Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
I once had a bike stolen from a church. On Sunday morning. During worship. I was working at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, WA as their summer intern. They had set me up in a duplex for the summer that was about a mile away from the church, so I rode my bike in to work every day. One Sunday morning, I walked out the door without the lock. I had already locked the door behind me and didn’t want to go back as I was already pressed for time. “It’ll be fine for one day,” I thought. So I rode to church and parked it out of the way, inside the church building where nobody would find it.
Well, somebody found it. The pastors’ younger son reported that a young man had come in asking to use the phone, so, being the nice and helpful kid that he was, he had showed him where it was. Unfortunately for me, they happened to walk past my unlocked, hidden bicycle to get there. So, the young man stole my bicycle out of a church full of worshipers.
I reiterate: there is a special place in Hell for bicycle thieves.
As I lay in my house that afternoon, fuming over my stolen property, I reflected on this fact: this terrible person, in committing this heinous act of theft, in depriving me of my valued property, believed that he was doing something selfless. He actually thought he was doing something kind for another person; he saw himself as a good person for doing what he did.
We like to think that there are two kinds of people in the world: good people and bad people. To put it another way, there are those people who listen to their consciences and those who ignore them. Some of us think that, with only a few exceptions, most people are basically good at their core; others believe that good people are rare and most are scoundrels. The truth is that there are no good people.
Jesus says today, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile… for it is from within, from the human heart that evil intentions come… and they defile a person.” He is talking about more than food. We have seen that even people brought up with every privilege, every advantage can still become selfish, cruel and hateful. Rules and laws cannot prevent people from doing evil things, and even if they could, they cannot prevent people from harboring evil within our hearts.
In fact, there is not even a universal consensus among humankind about what is evil. Some will claim that there is, that there are certain things that are consistently outlawed across cultures; murder, for example. And yet, even murder isn’t consistently illegal. Nearly every culture in the world makes allowances for legal homicide: honor killings, euthanasia, stand-your-ground self-defense, even capital punishment. The simple fact is that we as humans are incapable of agreeing upon what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. Even our best intentions and noblest desires spring from tainted hearts that are corrupted by sin.
In Genesis, scripture records that human beings were created in God’s image, and that when surveying all that God had created—including humankind—God saw that it was all good. And yet, the sin that lurks in human hearts twists and warps this goodness until it no longer points us to God, until it is unrecognizable. We humans wouldn’t know God’s righteousness if it fell out of the sky and landed on us. Which it did.
When the very Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us, he came to his own and his own did not know him. (John 1:10, 11) As popular as his message was among people, many followed only because they expected him to give them bread or overthrow the Romans. When we killed him, we congratulated ourselves for having done the right thing, for having saved ourselves from this threatening, dangerous man. It’s not that the Jews or the Jewish leaders or even the Romans were bad people. Had Jesus come at any other time and place, the same thing would have happened to him because the goodness of God that he embodies is alien to us. We in our selfishness, our fear, our anger, believed that what we were doing was not only right, but godly. Just like the bike thief, we our consciences point us away from God. There is no such thing as a good person. Perhaps there is a special place in Hell for each of us.
And yet, Jesus’ message also contains our word of hope. There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but there is something outside of us that by going in can save us, can transform our hard and sinful hearts into loving hearts once again inclined to God and to God’s goodness. Martin Luther writes about the “happy exchange” in which Jesus takes our sin and death upon himself and in turn gives us his own outside goodness—his “alien righteousness,” as Luther calls it. We are incapable of goodness ourselves, and so Jesus gives us his.
Without God, even our best efforts more often than not lead to evil. As Paul writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death!?!” When we receive this gift of God’s outside goodness, unlike other food it doesn’t pass through our stomachs and into the sewer, it enters into our hearts; it changes us, rescues us from our “bodies of death” and gives us new life.
Any good that we might do is only possible because of the goodness of God—the “alien righteousness”—that Christ has given us. We tend to get things backwards: like the scribes and Pharisees, we often fall into the trap of believing that it is our good actions that make us good people, and it is our goodness that is acceptable to God. In reality, it is God’s love and God’s grace alone that make us capable of good deeds; there is no such thing as a good person, only a person in whom God is at work. This is why Jesus says, “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
If there is no such thing as a good person, it also means there is no such thing as a bad person. Just as we cannot boast or rejoice in our own virtue, neither can we hate or condemn others for their supposed vice, for we are all the same. Ghandi and Hitler, Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray; each of us has the same capacity for evil, each of us is equally in need of God’s grace and God’s forgiveness. It is only by the grace of God and with the guidance of God that some of us are able to do works that are beneficial to the world.
In order to remember that we are all in equal need of God’s grace, we gather each week with a confession of our sinfulness, and together before God we receive words of forgiveness and love. We come together to this table to stand beside one another and eat of the food which goes into our hearts to sanctify us for God’s service, seeing for ourselves that the goodness of God is not something that comes from within us, but outside of us, from the Giver of All Good Gifts.
James reminds us “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, from the Father of lights… In fulfillment of God’s own purpose, God gave birth to us by the word of truth so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God’s gift to us is to rescue us from our body of death, that special place in Hell to which the road has been paved with our own good intentions. Because our goodness can only condemn us, God’s gift to us is a goodness that is not our own but comes from Christ, a righteousness that is alien to us. This gift of God is not to glorify us, so that we may take pride in our goodness or lord it over others; this gift of God is the food for all the world, so that all may eat of it and live.
Just as Jesus was broken for us, so we are broken for the world. As he was given that we may feast on his flesh, God also gives us so that the world may feast on us, and in this eating, be saved. At this table we become God’s sacrament of grace to the world, the bearers of Christ’s alien righteousness, so that through us God may bring others to new life, just as God has done for us.
Our call is not to hate, to fear, to harbor resentment or anger against those “bad people” we call enemies, but to live according to the Word of Truth implanted within us, to follow the example of Christ who loved his enemies even to the point of giving his life for them, for us.
There are no good people. There are no bad people. There are only people: all of us trying to do the best we can, and all of us in equal need of God’s outside goodness. Saints are not saints because of how great or talented they are, but because God is at work in them. Villains are not villains because of the depth of their depravity, but because they are captive to same sinfulness that infects all of us, the sinfulness we all share. By God’s grace, Jesus has overcome our captivity that sinfulness with his own righteousness. Thanks be to God for that outside goodness that saves us and through which God gives new life to a broken world.