A clean heart and a bridled tongue

by Steve Elde

Texts: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45; James 1:17-27; Mark 7

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on the slapstick comedy of The Three Stooges, but I did watch a lot of their movies as a kid. My friends and I would laugh and mimic their jokes and comic routines. I was even a member of The Three Stooges Fan Club. I got a letter from them that reminded me not to hit my friends with hammers. One of my favorite Stooges lines was from Curly. When someone asked him a hard question he would say, “Oh! Wise guy, eh?” A wise guy was a know-it-all who made everyone else’s business, his business. A wise guy was a smart aleck.

When we talk about wisdom literature in the Bible, we’re not talking about smart alecks or know-it-alls. We’re not even talking about people who are really smart or know lots of stuff. The best description of Hebrew wisdom I’ve heard comes from my beloved professor of the Hebrew scriptures, Dr. Fredrick Holmgren. “Hebrew wisdom,” he said, “is simply this: how to live a long and good life by not doing stupid things.”

We see this in the Proverbs and the Psalms, in Ecclesiastes and Job. The Song of Songs is also part of the Hebrew wisdom tradition. In the New Testament, the book of James is in the tradition of wisdom literature, and the gospels are full of wisdom straight from the mouth of Rabbi Jesus. The wisdom we hear in this text from James and the wisdom we hear from Jesus intersect and overlap. Both speak to self-destructive stupidity. Jesus uses religious people, the Pharisees, as a cautionary tale. They are, it turns out, according to Jesus, not as wise as they think themselves to be. Jesus rips the facade off their empty wisdom. In Jesus, prophet and sage come together. Both Jesus and James speak of the destructive power of words.

In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7, Jesus is challenged by the scribes and Pharisees. They have come from Jerusalem to Galilee to watch Jesus and his disciples, to listen to him, to stand around the edges of the crowd and ask him questions. They were “straining gnats and swallowing camels,” as Jesus said of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Some Pharisees looked for technicalities in the Law while ignoring its intent. Some were more concerned with sacrifice and religious ritual, than mercy, which Jesus said, is at the heart of the Law. The scribes and the Pharisees who are described in the gospels followed the letter of the law, while sometimes neglecting and circumventing its intent.

Mark explains who they were and what they were up to. They noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands before eating. According to these Pharisees, his disciples ate with “defiled” hands and were ritually unclean. They broke the rules.

There was holiness code in the Law of Moses: be careful what you touch. Be careful whom you touch. Be careful what you eat. Be careful with whom you eat. Violate these rules and you will become ritually unclean. But there was also a mercy code. Mercy was more important than ritual purity, even if in being merciful you got your hands dirty.

Think of the story of the merciful Samaritan in the gospel of Luke, the outcast who gets his hands dirty helping a man who had been beaten up and left to die by the side of the road. For the sake of ritual purity the good “religious” people ignored him and left him to die. For Jesus, mercy mattered more than holiness. And whenever Jesus had to choose between mercy and holiness, he always chose mercy.

These Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders, but instead eat with defiled hands?” Jesus looks at them and says, “Oh! Wise guys, eh?” (or something like that). He does not justify or explain what his disciples have done or have failed to do. Instead Jesus goes right to the heart of the question. He unmasks the question, and unmasks those who ask the question. He peels the veneer off their empty holiness and reveals their motives. Jesus quotes Isaiah, zings them with the words of the prophet. “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Isaiah is saying, “Their hearts are empty. They choose their own traditions over the mercy of God.” “They wash the outside of the cup,” Jesus says in Matthew 23, “while leaving the inside dirty.” There Jesus also calls them “white-washed tombs” – clean on the outside but dead on the inside. If it was to their advantage, they would even throw their own parents under the bus, he tells them elsewhere in Mark 7.

Then Jesus turns to the crowd and drives home his point with some proverbial wisdom. “Listen to me!” he tells them. “Nothing outside of you can defile you, nothing outside you can make you unclean.” “What defiles you is what comes out of you.” When the disciples ask him to explain (which in the Gospel of Mark they always do), he tells them it is the stuff inside you, what is in your heart, that makes you unclean: evil, wickedness, lies, pride and selfish desires, foolishness and slander. All these come from within you and make you unclean. Clean the inside of the cup, he tells them. Don’t worry about the outside. “Be careless in your dress if you must,” Mark Twain once said, “but keep a tidy soul.”

Religious people can sometimes be too good to be true. Jesus told those who followed him to be good and to be true, not too good to be true. If you are too good to be true, you’re nothing but a wise guy.

Note that slander is one of the things Jesus talks about. Your words can kill. Your words can make you unclean. Once spoken, words cannot be unspoken. Once heard, words cannot be unheard. Harsh, destructive words cannot be unremembered. “Words create worlds that other people have to live in,” says professor John Weborg. Our words come from within. Words can be merciful or merciless. Either way, they reveal the heart. They reveal what is within.

As I said, Jesus’ words intersect with those of James, who speaks from Hebrew wisdom. “Understand this,” James says. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Then comes this: “If any think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues, they deceive their hearts and their religion is worthless.” These are strong words.

Fred Holmgren says that Hebrew wisdom teaches us how to live a good and long life by not doing stupid things, and, you could add, by not saying stupid things. In Ephesians 4:29, the Apostle Paul says, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth.” The Greek word translated “unwholesome” has the meaning of “corrupt” or “rotten” or “putrified.” “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful in building others up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to all who hear them.” It’s not that you can’t say something. It is, rather, in your freedom, that you choose not to say something you could say, for the sake of others. With wisdom, you choose your words carefully and deliberately. It’s not that you aren’t saying something bad. You are choosing words that build up rather than tear down or put down. Grace accepts others as they are, wherever they are. Your words can become grace to those who hear them.

Paul proposes what might be called a ten-second rule of grace, in which we ask ourselves, Is what I am about to say going to build up or tear down? Will my words be wholesome or unwholesome? Will they be helpful or hurtful? Will I be quick to listen and slow to speak, or will I be quick to speak and slow to listen? That’s what James means when he talks about bridling your tongue. It is giving direction to your thoughts and feelings before you speak them. Steer them from destruction and take into account the impact your words will have before you say them, before you write them, before you send them.

In some email programs there is an option to unsend or undo something after you have sent it. It only lasts a few, short seconds. The window closes quickly and then it’s too late to take it back. It would be better, I think, to get a message before you send or post something: Are you sure you want to send this? Are your words wholesome or unwholesome? Do they build up or do they tear down? Are they grace to those who will hear them?

Ours is a world where people say and write and post whatever comes into their head. I’ve been reading a lot of books about social media in recent weeks, its impact on us and our culture and our lives. I’ve been reading in preparation for a class I will be teaching on social media and spirituality. If anything reveals the putrid heart of contemporary culture, you need only read some of the posts on Twitter or Facebook on any given day. Yes, I know there are very good things there. But social media removes the filters between our brains and our mouths, between our brains and our fingers. Often it feeds our worst instincts. Put-downs are easy and talk is cheap. We say things we might never say face-to-face. And once posted, once sent, these words can never be retrieved. Our words, good or bad, live forever in the ether. Social media is also where some of the worst bullying takes place. And that doesn’t even take into account the algorithms that parse every word in your posts and then send you things that only reinforce what you already believe or confirm your worst instincts. There are more wise guys than wisdom on social media.

The challenge, though, is not social media more than any other kind of media. Social media also includes whatever comes out of our mouths in real time and space on any given day. What shall we do? We can’t escape reality. We can’t live in a world of self-created reality or make believe. We can’t crawl into a hole and close the lid behind us.

Nor should we. Many have tried and failed. It begins with searching our own heart. Again, Jesus said it’s not what goes in that makes you unclean, but what comes out. Words that build up, words that are grace to those who hear them, come from a clean heart. Clean the inside of the cup, Jesus said, and whatever you or anyone else drinks from that cup will be pure and sweet and edifying. It will be a grace to all.

In your freedom, choose what is good, what is whole, what is edifying in a world full of wise guys. Paul said, “Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed through the renewing of your mind.” Renewing your mind is a choice you make every day. When I was growing up I was told that Christians are “in the world, but not of the world.” More often than not, however, that meant “not in and not of” or “in and of.” It became all or nothing. “Don’t be defiled.” Truth be told, life is not a choice between all or nothing. Life is in something. In this “something” there will always be tension, the necessary tension of reality. Lose that tension and you will lose the gospel of Word made flesh. Lose that tension and you will separate the sacred from the profane, which is to abandon the Incarnation. The Incarnation is where the sacred meets the profane. God is revealed, God is found, in the profane. God comes looking for us in the midst of the profane. God consecrates and redeems the profane with reckless mercy and wisdom and justice. “All creatures,” the 14th century German Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “are words of God.” God speaks through us into a real world. From this paradox comes God’s wisdom. Lose this tension and you won’t be able to tell the difference between true wisdom and the empty rules of the wise guys.

So let the love and mercy of God feed your soul, and wisdom will come. As James says, “Welcome with meekness the implanted Word that has power to save your soul.” Then speak with wisdom. Amen.