If you don’t know what carbolic soap is then you must have gone to school after the 1970s in Britain. It has an unusual and unique smell and was used a lot in the hospitals because it was seen as powerfully hygienic.
In the 1970s teachers were still permitted to use corporal punishment. I was used to the cane but not the carbolic soap which was put into the mouth of any child because they had been heard to use bad language.
The reason why I think of carbolic soap this morning is because of our next beatitude:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5 v 8)
It is so difficult reading the beatitudes without thinking I am failing in probably all of them.
Can I see them differently?
There were at the time four major groups in the Jewish religion, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots, all of whom presented a different viewpoint to the Jewish people. The Pharisees demanded strict observance of the Mosaic Law expressed in the Torah, but also accepted the oral tradition of Jewish customs and rituals. The Sadducees were mainly from the priestly families and strictly accepted the Law of Moses but rejected oral tradition. The monastic Essenes awaited a Messiah that would establish a Kingdom on earth and free the Israelites from oppression. The Zealots were a militant Jewish group who wanted freedom for their homeland, and were centred in Galilee; one of the Twelve Apostles was Simon the Zealot.
Jesus is bringing a new teaching of love. Not a teaching of force. The Pharisees were basing their approach to God, were basing their acceptance with a holy righteous God, Jehovah, upon their external righteousness. So much so, that they had 600 plus rules and regulations added to the word of God by which they could come closer to God Himself.
Describe purity and we have to get out our lists of do’s and don’ts. These lists change over time.
When we closely study the life of Jesus one fact is consistently surprising. The group that made Jesus the angriest was the group that, externally at least, he most resembled. Scholars agree that Jesus closely matched the profile of a Pharisee. He obeyed the Torah, or Mosaic law, quoted leading Pharisees and often took their side in public arguments. Yet Jesus singled out the Pharisees for his strongest attacks. ‘Snakes!’ he called them. ‘Brood of vipers’, fools, hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs.
What provoked these outbursts from Jesus? The Pharisees had much in common with those whom the press might call Bible-belt fundamentalists today. They devoted their lives to following God, gave away an exact tithe, obeyed every minute law in the Torah and sent out missionaries to gain new converts. Against the relativists and secularists of the first century they held firm to traditional values. Rarely involved in sexual sin or violent crime, the Pharisees made model citizens.
Jesus was fiercely against legalism.
And although legalism takes different forms now then if did years ago I don’t think it has gone away, and its dangers represent a great threat even today.
Things that have been considered sinful in the past and deemed unacceptable by the church, is common practice now, although the manifestations have changed the spirit of legalism has not. We are more likely to encounter today the legalism of thought. There are authors today who dare to question doctrine on issues of abortion for example and face the same judgement that a ‘social drinking’ Christian faced in the fundamentalist subculture. Tony Campolo has received so much abuse from Christians in his pleas to show more compassion to homosexuality. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the bible ‘the message’ made him a target of a self-proclaimed cult-watcher as he was ‘tampering with the word of God’. Richard Foster dared to use words like meditation in his writings on spiritual discipline and people have put him under suspicion of a new ager. Chuck Colson received abusive emails from Christians when he accepted the Templeton Prize for Progress of Religion, which sometimes goes to people who are not Christians, and when he signed a statement of mutual cooperation with Catholics he received even more abusive. What is going on?
Legalism is a subtle danger because no one thinks of himself as a legalist. My own rules seem necessary; other people’s rules seem excessively strict.
Jesus condemns the legalists’ emphasis on externals. And in the Sermon on the Mount in this passage of the Beatitudes Jesus shows a different expression of love for God. Not one that is just about the externals but one that is about our internal state.
Blessed are those who are pure in heart, those who are honest. Those who have pure motives and are not doing things just to be seen by others and praised by others.
In other words the proof of spiritual maturity is not how ‘pure’ you are but awareness of your impurity, which is what the Beatitudes try to demonstrate. And it is that very awareness which opens up the door to grace.
Why would Jesus tell us to do something we cannot do?
We cannot do this beatitude if it is a command. We are hypocrites. We may look good but we aren’t.
But here is the invitation to those of us who want to be good people, who want people to think we are good and who also want others to be good too. To those of us who have spent our whole life trying harder, resolutions are made every day not annually, but the more we try the more we have to try harder. Is there any hope? Yes says Jesus! The kingdom invitation is here: come on in! And we try and answer by asking what good do we have to do to accept the invitation or we puff out our chests and say God must be happy with me because of the invitation. And we fail to understand the invitation.
We fail until we see Jesus, the one who took our imperfections when he died on the cross. We fail until we see the broken and bleeding body of Christ who bore our legalistic efforts and demands and judgments on others who don’t meet our standards. We fail until we see Jesus. But when we do all our efforts fall to the ground as we rest in His purity. Our obedience is not work to prove but love and joy. We live life knowing He makes all things beautiful, even impure hearts pure. His blood washes cleaner than carbolic soap!