Season Ninth Sunday of Pentecost
Scripture: Leviticus 10: 8-11
Matthew 15: 1-20
Prayer: Loving One who cleanses our hearts and our minds, who encourages us to think on all things good, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, our rock and our salvation.
Today we are considering the sixth and the penultimate in a series of 7, “Half Truths of the Bible.” The series was inspired by Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a now famously successful United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Kansas. However, we are now venturing beyond Hamilton’s 5 “half-truths,” and entertaining a few of our own.
This Sunday, we will be talking about a phrase that, like most of these, you have probably heard, and maybe even said. As a child, I think my mother said this more than any other cliché.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” That sounds like Scripture, doesn’t it? But actually, the phrase is first written in English in 1605, in “Advancement of Learning” by British writer Francis Bacon. In his ‘Advancement of Learning’ he wrote: ‘Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.’
Almost two centuries later, in 1791, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, referred to the phrase in one of his sermons called “On Dress”. He said,
Slovenliness is not part of religion; that neither this, not any text of Scripture, condemns neatness of apparel. Certainly, this is a duty, not a sin. “Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.” He goes on to quote the poet George Herbert, who wrote: “
“Let they mind’s sweetness have its operation. /Upon thy person, clothes and habitation.”
I’d like to spend just a moment on this sermon, since I admit I find it a bit…well…amusing.
What John Wesley was espousing against was not people who show up for worship without taking a shower, or who wear the clothes they wore yesterday today. His primary concern was just the opposite. It was about people wearing “gold or pearls or costly array”. He said it breeds vanity, anger, lust, and is directly opposite to being adorned with good works.
So, let me summarize, John didn’t want you to where excessive jewel or expensive clothes to church or anywhere else, but he sure wanted you to be clean.
Having said all of that, at least John was clear that his proclamation that “cleanliness is next to godliness is found NOWHERE….WHERE? NO WHERE in scripture. Instead he tells us that the Bible doesn’t forbid it.
The Hebrew scriptures do contain several laws that had to do with civil issues like waste disposal, quarantining the sick and contagious, and proper washings. The Israelites were certainly concerned about the concepts of “clean” and “unclean” eating and behavior because a major portion of the Mosaic Law outlines the principles of each. Among the unclean things that God’s people were to avoid are dead bodies and carcasses, eating certain animals, leprosy, and bodily discharges. Elaborate washing rituals were prescribed to render an unclean person clean again so that he could re-enter the community and the sanctuary of the Lord (Numbers 19).
However, God is more concerned with cleanliness on the inside than the outside. Jesus said that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt 15:11). It’s good to be clean, but it’s essential that we are clean inside (2 Cor 5:21). what comes out of our mouth reveals what’s in the heart, and God knows the heart.
So, we can say that, biblically speaking, outward cleanliness has no connection to godliness. The Greek word translated “godliness” in the New Testament means “holiness,” without which no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14). But it is a holiness not obtained by keeping the Law, which is impossible (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16), but by being transformed into completely new creations in Christ by the power of God (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:24)
Jesus made it clear that men are defiled by what is in their hearts and that godliness is not attained by what we eat or don’t eat or by how often we wash our hands (Matthew 7:18-23). The Pharisees who questioned Jesus on His teachings failed to understand that truth. They adhered to the Old Testament requirements and ceremonies as they waited for their Messiah. But when He came and stood before them, they were blinded by their own efforts to obtain righteousness by the Law, and they denied Him. He told them, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). For all their attention to the details of clean and unclean, they remained far from godliness.
So, friends, what are the things that cause us to be unclean in the eyes of God?
My sense, and for once I find myself at odds with John Wesley, is that God cares little if you where your diamonds to church, or your Louboutin shoes, any more than God cares if you wore your Red Sox or Lake Monsters Jersey. If you haven’t washed in a week, it’s fine with God, although it may not be fine with your neighbor. I honestly think that God is happier to know you are here, no matter how you are dressed or when you last had a shower.
My apologies to those who have used this saying to implore children to take a bath or spouses to wipe their feet. While cleanliness is not next to Godliness, it is a sign of respect and appreciation for the rest of a household who wishes to live in a clean home.
What does a clean heart look like? I guess I could refer to Marie Kondo, the author of the famously popular book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which, by the way I loved! However, I turn instead to the much deeper and more complex world of Martin Buber, who has his own Magic of Tidying up the heart. In Buber’s construct, we view the world in two ways, either I and It or I and Thou. If we view the world as I and It, we live in a disposable world where relationships, living beings, even the trees and plants around us are to be used or thrown away. However, I and thou relationships see the glimmer of the divine in every interaction, including the spouse who tracks mud into the house, the dog whose hair covers every surface, or the maple whose leaves and sticks litter the yard. All are divine.
Moreover, because I can see the world in this way, I also see the divine in myself, as I bear Christ to the world.
You see, one thing that is in the Bible is the Christ who interacts with tax collectors, Pharisees, bleeding women, blind men, cripples and others we might think of as unclean. Jesus sees them as who they are in Christ. Immigrants at the border, patients unable to pay for health care, and those shot by random bullets in a shopping mall or in their own homes. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves, though it is a bit harder to swallow for some of us. Jesus sees the divine in the armed border patrol, the greedy insurance executives and the mass shooter. Yes, the spark of the divine must be there, somewhere, struggling to be seen.
Outer cleanliness is not next to holiness or godliness. However, a clean heart is. A heart that reflects the love of Christ. May it be so with us. AMEN.