September 17, 2006: Just Going Through The Motions? Then Return To The Heart!

Let us pray: Dear Savior, actions speak louder than words—You proved that by not only proclaiming love and forgiveness, but living it and dying for it. As we seek to follow You may our lips confess Your truths, may our lives live those truths, and may our hearts truly be focused upon them, as well. Amen


TEXT: Mark 7: 1-8,14,15,21-23

Fellow Redeemed Sinners:

Down deep, people love “Gotcha” journalism. We possess almost a prurient delight over seeing stories about celebrities or politicians who say one thing and then do the exact opposite.—Gotcha! We shake our heads in dismay over their hypocrisy and mouth clichés about how sad it all is. But, we always snap to attention when such stories come on the news. Why is that? Why do we pay so much attention to them? Isn’t it because part of us is happy that they got caught instead of us? Isn’t it because our sinful flesh can then say: “See, you’ve got company. Your life, your hypocrisy, really isn’t so bad after all?”

 Do you really concentrate on the words of the Lord’s Prayer when you recite it? Are the words of the hymns you sing alive to you, or do you just go through the motions of piety? Well, sad to say, all of us let distractions subtract from our Sunday worship experience and from living our confession. Our text addresses this inbred hypocrisy and we’ll consider it today under this theme:



Dr. Luther once said that “All of us have a little Pharisee in our bellies.” That is, all Christians like to appear very pious and holy on the outside, but inwardly our hearts often dwell on things we should not. In short, we all are guilty of hypocrisy. In our lesson, Jesus plays a little “Gotcha” with such people.

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.) So they asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”

Ah, the pious hypocrite! How good they appear and how silly they are! Always ready to condemn others to make themselves appear better. Always missing the point by attempting to pull the splinter out of their neighbor’s eye while ignoring the 2X4 in their own!

The sainted Bill Stark of our congregation used to paraphrase Plato in saying: “Don’t be too harsh on others as everyone has his own battle to fight.” How true. And here the Pharisees are being harsh and judgmental upon the disciples while ignoring the bigger problem that they faced—the sinful uncleanness of their own hearts.

Jesus takes them on. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ And then He adds: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

Is it a good idea of wash before eating? Yes. In fact, in the Old Testament God gave advice about this so as to keep people away from microbes and germs. But just going through the motions of such washing doesn’t make anyone’s heart clean. And the heart is the heart of the matter when it comes to God. Over the subsequent years the Jews had developed all kinds of ritualistic washings to make a huge show of their piety. Such rules were man made, not God made. And unfortunately, we see here that they took the place of genuine repentance. Going through the motions replaced faith.

I see that same thing in many church-goers today. Few talk about doctrine and seek to really delve into God’s truths. Few read their Bibles and really ponder its meaning. But these same people are often involved with the food pantry, or the dependency group that meets at their church, or some other social-action committee. Often they superficially let such things–which are good, in and of themselves, replace good old-fashioned repentance. They like to appear holy, and really try—just as the Pharisees did, but it’s all outward. It’s all for show. It’s all about ego, about me, about what I did for God, instead of humbly acknowledging what He has done for me.


Are you just going through the motions? Then return to the heart! That’s Christ’s message to you today! “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” Now comes the kicker. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”

Let’s talk about this. Most people want their child to be baptized. Thank God for that! For baptism is the implanting of that seed of faith within. But if they never follow up with fertilizing and watering that seed of faith, if they simply go through the motions at the time and that’s it, well, what does that say about the parents or godparents? Praying in front of others is wonderful. It is a terrific confession of our reliance on God for all things and a fabulous way to honor Him. But if we pray over our meal only when people are around to see and when alone promptly forget to pray, what does that say about our own hearts? I know people that only go to church when their Christian relatives come to visit. Now, I’m glad they’ve come to hear God’s Word. But, I wonder if it’s all about external appearance only? Where are they the other 50 Sundays out of the year?

The point is: our hearts are sinful. And just going through the motions of piety won’t cleanse them. We need Jesus all the time. We need forgiveness all the time. We need to practice daily repentance all the time. We need to return to the heart, for it is really the heart of the matter, isn’t it? And when we do, when we take God seriously and confess with our hearts: “I’m a sinner.” God changes the heart! He gives us the forgiveness for all sins that Christ won on the cross. He makes our baptismal grace come alive! He makes our communion attendance of feeding on His soul food something not to be missed. And through these means of grace He makes our conscience clean.

If you inwardly lament your own “going through the motions” mentality, good! For such honesty is the first step toward true repentance. Now take the next step, turn to Christ, focus on His goodness given to you through faith, and then you’ll discover that thankfulness and joy will replace hypocrisy and deceit. Amen