The Human Heart (A Sin Factory)

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mark 7 The Human Heart: A Sin Factory

The River
I want you to picture a village. It is a small village set inside a hilly river valley.

But it is not quaint and picturesque. In fact, it is a sad and dismal place. The buildings in the village are dilapidated and broken down. The streets are dirty. The people are sickly.

The river that runs through the village is foul and stagnant. There are no pretty trees along the river bank, only noxious and persistent weeds. There is no wildlife. No one can remember the last time someone caught a fish in the river, and even if you did manage to catch one, there is no way you would want to eat it.

The rocks along the river’s edge are all coated in thick, black slime. This is the source of an awful smell, and it makes the water appear to ooze more than it flows. It contaminates everything it comes in contact with.

The villagers realize that the sad state of the river contributes to the poor condition of their village, and so they are working hard to clean their river up. Every day groups of villagers go down to the river bank with bottles of bleach and big sponges. They scrub the rocks and get rid of the sludge. Others, armed with machetes, hack away at the weeds. They work hard to improve the appearance of the river, but things in the village do not get better.

Eventually, news of the sad state of the village reaches the outside world. Concerned governmental agencies and charities descend on the place. Money is poured in to improve the school systems, volunteer groups work to fix up the houses, free medical clinics are set up to treat the peoples’ many illnesses. But still, life in the village does not improve.

Then, one day a man walks into the village and points out the obvious. Just upstream from the village, at the start of the river, is a factory. Its windows are broken and boarded up. Its walls are cracked and crumbling. But it is still producing. Its black, sooty smokestacks are belching out noxious fumes. And at its base, running right into the source of the river, are a couple of tiles pumping out toxic black sludge. It's foul, and it's deadly. And from that point forward, all of the water that flows down our river is contaminated by it.

“Unless you do something about that factory,” the stranger says, “nothing in this village is ever going to change.”

A Metaphor for the Human Condition
That village and its dirty, polluted river can serve as a sort of metaphor for the human condition. We all live in the village, and we know something is wrong. Our world is imperfect. There’s just too much sadness, hurt, meanness and tragedy. To sum things up in a word, there is evil.

And we want to improve conditions in our village, so we work hard. We try to address the symptoms of evil and we try to clean them up. We try big government programs and generous charities to change the conditions people live in—and yet, no matter what we try, things don’t seem to improve. We still have war. We still have poverty. We still have suffering.

The problem is that we do not address the source of evil. We work to fix the manifestations of it, but little is done about the fundamental problem.

This is not a new concern in human history. People have been asking how to fix it for as long as there have been people. It was a question they asked in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ culture, the word for this evil, this basic human problem, is “sin.” Sin is what is wrong with the world. It is because of sin that we have suffering and tragedy and meanness and hurt.
And the people of Jesus’ day were very good at sin management. They had all sorts of rules and behaviors that helped to disguise the presence of sin. They were good at going down to the river bank and scrubbing the rocks, if you will.

But it took Jesus to come along and point out the obvious. Jesus had to point out that only treating the symptoms would never fix the fundamental problem. Jesus pointed out that evil is not something that happens to us, but something that comes out of us. Jesus pointed His finger directly at the human heart. “The human heart is a sin factory,” Jesus said: “and unless you do something about it, nothing is ever going to change.”

Washing Hands and Cups
The passage that Mackenzie just read is an extended discussion about the fundamental problem in our world and how to fix it. It’s a discussion that comes disguised as a debate about hand-washing, but make no mistake: it’s about what’s wrong and finding the best solution.

You see, everybody in our story today agrees that something is wrong. The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, Jesus’ disciples, Jesus Himself—they all agree that evil exists in the world. But where they part company is in proposing solutions to the problem.

Let’s start with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Their first solution is to try harder. Sin can be managed, they believe, if we just follow the right rules. Look with me at Mark 7:1-5:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

The discussion begins as a debate about hand washing. The Pharisees washed their hands before eating. Jesus’ disciples did not.

Now, we need to understand that this had nothing to do with personal hygiene. The Pharisees were upset because the disciples did not undergo a ceremonial washing like they did. In the Old Testament, one of the commands given to priests is that they must ritually clean themselves before serving in the temple. Over time, Jews who were zealous to make the law more concrete and applicable to everyday life had taken the purity laws for the priests and begun to apply them to themselves. Eventually it was expected that every devout Jew would strictly adhere to rules that were originally intended only for the priests.

Thus, before every meal they would ceremonially wash by cupping a little water in their hands and letting it trickle out from between their fingers. The point being not so much to wash up for dinner as to show their religious commitment by strictly adhering to religious tradition. They had similar rituals, Mark tells us in verse 4, for cleansing their cups, pitchers and kettles. Those who did not follow these practices were thought to be defiled, unclean, sinful.

It is bigger than just hand washing. Tim Keller writes: “According to the cleanliness laws, if you touched a dead animal or human being, if you had an infectious skin disease like boils or rashes or sores, if you came into contact with mildew (on your clothes, articles in your home, or your house itself), if you had any kind of bodily discharge, or if you ate meat from an animal designated as unclean, you were considered ritually impure, defiled, stained, unclean. That meant you couldn’t enter the temple--and therefore you couldn’t worship God with the community.” (Tim Keller, King’s Cross, p. 71)

All of this is based on a supposition that evil is something external to us. That sin is basically about what we do. And so the religious people of Jesus’ day felt that if they just tried hard enough, if they were just scrupulous enough to avoid touching the wrong things, and if they were obsessive enough about following the rules, they could manage sin and remain clean.

And really, this is the answer of religion. This is the religious solution to our fundamental problem: follow the rules, stay away from dirty movies and worldly activities and bad people, be in church on Sunday, pray five times a day, read your Bible and memorize scripture verses, dress a certain way, say the right kind of words and don’t say the bad ones, and so on. If we don’t do bad things, then we’re not bad, right? So try harder to do all the things that make you appear to be clean.

But Jesus calls foul. Jesus says that just following the rules does not address the fundamental problem. It’s like scrubbing the rocks on the riverbank. Verses 6-8:

6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

It’s all superficial, Jesus says. These Pharisees can scrub their hands and wash all their pots and pans and wear their robes and tassels and spend all day long talking about God and the law and argue fine points of theology, and still be a million miles away from God. It’s possible to do all the right rituals, and still have hearts that are hard towards God.

And the same goes for us. It’s possible to follow all the rules, to be here every Sunday and to sing all the songs with gusto and raise your hands in worship and know where every book of the Bible is located and know all the big fancy words like propitiation and parousia and still be far from God. We can do all these things to try to manage sin, without doing anything about the source of our sin. And that, Jesus says, makes all our worship in vain.

Sometimes religion gets in the way of a relationship with God. Because we think it is our effort, our rule-keeping, our “good” deeds that make us acceptable to God; we fail to see our deeper need.

Your Own Traditions
So, that’s the first solution to the problem of sin and evil. Try harder. Fix ourselves by treating the symptoms. And the second solution is similar, in that it continues to look for external fixes to an internal problem. The second solution is about fixing environmental factors. The second solution believes that the problem of evil and sin can be fixed if we just correct the conditions in which we live.

This is the solution of politics. This is the campaign promise that says everything can be made better if we just address the matter of…”fill in the blank.” Maybe it’s the idea that the world will be a better place if we just give everybody access to quality education. Or if we fix the income gap. Or if we keep the undesirables out. Or if we lower taxes. Or whatever.

In my analogy at the beginning, this is the solution of having government and charity step in to fix the schools and houses and healthcare. It’s the notion that everything can be fixed by creating the right conditions.

In our scripture passage, this is captured in the phrase “human traditions.” Verse 9, Jesus says:

9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”

If we just have the right people in charge, if we just set up the right rules, if we just create the right conditions, then the problems of sin and evil will go away. But Jesus exposes the lie in that thinking. Verses 10-13:

10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

The problem, Jesus says, is that people game the system. No matter how well the system is set up to make sure everyone is treated fairly, there are always going to be people who find ways to get around it for their own advantage.

The specific example Jesus uses is the tradition of declaring certain things to be “Corban”, which means devoted to God. This seems like a sign of profound devotion to God. If you declared something to be Corban, that meant no one else could use it. It was for God and for God alone. It seems very pious.

But in practice, this notion of Corban became a way of getting around one’s obligation to care for elderly parents. “Mon and Dad need help? Oh, I would help them, but I’m afraid I’ve devoted all my money to God.”

And that, Jesus is saying, is how it will always be if we think we can fix the world by applying the right conditions, without addressing the fundamental problem.

Take socialism, for example. On paper, socialism should be the perfect human economic system. We all pool all our resources together. Everybody works hard for the common good. And then everybody uses what we have on an equal basis. That way, nobody goes without. And nobody is treated special.

But as the lessons of history teach us, socialism simply does not work. People are always gaming the system, especially those in charge. Resources are not distributed equally, people have no motivation to work, and every attempt to create a socialist society has resulted in disaster. As C.M. Joad, a socialist philosopher and former atheist said shortly after WWII: “It was because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the Left were always being disappointed; disappointed by the refusal of people to be reasonable…by the behavior of nations and politicians…above all, by the recurrent fact of war.”

As an English politician said about the Holocaust: “The jargon of the philosophy of progress taught us to think that the savage and primitive state of man is behind us…But barbarism is not behind us, it is [within] us.” (both quotes in Keller, p. 77)

**From Within **
External solutions to an internal problem will not work. We are not going to fix the evil in the world by scrubbing the rocks or fixing the schools. We have to go to the source of the problem. We have to shut down the factory at the beginning of the river.

This is solution #3. This is what Jesus wants us to see. Verses 14-19:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

The solutions of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law don’t work because they have made a fundamental error. They believe that sin is something that happens to us, that it is an external problem. They think it can be fixed by controlling what we touch or what we eat.

But it isn’t what we eat that makes us sinful. Food literally passes from our mouth to our stomach and then out again, it doesn’t determine if we are good or bad.

And, by the way, as Mark notes in the parenthetical comment at the end of verse 19, this is why Christians do not follow the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Jesus declared all foods clean. In essence, Jesus is saying that the purpose of those laws have run their course. They existed to point the people to their need for cleansing, but now that Jesus has come their purpose is gone.

So it is not what goes into us that makes us good or bad. It is what comes out of us. Jesus says more in verses 20-23:

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Here’s the heart of the problem: the human heart.

Now, when the Scriptures use the word "heart" it is usually not in the same sense that a medical doctor would use it. For the ancient Jews, the heart represented the innermost center of our lives, the essential person that we are. In the Bible, the heart is the inner fountain from which all the streams of our life flow forth. It's the inner center in us--the one that no one else but God can see--which really defines who we are.

And Jesus says that the heart is the source of the evil in the world. That the things that make our world such a broken down and dirty place ultimately spring from the human heart.

Tim Keller writes:
No matter what we do, or how hard we try, external solutions don’t deal with the soul. Outside-in will never work, because most of what causes our problems works from the inside out…As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” Time after time the Bible shows us that the world is not divided into the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” There may be “better guys” and “worse guys”, but no clear division can be made between the good and the bad. Given our sin and self-centeredness, we all have a part in what makes the world a miserable, broken place. (p. 76)

If we go back to our metaphor from the beginning: the village of our world is sad and miserable because the river is dirty and polluted. And if you want to know the source of that pollution, you need look no farther than the sin factory at the water’s beginning. And that sin factory, Jesus says, is every human heart.

We are what is wrong with our world. We are what is wrong with us.

The Cure
That, then, is Jesus’ diagnosis of the problem. That is the explanation for why religious and political solutions do not fix our world. This is not a problem that can be fixed by trying harder or by changing the environment.

What Jesus saw so clearly, and what we need to see as well, is that if anything is going to be done about sin, then it needs to occur at the deepest level--right here, in the human heart. It doesn't do any good to go up and down the river cleaning the banks until somebody goes to shut down the factory.

In the same way, to really clean up our lives, what we need is a radical surgery. We need a heart transplant. We need someone to take this natural bent to do evil and be at enmity with God and replace it with a heart that loves God and the things He loves. That's the only way we can be clean.

Mark 7 does not tell us how that radical surgery is possible, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t.

If we skip ahead in the story of Mark, if we jump to the last week of Jesus’ life and the night before He went to the cross, we can read about the Last Supper.

Last week we celebrated communion. Well, in Mark 14 we get the story of Jesus instituting this meal. And it says, in Mark 14:22-24:

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
24 “This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them.

Notice the word I put in brackets. The word “new”. That word is included in the margin notes of the New International Version of the Bible. I believe it is an important pointer back to the Old Testament.

The Old Testament talks about covenants a lot, and in one place in particular it talks about a "new covenant."

It’s Jeremiah 31:31. There, speaking through His prophet, God makes a promise for the future: "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant." Did you hear that? A new covenant. It would have been hard for a Jew who knew his scriptures not to think of this passage when Jesus made His announcement about a new covenant in His blood at the Last Supper. But let's keep reading to see what God says that new covenant will be like...

31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

Do you hear that? In the new covenant, God is going to write His law on the peoples' hearts. He's going to give the heart makeover that people need. In another part of the Old Testament, in the prophet Ezekiel, God describes what He will do in this new covenant in terms of replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. That's the radical surgery we need!

And it comes in the new covenant, the covenant Jesus says was sealed with His blood when He died on the cross. The covenant that we celebrate every time we observe the Lord's Supper.
If the reason we are sinful is because at the very core of our being--in our hearts--we are prone to evil, then the solution lies in having the very core of our being changed. The solution is for God to come and write His law on our hearts. For Him to take our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. And that is precisely what He offers to do in His death on the cross.

The source of our wickedness lies within us, in our hearts. And the solution lies not in any ritual or rule or behavior change, but in the offer of faith in what Jesus did on the cross. And so, I invite you now, come to Jesus for some radical heart surgery.