My ego – the root of my own downfall

The ego – the root of all evil

Lectionary Readings:

  1. James 1:17-27
  2. Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How do you react when you hear the word “Pharisee”?  What type of emotional reaction do you feel rising within you?

What if I told you that in the years of Christ, the Pharisees were the heroes, not the villains?  That to be a Pharisee was to ascribe to a holy life?  Of course, after 2,000 years of Church history, we have a negative picture in our minds when we hear the word “Pharisee”, because we know how they responded to Jesus.  But there’s always more to the story than the part that we’ve heard.

The Pharisees were all lay people, not priests.  Many were scribes or had a level of education which allowed them to study the scriptures and the written traditions.  They were a reform movement; it was their passion that the ordinary people of Israel learn to live out their devotion to God, in a practice, hands on sense.  They believed that every detail of the scriptures could be applied to everyday life, living out holiness in a practical way.

Their virtue was that they believed that everyone could and should strive for the same level of godliness and holiness that God required of the priests who lived in the temple.  An effective “priesthood of the saints”.  They believed that if Israel was to be the nation of priests that the prophets had claimed, then all people should live by the same standards that were required of the priests.

The Pharisees only error was expecting a higher level of obedience and commitment among the people than what the scriptures actually required of the people.  This reform movement was an attempt to call the people of Israel to a life of godliness.

Admittedly, the Pharisees put their traditions on an equal footing with the laws of God given in the Old Testament.  They claimed that God had given 2 laws:

  • the ones written down and
  • the traditions given to the elders.

And so they took it upon themselves to write down these traditions in the Talmud and the Mishnah – because while the Bible tells us what God wants us to do, it doesn’t always tell us HOW to do it.  So, we’re going to help you and tell you HOW God wants you to do it.

For many of us, it’s quite hard to understand the controversy found in Mark.  We automatically think of the hygienic aspect of “washing your hands” before you handle food. Images may come to mind of the SARS virus outbreak or the bird-flu or the influenza H1N1 virus.  But these rituals were about purity and holiness.

In ancient Israel, you had to be in a state of ritual purity in order to worship God.  If you were ritually impure, you needed to go through a purification ritual to become clean again.

The most well-known part of these ritual purity rules are the Old Testament dietary laws:  the clean and unclean. Or the kosher or not-kosher.  The obedience of these rules were the boundary markers between the Jewish people – maintaining their uniqueness as a people and culture.  To obey was to say you were Jewish; to disobey was to abandon your heritage.

The hand-washing law went something like this:

Before you eat, you must pour one and a half (1 ½) eggshells of water over your hands, in a specifically prescribed manner:  hold your hand with the finger-tips upwards and pour the water over them until it ran down to your wrists; and then cleanse the palm of each hand with the fist of the other; and then hold your hands with the finger-tips pointing downwards and pour water on them from the wrists downwards so that it runs off the finger-tips.

The question wasn’t whether or not your hands were dirty and needed washing or whether your hands were spotless: if you failed to wash your hands in this manner was to fail to please God – it was a sin.

But there was, as there usually is, a problem with focusing on the physical world and a list of “dos” and “do nots”.  We often try to solve our problems of the heart by focusing on the surface issues.  Jesus saw that the law was being used to turn people away from God, rather than to bring people to God to see and experience His love and mercy.

Our attempts to apply the Bible to everyday life can become the same kind of legalistic nit-picking Jesus found with the Pharisees.  We don’t have to go too far to find it:

  • Fundamentalist rules that say: no playing cards; no dancing; no movies
  • Baptism by immersion or baptism by sprinkling
  • If you don’t speak in tongues, you haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit
  • Which translation of the Bible do YOU use?
  • If you don’t tithe 10% of your GROSS income (not net, after taxes or take home pay), you’re not a true Christian
  • If you don’t end your prayers with “in Jesus’ name”, then God can’t answer them

Now that I’ve said them out loud, they sound silly, right?   But they easily fool us into thinking that we can EARN points with God,  rather than to look deep into ourselves and let God fill us with His love.  It’s so much easier to focus on the practices than it is to go to the heart of the matter – as both Jesus (in Mark) and James challenge us to do.  Our worship of God easily becomes lip service: we may go through the motions by have no real inner devotion.

Jesus declared that these rules were no longer binding on us – not that they were wrong, but rather that these rules were obsolete.  It’s not the kind of food that you eat that matters, it what kind of person are you really?  Forget about the cover of the book – what’s the story on the inside?  Forget about the outside forces of nature versus nurture, the environment, the culture you were raised in or the education you had:  How’s your heart?

Many of us fall into the trap of focussing on the surface issues – the symptoms rather than the cause.

I have read (Timothy Peck):

  • If our greatest need had been for information, God would have sent us a teacher;
  • If our greatest need had been for technology, God would have sent us a scientist;
  • If our greatest need had been for money, God would have sent us a economist;
  • If our greatest need had been for pleasure, God would have sent us a entertainer;

But since our greatest need was freedom from the darkness inside ourselves, God sent us what we needed the most:  a Saviour to show us that the change comes from God and a Holy Spirit to be our teacher and comforter.

At the end of the day, Jesus summed up all of the law in just 2 Commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus doesn’t specify the details of HOW you are supposed to do that: He leaves the details up to us.  God has created each of us differently / uniquely.  We each have different talents, abilities and upbringings.  And we have the freedom to express our uniqueness as we live our Christian life.  But the principle stands very firmly: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour.  There is no freedom NOT to follow or live by these commands.  These commands transcend all of life: we don’t switch them on and off – today I will because I have some free time, but tomorrow I’ve got other plans.

The difficulty, of course, with such simple laws, is that we have to take full responsibility for ALL of our actions.  We stand alone before God – with all of our internal / HEART baggage – the way we were brought up, our cultural issues, any abuse or mistreatment that we may have received – and we can’t blame anyone or anything for our failure to fulfil these 2 laws.

Because suddenly there’s no small print!  There’s no black and white – you HAVE to do it this way.  The rule is that – whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever YOUR situation – YOU have to Love the Lord your God with all of YOUR heart (the one that YOU have, the way it is), and love your neighbour as yourself.  No excuses.  That one commandment: “Love one another” is enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives.  Of course, we squabble and fight with each other over the smallest distinctions of practice – clearly violating Jesus’ commands.

It’s like the law of gravity:

In the on-going battle between objects made of aluminium going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground (which I believe is moving at zero miles per hour), the ground has yet to lose the competition.  The ground ALWAYS wins.

We, on the other hand, prefer rules, that we can manipulate and change.  We tend to interpret God’s commandments in a way that suits ourselves.  A little like the No-Calorie Diet.  You know the one.  It’s the one that says:

  • If you eat something, when no one’s watching, it has no calories.
  • If you drink a diet soda, while eating a candy bar or French fries, the calories of the candy bar or French fries are cancelled by the diet soda.
  • When you go out and eat with someone else, your calories don’t count, as long as you ate LESS than the person you’re with.

And the list goes on… these rules that we make to bypass our character (or lack thereof).  We make the rules, and then introduce all the exceptions to them.

God has promised that He has put into each one of us a new heart and a new spirit – His Spirit!  And like a patient that has had a heart transplant, He’s given us an instruction booklet to follow.  A recommended diet:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.[1]

So, how are you doing with your recovery?  Are you sticking to your spiritual diet? Sneaking in too much junk food, when no one is watching?  Are you getting your spiritual exercise? How about the stress? Do you remember that God has promised that He will take care of ALL your needs?

We ALL have our moments of being a Pharisee.  What we really are, is what we are on the inside, not what we appear to be on the outside.  What we are determines our attitudes and our thoughts. It IS our character.

We make up our own rules about what is right or what is wrong.  We try to make others follow these rules.  We pretend that we know better than God; or we don’t want to follow God’s rules and so make up our own.  But God’s laws are meant to show us where we have fallen short in our relationship with God or our relationships with others.  They tell us where we have hurt our relationships or ourselves and how to heal the broken pieces.

Being holy is made far too complicated by religiosity.  We have to remember that holiness is a state of being, not a state of doing.  To be holy means to be set apart for a task and to be apt for that task.  And our tasks are, as we have already seen, very simple:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Yes, most of the Old Testament was written about being Holy.  But we have to stop focussing on cleanliness. Physical cleanliness does NOT equal Godliness.  Following a specific set of rules will not make us holy.

There is a Japanese fable about a man who went to heaven and to his surprise he saw a shelf covered with human tongues. The heavenly guide told him, “These are the tongues of people who spoke sweet words of virtues, who said what was right, but never did anything to follow their words. So their tongues have come to rest in heaven and the rest of them are somewhere else.”

We should all be radical followers of Jesus and take seriously what He really said.  Follow that man that showed compassion to sinners: to the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and unclean.  He ate with them and hung out with them.  He said to those who would judge:

Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.

Leave the judging to God.  Let God sort it out.  Don’t focus on the speck in someone else’s eye, when there might be a telephone pole in your own.

Be slow to speak – especially when it comes to talking with God.  If you’re speaking, you may not hear God talking.  Don’t ask God for direction or enlightenment and then carry on talking – you might miss the answer.

Be slow to anger – understanding that our anger is more likely to fuel the flames of controversy, dividing people and doing incalculable injury to yourself and others around you.

James warns that a true church is not one where the members are angry with each other because anger demonstrates that faith has not yet been implanted and is not yet growing in our hearts. Anger in the church indicates that God’s love is far from us. Anger demonstrates that the word of God has gone in one ear and out the other with no saving effect.

  • But a true church is one that cares for the widows and the orphans and poor and the needy.
  • A true church hears the word of God and keeps in their hearts.
  • A true church is transformed by the word of God into a loving church

I want to end this sermon with a lesson from Zen:

There was a great teacher in Japan: Nan-in.  An educated man, a professor, came to inquire about Zen teachings.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured the cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The man watched the cup overflowing, until he could no longer hold himself back: “Stop. It’s overflowing – no more can fit in!”  and Nan-in replied:  You are like this cup.  Full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I teach you and show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

If we are to receive God’s message and be filled with God’s love, we first need to empty our hearts of ourselves, our egos, our pasts, our future, our rules and regulations that we so religiously hold on to.  Let God fill us with His love and His Spirit, so that we can easily keep His two commandments, Loving God and loving our neighbour.


[1] Philippians 4:8

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