“Garbage In, Garbage Out”

August 16, 2020

Sermon by Scott Webster, Lay Minister

Today’s reading is from Matthew 15:10-20. Such a small part of the Scriptures, but such a huge implication in life.  What needs to be recognized here is what the beginning of Matthew 15 is all about.  Matthew 14 was describing the events that were unfolding before the people. Peter walking on water, the calming of the storm, and even the healing of the sick. 

After witnessing these events, the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus in a lie, asked Him, “Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?” Seems like a normal, everyday question to ask.  Don’t you normally wash your hands before eating? And considering what they were all doing previously… fishing, healing the sick, etc. But Jesus knew their hearts and intentions and, in normal Christ-like character, began to respond to their question with questions of his own. Seems normal to me. How about you?

Our reading today is really about Jesus exposing the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. His questions were meant to expose their wickedness of heart because he knew they were using their own traditions as reasons to violate God’s commands. I think this passage is just as relevant to society today as it was then.

This particular text highlights the depravity of the human heart. So what does makes one sin? Is it the environment? Is it the people we associate with? Is it the devil that makes one sin? We are always looking for that one thing that is the source of our sin. However, in this passage, Jesus makes it very clear that the source, which we are so set on discovering, actually resides inside us. According to the teachings of Jesus, the most vial place in the world exists right inside the human heart.

As described in an article by Alyce McKenzie, a Methodist minister and a Professor of religious studies in Texas, “At the heart of this scripture lies a proverb….” She continues, “This saying of Jesus about what defiles is a paradoxical proverb, meant to undercut the way we habitually look at things.”  She wasn’t too far off the mark.  Most of Jesus’ teachings with parables often dealt with pairings. For example, wisdom paired with foolish behavior often ends with unwanted results.

When I was a college student in the ‘90s, I had a huge interest in computer science and programming languages. In fact, I was such a computer geek as we were known at that time, that at the peak of my college years I was able to program in no less than 10 computer languages.  What I most remember from that time in college, was a very popular proverb created by computer operators: “Garbage in, garbage out.” 

Programming was very intensive, particular, and precise. It didn’t take long to learn that if you input the wrong code into the program you were writing, you would get completely unexpected and unwanted results. Sometimes it would cause the entire computer to crash without warning. This was not by any means desirable. In fact, it turned me from a programmer into a code detective real fast. This is where I took the phrase for my sermon title today, “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

There are actually two aspects of this scripture reading for today that deserve attention. The first comments on adhering to false doctrines; the other on the condition of the human heart. 

According to commentator J.C. Ryle, “Our Lord declares that it is a duty to oppose [false doctrine,] that its final destruction is sure, and that its teachers ought to be forsaken.” 

This is why in verses 13 and 14, Jesus “shrugged it off,” and tells his disciples when referring to the Pharisees: “Every tree that wasn’t planted by my Father in heaven will be pulled up by its roots. Forget them. They are blind men leading blind men. When a blind man leads a blind man, they both end up in the ditch.”

Most of us recognize this as being the type of response Jesus used when dealing with the Pharisees and religious rulers of the time. But the second aspect of this passage deals with the paradoxical proverb which the Message so eloquently puts it: “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.” 

Even Peter had a hard time with this one. It is no wonder that we often overlook this aspect during everyday life.  I learned this proverb a long time ago in a little different way: “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

So, what is happening in the passage?  Jesus was trying to teach the crowd that what comes from the mouth is not simply thoughts, but could actually be negative and harmful words which express darkness in the heart. The words we speak come from our hearts. Those words are often directed to someone else’s heart. Ever hear of a heart-to-heart conversation?

Don’t be fooled. Words can leach into the heart much like poison in a well.  If we are filling our hearts with all the negative, vial, terrifying things, it stands to reason that those will be the things that come out of our mouths as well.

But a pure heart is a different story. When we feast on the bread of life, our hearts are purified, and loving words will flow out of the mouth.

In Psalms there is description of what is required to enter into God’s presence.  The Temple can only be entered by one who has “clean hands and a pure heart.” So we can see, clean hands alone as the Pharisees were pointing out, are simply not enough. It takes both hands and heart.

The pure in heart are those who consistently and repeatedly allow God to cleanse them of the negative, vial, and unclean thoughts, images, and actions. For you see, if there is darkness in your heart, the mouth will surely reveal it.

According to McKenzie, “The pure in heart recognize their need for God; they empathize with and extend comfort to others; [and,] their lives are graced by daily deeds of compassionate forgiveness to those who wrong them. When our hearts are pure, and our words are loving, our deeds usually follow [suite].”

Remember how I said that Jesus liked to use paradoxical proverbs?  With this particular proverb, He is telling the people that purification does not come from the physical… washing our hands or making sure what we eat is clean… but rather it is what comes out of the mouth that purifies a person. Good and evil do not originate from the food supply but from the heart.

The defilement of the stomach cannot compare with darkness in the heart. The filthy darkness of our hearts always leaches into the words of our mouths. But no matter the condition of the heart, the words of our mouths control the deeds of our hands.

I am sure that all of you have heard the childish chant, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Which usually ends in a tongued raspberry—but as one that suffered through bullying—I can honestly say that the chant is definitely a lie! I’m sure we have all been wounded by thoughtless or hateful words. Sometimes words of this nature can lead to violence, or even murder.

I once read a devotional that seemed to put things in real perspective. The article talked about how everybody has problems with speech: some say too much, some gossip, some lie, some take the Lord’s name in vain, others exaggerate, distort, slander, wound, curse, or are often crude in nature …. The list could go on and on because often for many the tongue can get away from us.

The devotional goes on to say, “Part of the problem is that our mouths often let fly what is unredeemed in our hearts. Another part of the problem is that we don’t think about what we’re going to say before we speak it. [And yet] still another part of the problem is that we do think [about] what we would say to wound, hurt, or get back at someone; then, when we are given the opportunity, we say it,” usually out of spite.

Purity is an ongoing struggle. Jesus is saying don’t make it so simple, so external, that it is just a matter of what you eat. Externals may be nice for traditions, but they do nothing to fulfill redemption.

So instead of trying to blame everyone – or everything – else, for the way we speak or act, let us instead focus our attention on the human heart where the real problem lies.  We need to, in a sense, debug and reprogram our hearts so as to avoid the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” paradox of our lives.

Let’s pray…

Holy God, forgive us for wanting a cheap, quick fix to the problems of our hearts’ purity and imperfections. We want, no we need, you to redeem our hearts. We commit today to avoid what can pollute, putrefy, and poison our hearts towards you and your children, and we ask for the power of the Spirit to help us with this commitment. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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