“A Matter of Integrity”

Pentecost 14

August 30, 2015


Text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27


          If you look up the word “integrity” in a dictionary, you will find a definition that is something like this:

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.

3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.

It seems to me this definition implies a high level of consistency between one’s outward actions and one’s inward thoughts, motives, and intentions. We are not whole if we inwardly hold high standards but outwardly don’t live up to them. We also are not whole if we do the right things outwardly but are inwardly corrupt. A person who can be described in either of these ways lives in a constant state of civil war as the opposing impulses struggle for mastery of one’s entire being.

I find that both our Gospel lesson from Mark and our lesson from the letter of James address the issue of integrity. Both talk about the need for our inner spiritual life and our outer behavior to be consistent. Let’s look more closely.

Our Gospel lesson begins with an extended discussion of the matter of washing hands. Now in our time, washing hands is considered a matter of hygiene. We are told to wash our hands because it is a good way to prevent the spread of germs and disease. However, in Jesus’ time, washing one’s hands before eating was considered a religious obligation, part of how one made oneself clean in the sight of God. Some Jewish groups at that time, including the Pharisees, had a strict protocol for how to wash your hands—in particular, one was to wash the hands up to the wrist but no further. If any water ran onto your arm, you were not considered clean.

Jesus and his disciples apparently didn’t practice hand washing that way, or least didn’t get so particular about it. One day the Pharisees noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples ate without washing their hands first, so they asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?” The Pharisees were not concerned about hygiene in this case. They were upset because Jesus’ disciples were not following Jewish tradition in the way the Pharisees understood it.

Jesus responded by telling the Pharisees they were hypocrites who were described well by the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.”

Jesus went on to cite a specific example. He pointed out that the Law of Moses tells us we are to honor our father and mother. At that time Jews were permitted to declare some of their money as corban, a gift dedicated to God. Apparently the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had allowed it to be possible that a person could declare his or her money to be dedicated to God in order to get out of the responsibility of providing for elderly parents. In those days there were no government programs, such as Social Security like we have, to provide retirement resources for people in the latter years of their lives. Instead, their children were expected to provide for them. Jesus believed that for grown children to fail to provide for their elderly parents was to dishonor them, and thus a violation of the Law of Moses.

In explaining himself further, Jesus said that what makes a person impure before God is not what comes from the outside and goes in our mouths. That goes to our stomachs, not our hearts, and the waste is eliminated. Instead, what contaminates us in God’s sight is what comes out of us from the corruption of the human heart: evil thoughts, sexual sins, greed, dishonesty, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. Jesus is saying we need to live with integrity. Not only are we to live uprightly outwardly, we are to live uprightly in our hearts.

James offers much the same idea, but approaches it a little differently. He reminds us that every good and perfect gift, including the new birth we are given in Christ, comes from God the Father whose character is unchanging. He chose to give us birth by his true word, making us like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

That new birth means that God’s word that is able to save us has been planted deep inside us. Since that word has been planted in us, our outward behavior needs to be consistent with that word as well. We should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry, because acting on anger does not produce God’s righteousness. We are to turn away from moral filth and wickedness and welcome God’s word instead.

James then goes on to tell us that we need to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Those who study God’s teachings and put them into practice remember them, and are blessed in what they do.

James then adds that a person who claims devotion to God but doesn’t control what they say misleads him/herself. That person’s devotion is worthless. True devotion that God finds pure and faultless is found in doing God’s word: caring for orphans and widows in their difficulties and not letting oneself become contaminated by the world.

Now the first half of that statement is not hard to understand. Orphans and widows were the poor people of that time. They were the ones who often did not have any relatives who were willing or able to provide for them. Often they had to resort to begging to survive. This was one of the first groups of people the followers of Jesus sought to help for the sake of Christian compassion. Even today, although the face of poverty has changed greatly over 2000 years, the church, when it is faithfully living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, remains committed to helping the poor.

But what about that other part of the sentence, the part about “keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”? Several generations back this was understood by many Protestant Christians to mean: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to movies, don’t play cards, don’t work, shop, or engage in recreation on Sunday, don’t cuss, etc. I don’t know of any Christian today, including myself, who lives by that set of rules, or even says we should, including even the most ardent fundamentalists.

I know there are some Christians who say that staying uncontaminated by the world is vastly overrated. Such persons would say that we need to be engaged with the world in order to be in ministry to the world, and that any attempt to separate oneself from the world can come across as judgmental. However, I believe those who say that misunderstand what it means to be uncontaminated by the world. Surely God does not want us to adopt the ways of the world uncritically, since many of those ways do great harm to people. At the same time, I also believe that seeking to be uncontaminated by the world needs to be more than a list of do’s and don’ts. I believe we need to get behind the list of behaviors to the impulse that drives them.

It occurs to me that this impulse can be well described through words that originally were in a 1989 song by the rock group Queen, and later were used in a mashup rap number that is in the soundtracks of both the 2011 movie “Sucker Punch” and the Madden NFL 12 video game. The words are: “I want it all, and I want it now.”

I find these words describe our world very well. Sometimes they describe me very well. There are so many things people want: more money; nicer possessions; a better love life; a more prestigious job; a life free from worry, pain, and fear; a greater sense of fulfillment; less boredom and more entertainment; more control of one’s own destiny. I find that I am often not content with just one or two of these things: I want it all. And I don’t want to wait for it. I want it now.

There are real problems with this attitude. In the first place, “I want it all, and I want it now” is a very selfish way of being. It makes life all about me, which is actually the root of idolatry. And my desire to have it all inevitably comes into conflict with someone else’s desire to have it all. Isn’t this really what lies beyond most of the conflict in our world? If I want everything just a certain way, and you want everything a different way, and you want everything yet another way, and you want everything still another way, and no one is willing to give ground, you can be sure that sooner or later there is going to be a conflicted situation that likely will get ugly. Instead of people being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry, what often results is just the opposite—people become quick to speak, quick to get angry, and refuse to listen.

Not only do people want it all, they want it now. I am impatient. I am unwilling to wait. I am so used to instant gratification that when I have to wait for something I don’t like it. Even a delay in traffic or a long wait in the checkout line at the store can become a major irritant.

This can lead to all sorts of problems, and many of these problems have entered into the lives of Christians:

  • Wanting something, but short of money? Pay with a credit card. Of course, if you do this too often you will find yourself deep in debt and paying substantial interest. Many Christians have a hard time giving generously to the church because they have gotten into this situation.
  • Unhappy with your marriage? Go find someone else, the world says. Problem is that one ends up hurting an awful lot of people when one does that. This church has seen what that looks like. And even if you try to do it on the sly, you likely will get caught eventually. In the past few days the news has included reports about the hacking of the Ashley Madison website, which is a website that arranges hookups for people wanting to have an extramarital affair. The hackers made public the list of Ashley Madison’s clients, and those on the list find themselves dealing with the consequences. In fact, Southern Baptist researcher Ed Stetzer says that, based on conversations he has had with officials from several denominations in recent days, at least 400 church leaders will be resigning today because they are on the Ashley Madison list. But it doesn’t stop there. A 2014 study by the Barna Research Group, interviewing a nationally representative group of 388 self-identified Christian men, found that over 1/3 of the married men have had an extramarital affair, and that over half look at pornography at least once a month. It also found that nearly 1/5 of Christian men between the ages of 31 and 49 and nearly 1/3 of those in the 18-30 age group admit to being addicted to pornography. Pornography is also a growing problem among Christian women—one organization claims as many as 1/5 of Christian women are addicted to it. Another statistic says that nearly ¼ of married women, Christian or not, cheat on their husbands.

Brothers and sisters, the church, including you and me, has an integrity problem. Far too many of us live with duplicity. We may appear to be good upstanding followers of Jesus on the outside but are hiding ugly secrets on the inside. Or we may have the love of Jesus in our hearts but are showing the world some very unloving behaviors. We stand contaminated before God. And try as hard as we might, we cannot overcome this situation by our own efforts.

We are set free from this contamination through Jesus Christ, through whom God has chosen to give us new birth. He is the one who, through the Holy Spirit, God has planted deep inside of us. He is the one who is able to save us through his death and resurrection. He is the one who can deliver us from the bondage of our sins and set us free to live as God desires. Sisters and brothers, let us place our wholehearted trust in him that we may know his forgiveness, so that we may turn from our sin and live with integrity, with our inner and outer selves in harmony with each other and with God.


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