This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me

Proper 17

John Smyth was a leading UK Barrister and a christian; a moral crusader who fought legal battles for “Christian values” in the courts; well known and highly respected. Between 1974 and 1981, he was the chairman of the Iwerne Trust which recruited young men who were the brightest and best from the most elite schools in the country. The trust ran summer camps, and it was at these camps that, in private, Smyth subjected young men to merciless beatings. There were many victims, including prominent members of the Church of England today. In the media, Smyth has been referred to as the ‘Jimmy Saville’ of the Church of England. 

This is an extreme example of what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel reading, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: this people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me: Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.

Moral crusades are dangerous things, for whatever set of values they seek to promote. They can put the crusaders on a pedestal, in a place where they become self-appointed saints, beyond reproach – and it is here in human weakness that evil can surface and harm done. 

This is a challenge in times where Christian values are perceived to be under threat. How can such values be championed properly without disasters happening? It’s interesting that Jesus names what he calls ‘evil intentions’, so it’s not that he is dispensing with moral values. But he challenges his hearers to pay attention to themselves as if asking, ‘while you point your finger at others, what are your own sins?’ This applies to all of us: before we judge others, we must examine our own soul.

I think that we need to look with open eyes, and not fall into uncritical adulation of powerful people. We need to be sceptics of the high and mighty, especially those who are on moral crusades – we need to avoid being caught up in the sort of moral fervour which sets some people above others.

So far as organisations are concerned, there must be checks and balances so those with power are monitored with care. Perhaps above all, organisations must put aside their own desire for power, their need to seem beyond reproach, and also to be transparent in their dealings with issues of safeguarding and care for those who may be vulnerable.