Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

Russell Redman

(Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29)

Psalm 24 asks, “Who may stand in God’s holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”


It is easy to imagine God as the all-powerful King of Glory, mighty in battle, enacting laws, and punishing anyone who violated those laws.  This was a popular image in antiquity and throughout the European Middle Ages.  Christ Pantocrator, the Ruler of All, looks sternly down from the domes of many churches in Greece. 


The earth is the Lord’s.  Everywhere we go, we walk on holy ground.  He created and owns every one of us.  Every word we say, we speak in front of God. We are warned that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.  Only those may enter God’s holy place who have clean hands and a pure heart.


Do any of us measure up?  Can any of us claim that our hands are clean and our hearts are pure? 


Scary, hey?  Do not forget the image of Christ Pantocrator but relax.  Breathe deeply.  God is not as scary as that.


The Hebrew word that we translate into English as “fear” has several other meanings that include “honour”, “respect”, and “awe”.  Only those who consider themselves to be God’s enemies need to fear him as a dangerous warlord or a harsh and demanding judge.  Jesus himself chose other images. 


The Lord’s Prayer in English starts with “Our Father”, but Jesus started that prayer with “Abba”, the word little children in his day used to address their daddies.  The learned scholars who translated the bible into English felt that “Daddy” would not be respectful, so they chose the more formal Father.  But Jesus wanted that close familiarity, insisting that we were children of God, not slaves, not hired hands, and not servants.  We are family.


Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd.  He chose the image of a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings.    Like the hen, God loves us and wants to protect us, even when we want to run around and get into trouble.  God is ready and willing to forgive us and rejoices when we turn with contrite hearts to ask for His help.


The reading from Ephesians shows us a God bursting with gifts of grace, redemption, and forgiveness.  Paul writes that God has prepared an inheritance destined for us from before the creation of the world.  He promises that we will be holy and blameless before God in love. 


God is eager to forgive our sins if only we allow Him to clean out the clutter in our lives.  It is not quite as easy as Paul suggests: drawing closer to God is the process we call repentance.  That requires God’s grace; we cannot do it by ourselves. 


It is terrifying to stand before the great Judge.  Can we trust God to preserve what is good and discard only the junk?  Will we face a relentless condemnation of our many faults?  Somewhat surprisingly, the evidence from the passage in Mark is that Christ Pantocrator, who knows every one of our sins, is strong enough to pass them in peace.


Herod Antipas was a man born to privilege and power.  He inherited his wealth and the domain he ruled from his father, Herod the Great.  He was a wily politician in the dangerous world of Roman imperial politics.  He retained his throne even when his brother Herod Archelaus was deposed and exiled.


It is amazing how often we are proud of things that should cause us shame and ashamed of things that should make us proud.  Herod Antipas illustrates this defect in our nature.  He and Herodias fell in love, even though Herodias was already the wife of his half-brother Phillip.  Herod divorced his own wife and forced Phillip to divorce Herodias so that they could marry.  Jewish law forbade a man to marry his brother’s wife while the brother was still alive.  Their adulterous marriage earned them the public censure of John the Baptist.  Herod was proud of keeping his promises, proud of his wealthy and powerful friends, but was shamed by public criticism, especially when it was true. 


At the insistence of Herodias, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned.  This was a shameful act since Herod admired John and spoke with him regularly in prison.  He should have been proud to have John as a friend and advisor.  Instead, he cared more about his reputation among his family and drinking buddies.  To avoid the embarrassment of breaking a drunken promise to his daughter, which would lead to an argument with his wife, he ordered the murder of an innocent man who even he recognized was a prophet of God. 


Herod would have known that Jesus was a kinsman of John and almost the same age.  The two men had worked together in service to God.  Herod was afraid that Jesus would be angered by John’s murder and would renew the condemnation.  He listened with concern to reports of the wonders Jesus performed and the growing numbers of his followers.


If any man deserved a public scolding, it was Herod Antipas, but scripture assures us that Jesus came to save us, not to condemn us.  Jesus never did criticize Herod in public, not even after the mockery of a trial before his crucifixion when Herod tried to make him perform feats of magic.  Jesus had a lot to say about the leaders of Judea, both political and religious, calling them bad shepherds, thieves, and wolves.  In this way, he warned the powerful that they were under judgement, but without naming names or personally offending them.  Some listened, but most were too absorbed in their private affairs to pay much attention.


Jesus was not impressed by Herod’s wealth or power.  He was impressed by the many people he met who were desperate to learn about the love and wisdom of God.  They wanted to become children of God, even if they were puzzled by what the words meant.  He turned with compassion to those who suffered under selfish, violent, and arbitrary leaders.  He taught them, fed them, and led them away from greed and corruption.    


Our Creator knows what we have done and why we did it.  He is not impressed with our wealth and power, nor by our many sins that he can easily forgive.  He may be more impressed with our eagerness to join his family, like the congregation in Ephesus and the crowds in Galilee.  We should learn what Jesus was teaching.  We should follow his example, loving God as our Father and loving all of God’s people as our brothers and sisters.  Then he will blot out our transgressions and forget our sins.  As he washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus himself will clean our hands and purify our hearts, making us fit to enter God’s holy place.