a life separate from the ways of the “world” around them.

In some ways we can see parallels with groups like the Amish, who live this very distinct life from the world around them, as their way of being holy, of living out their faith in a way that pleases God.

So the scribes and Pharisees had all of these purity laws, cleanliness practices in order to keep themselves pure and unstained by the world, and holy before God.

Laws like preparing food in certain ways, washing plates and utensils in a special way, and washing their hands by pouring water over their hands before every meal.

Now during this pandemic we all have been reminded of the importance of washing out hands diligently, but for the scribes and Pharisees the issue was not good hygiene but ceremonial purity.

And obedience to their laws meant that they needed to literally separate themselves from unclean people, or they could get contaminated themselves.

So for the Scribes and Pharisees, it meant not having any contact with Gentiles, i.e. anyone who wasn’t Jewish, and also no contact with fellow Jews who didn’t follow these practices.

Which is kind of opposite of how Jesus lived and how he taught his followers to live.

Jesus and his disciples always seemed to be around people who were considered “unclean”, eating with them, hanging out with them, teaching them and healing them. And they didn’t follow all of the purity laws the more zealous Jews did.

And this prompts these religious leaders ask Jesus the question “Why don’t your disciples follow the laws of our religion?”

And Jesus, as he does so often, responds in a way that gets to the heart of the matter.  He calls them hypocrites, and quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that their worship is in vain because even though obey all these laws, their hearts are far away from God.

They’re far away because they had become so obsessed with these laws that they had lost sight of the most important thing, the greatest law and commandment that undergirded all the other laws—

To love God with their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves.

And then a little later on Jesus says this time to everyone around him, that what defiles people or makes them unclean is not that which goes into them, but that which comes out of them,

In other words, what comes from inside a person’s heart, that’s where the root of sin and uncleanliness lies, right in here.  And he rattles off a laundry list of examples of these things that originate in the heart and then get expressed in all kinds of sinful behavior.

On another occasion, Jesus literally goes off on the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees with what’s known as the “7 woes” one of which is:

“Woe to you hypocrites, for you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You’re blind!  First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, and then the outside will be clean.”  (Mt. 23:25-6)

You see, Jesus knew that the heart is considered the center, the core of a person’s being, and in the worldview of his day and I think our day as well, the heart is the place where the mind, the emotions and the will are all located.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “keep your heart with all vigilance, in other words, guard your heart, because it is the source of life.”  This gets at the heart of the matter.

So the way we live on the outside has a lot to do with something deeper inside of us.  This principle is true in so many areas of life.

Those of us who have ever sung in a choir should know this, right?  I don’t know about you but my choir director in high school said that the key to good singing is not right here inside the mouth, or even with our vocal chords,

But the key is where?  Deep inside of us, right here in the thing called the diaphragm.  If we concentrate on taking a deep breath and tightening our diaphragm, our singing will be of a much fuller and deeper sound, a higher quality and more beautiful than if we just try to produce the sound from our mouth.

In the same way, a deep and high quality faith, a true and authentic faith, a faith that is not hypocrital, will be lived from the inside out.   It will grow out of transformation that is taking place deep inside of us in the heart.

That’s why in Romans, the apostle Paul says to his Jewish readers,   For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from people but from God.

That’s what what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 13, when he said, I can speak in tongues, and I can give away all that I have, and I can even sacrifice my body to be burned, but if I don’t do these things out of love, out of something that comes from the heart, I am like a noisy gong, and I gain nothing.

What this all says to me is that it’s really important to pay attention to what’s inside of us and work at transformation from the inside out.

And to be honest, looking inward is a challenge in the world that we live in.  You see, in our world, outward appearances matter a lot.

We want to project a good image, we spend a lot of time and energy and anxiety focusing on looking good to those around us, sometimes at the expense of attending to what really matters, like developing good character and growing in love.

I see this when I do premarital counseling with couples.  They can easily get so preoccupied with the wedding—planning every little detail, making sure that everyone and everything looks good.

I remind them, yes, it’s good to have a nice wedding day, but that’s only one day, and what’s more important than planning a wedding is preparing for a marriage, making sure that your hearts are in the right place with each other, because you want your marriage to last a lifetime.

But we’re like the Pharisees, our pride can get in the way, sometimes wanting to impress other please other people more than pleasing God.

Social media and all the media we consume magnifies this even more, as we’re bombarded with images, pictures, videos of people, seeing all this stuff on the outside and rarely getting a glimpse of what’s underneath it all.  We get sucked into this as well.

So we need to be intentional in attending to what’s going on inside of us, and with God’s help, root out the sin and selfishness inside of us so we can grow in what’s known as the fruit of the spirit, things like love, kindness, generosity, patience, those things that honor both God and other people.

We do well to spend more time examining ourselves rather than judging other people.

The heart is where true change and transformation can take place, which will lead to a life that bears good fruit.

We see this modeled beautifully in the life of David in Psalm 51, after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan because of his affair with Bathsheba:

The whole Psalm is full of sorrow, confession, acknowledgement of his sin, and then praying for God to cleanse and change his heart:

Create in me, a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me, he prays.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation.  The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart.  

What a great model David gives us for transformation.  He is honest before God, he has the humility to take responsibility for what he’s done wrong, and not blame other people,

he acknowledges the pain that it has caused himself and others, and he desires to be changed and grow from this experience.

As we approach our relationship with God like David did, and how Jesus taught us, and how the apostle Paul counseled those he wrote to, I believe that we will get to the heart of the matter, and move close to living a less hypocritical and more authentic faith.

A faith where how we live on the outside will grow out of something deep inside of us, and over time, our hearts will become more like God’s heart.

That’s what I believe is the meaning behind the verse that says, “take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”.

It doesn’t mean that God will give us whatever our heart desires, but that God’s desires will become our desires.  This is what spiritual transformation is all about.

We live in a divided, polarized society.  In such an environment, it’s easy to just look at what’s on the outside and see the behaviors of others that we think are wrong and that make us angry.

We want other people to change.  And maybe there are some things that they need to change.  But let’s try to look beneath the surface to see the common humanity that we share with others.

And instead of judging people and focusing on what they need to change, let’s resolve to work at changing ourselves, from the inside out.  This might just help us to get to the real heart of the matter, the commandment to love God with all of our heart, love ourselves better, and do a better job of loving other people.  AMEN.