Text – Mark 7:1-23.
How far would you be willing to travel in order to meet, or see, or hear, someone you really admired? Your favourite musician, perhaps, or a dear friend.
How far would you be willing to travel to meet Jesus in the flesh? Without the benefit of modern transport? And what would you say to him when you met him?
Well, here are some people who came all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to see Jesus. What was it, do you suppose, that had brought them so far? Was it, I wonder, that they were impressed by Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God? Was it that they were fascinated by his striking parables? Or was it those remarkable healings? Had they heard about the way Jesus had calmed the storm, and how he had fed thousands of people from just 5 loaves and 2 fishes?
Why had these Pharisees and teachers of the law come, and what would they ask him when they got there? Well, anyway, they gather round Jesus and his disciples. They watch and they listen. And, finally, they have a question for Jesus. “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before meals?” 100 miles for that!
This is not a question about food hygiene, but about religious ritual. The Old Testament law had specified a hand-washing routine for priests in the Temple. But the scribes thought that it ought to apply to all Jews. And the Pharisees agreed. So the question was a test. It was an exercise in patrolling the boundaries. Were Jesus and his disciples keeping to the rules. Were they really kosher? Were they ‘in’ or were they ‘out’?
Jesus’ answer – surprisingly, shockingly, forthright, v6. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites.” Ah yes, this question betrayed their real motive and attitude. Zealous, influential, and highly religious they may have been. But their religion was a sham, a pretence.
No less than three key questions are raised in this passage that I believe are as relevant now as they were then. Worship – our whole approach to serving and honouring God – will it be with lips, or with hearts? Authority – our ultimate source of guidance and instruction — will it be human tradition, or God’s word? Morality – behaviour that is good and right – will it be merely outward, or genuinely inward?
1. Worship – lips or hearts?
The actual quotation from the prophet Isaiah 29 that Jesus hurls at the scribes and Pharisees is this: “’These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus saw in the attitude and behaviour of these scribes and Pharisees a fulfilment of this prophecy. God’s prophets had continually protested against the evil of hypocrisy, of lip-service towards God, and many of them were persecuted and even killed for their pains. And it was happening all over again.
Do we worship God with our lips or with our hearts?
This is not to say that words don’t matter. Some of us today may need to be reminded that God rather likes words – he caused ¾ million of them to come down to us in the form of the Bible. But, precisely because words are so important, we need to be careful with them. We will have to give an account on the day of judgement of every careless word we have spoken (Mt 12:36). So it is vital that the words we speak with our lips match the thoughts and attitudes we cherish in our hearts.
We might attend church on a regular basis. We might sing the hymns and songs lustily. We might say a hearty ‘amen’ as we receive the bread and the wine. We might read a lesson, lead prayers. We might contribute to the discussion in a home group, teach in Sunday School, preach sermons in church. But none of this is a sure sign that our hearts are right before God.
1 Sam 16:7 Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.
Prov 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
2. Authority – human tradition, or God’s word?
These scribes and Pharisees were not only putting lips before heart in the matter of worship, they were also putting man’s word before God’s in the matter of authority.
Mk 7:7 The quote from Isaiah continues: ‘Their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
Mk 7:8 “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Mk 7:9 “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
Jesus gives a striking example v10ff. A person could dedicate a sum of money to the service of God in the Temple. They could designate it as ‘Corban’, a gift to God. They didn’t have to give the money straight away. They could hang on to it. Indeed, they could use for themselves in the mean time. Now supposing that person’s parents became destitute, and urgently need some of that money. I’d love to give it to you. But you can’t have it. It’s promised to God. Sorry, but a promise is a promise. And if you went for advice to a scribe, he would tell you the same thing. The human tradition of Corban has been allowed to trump the divine command to honour your father and your mother.
The story is told of the day when a young baby was Christened. After the service, relatives and friends gathered back at the family home for a celebration. As they arrived, they took off their coats in these were taken upstairs and dumped in a pile on one of the beds. The guests chatted, had something to eat and drink and they generally enjoyed themselves. Then someone said, “Where’s baby?” There was a panic as everyone realised they forgotten all about why they were all there in the first place. The house was searched from top to bottom. Finally, baby was found, half-suffocating under that pile of coats.
They had started off with the word of God. But they had stretched it, and complicated it and added to it so much that God’s word itself had been suffocated under all this tradition.
Now, traditions are not always bad things. Life would be pretty chaotic if we didn’t have some customary ways of doing things. Times of church services, for example. But we must be very careful that they do not take the place of the word of God, that they do not end up ‘nullifying’ the word of God.
Traditions can sometimes make good servants, but they always make terrible masters.
A generation ago, many Christian were still concerned to have rules about personal behaviours such as drinking, smoking, dancing. Even though no such rules can be found in Scripture. Today, we continue to have different opinions about church practices such as liturgy, patterns of ministry, choice of music. It’s good to have a view about such things. But we have no right to impose our personal views on others as if these had the status of holy Scripture.
To Jesus Scripture was always the final court of appeal. ‘Have you not read?’ he would ask. ‘What is written in the law?’ The teaching of Scripture must always be the final arbiter in any debate or dispute.
3. Morality – outward or inward?
Worship: is it to be with lips, or hearts? Authority: is our ultimate appeal to human tradition, or to God’s word? Now Jesus turns to the question of morality: is it to be outward, or inward? This, if you recall, was where it all began, with that question from the Pharisees and scribes. You know, the question about ritual hand-washing.
Jesus turns to the watching crowd and addresses them.
Mark 7:15 Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’”
Finding this to be a bit of a riddle, the disciples ask for an explanation. And they get one.
In God’s eyes, says Jesus, impurity does not come from what goes down into the stomach, but what comes up out of the heart.
He gives an alarming list of vices, v21f, and asserts that the root problem of sin is not what happens to us from the outside, but what we are on the inside. The stream is not polluted by something throwing rubbish into it somewhere downstream. It is polluted at its source.
This is not comfortable teaching, and it never has been. But it is actually very good news. It is good news because it makes us to face up to reality. It is good news because it means that we longer have to worry about trying to be good enough for God. It is good news because it puts us in precisely the right place to receive what God so freely offers us in Jesus Christ.
Right at the outset of his ministry, Jesus announced why he had come.
Mark 2:17 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus has come to renew our hearts. And out of those renewed hearts will flow new attitudes and motives that will overflow in acts of love and mercy. These then are not futile attempts to patch over a bad conscience like a veneer, absurd attempts to commend ourselves to a holy God. They are, rather, expressions of gratitude, the overflow of love, the beat of a heart that is one with the heartbeat of God himself.
So it is not ‘try harder’, but ‘trust him’. It is not turning over a new leaf, but receiving a new life. It is not ‘do’, but ‘done’.
Acknowledgement: the structure of this sermon was suggested a sermon by John Stott on the same passage.