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Empty Religion

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“Empty Religion”

Mark 7.1-23

Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." David Garland writes, "One may compare tradition to the shell of the blue crab. To live and grow it must shed its shell from time to time. Until it creates a new shell, the crab is extremely vulnerable. But if the shell becomes so strong and rigid that the crab cannot escape, that is the shell in which it dies. Losing traditions that make one feel safe and comfortable can cause great anxiety. But hanging on to traditions so that one becomes "hard-shelled" is fatal." I recently had the opportunity to watch “Fiddler on the Roof” with family over the holidays but unfortunately I declined to play another round of Settlers of Catan. I now regret the decision because it likely would have provided some great illustrations for the sermon this morning. We are dealing with yet another confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus. It seems as though the popularity of Jesus was not all that impressive to the religious leaders.

We just witnessed Jesus teaching and feeding multitudes because of his great compassion for the people. You recall that they were sheep without a shepherd. Word continued to spread quickly as reports speak of Jesus walking on water and the healing of many in Gennasaret. People had come from all over to lay the sick in the marketplaces where they touched the garment of Jesus and were healed. And the reports went even to Jerusalem, the capital. This is where we pick up our text. We are in Mark 7.1-23 this morning. Please stand as we read God’s word.

We begin by looking at the first of two points, which is Tradition Trouble. So apparently Jesus has drawn enough attention to bring the Pharisees and scribes down from Jerusalem in order to squelch his teachings and ministry. This happened before in Mark 3.22 when they accused Jesus of operating by the power of Satan. The Pharisees and scribes were working hard as influencers over the Jews and Jesus was really messing things up for them. The Pharisees join together with the scribes in verse one and approach Jesus and his disciples. In similar fashion to other occurrences, they seemingly wait for an opportunity to trap him. And at this point, they feel as though they got him. His disciples ate with hands that were unwashed.

Now, on the surface, this seems to be a valid concern. We know that it is in our best interest to wash our hands before eating. We ask this of our kids and we do it as well. If this were what they were getting at, you would think that the response would be an overreaction to this observation. But as we will see, the Pharisees and scribes were not concerned with hygiene, but religious scruples. The accusation was that the disciples did not ceremonially wash before eating with their hands. This, they determined, was defilement.

As we know from our Old Testament, there were certain purity regulations that were meant to be followed. We see though that their expectations often exceeded that which was written. And this will become the crux of the issue going forward.

Verse 3 begins a parenthetical insertion that seeks to further explain what is going on in this situation. Mark indicates that the Pharisees and “all the Jews” (this is an overstatement to emphasize their widespread influence) do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe – washing all these utensils and dining couches?? I’m not quite sure what it going on with the dining couches here. But this isn’t the point. The point is that the religious leaders have elevated tradition over the commands of God.

In Exodus 30:17–21, “17 The Lord said to Moses, 18 “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19 with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.” Here is the command of God – directed to the sons of Aaron, the priests. Exodus 40:12 “12 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water.” Same thing. In their effort to extend this ritual washing to all the Jews, they were enforcing a tradition and not a command.

Notice that Jesus does not deny any allegations. But he identifies them as traditions. David Garland notes that “Jesus’ counterattack cites an extreme example to show how the tradition of the elders sanctions the subversion of God’s will. In verse 8 is the indictment. They have left the commandment of God and held to the tradition of men, or the tradition of the elders in verses 3 and 5. We have a record of many of these in the Mishna which is these oral traditions that have been collected and reduced to writing. In defense of the Pharisees, they possess great zeal. They took the Law seriously – and yet missed its intent.  

The Pharisees and scribes ask a question in verse 5. They question why the disciples do not walk according to this tradition and eat with defiled hands. Do you think that their question was really concerning them? Or Jesus? They were trying to undermine Jesus and his teaching. And they do so through a widely recognized tradition of these ritual washings.

This is a pivotal moment. And I think that this is why Jesus responds so strongly. He quotes the prophet they would have held in high esteem – the greatest of prophets in their mind, Isaiah. And Jesus says that he prophesies of them?? But first he calls them hypocrites. He calls the religious leaders actors in a play. They were the ones who wore the masks in the theatre. They were different on the outside than on the inside. In this context, Jesus implies that though they have the appearance of honouring God, they do not worship from the heart. They are merely actors and have no relationship with God. And this is attributed to the fact that they teach as doctrines, their own fabrications. And this is dangerous and worthy of the rebuke!

And beyond this, they lead others to do the same. Jesus goes on to describe another way they do this other than the ritual washings. And he reverts back to the commandment to honor father and mother from Exodus 20, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. And Jesus includes a further warning from Exodus 21.17. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that Jesus here identifies Moses as God’s inspired mouthpiece because we know that these words came from God and Moses recorded them. But the religious leaders had altered this commandment. They even created something called “corban,” which means “dedicated to God.” The offering involved a vow to dedicate it irrevocably to God. As a result the offering was placed under a ban so that it could not be used for any other purpose, as is implied by verse 12. Under no circumstances would the scribes of Jesus’ day permit a person annul such a vow.” By doing this, people could neglect the physical needs of their parents under the guise of “dedicated to God.” This is NOT what God desires for his people.

Notice the progression regarding the commandments of God. In verse 8, Jesus says that they “leave” the commandment of God. In verse 9, they “reject” it. And in verse 13, they “make void” the word of God. The religious leaders would likely be the last to suggest that they would make void the very word of God. Yet in fact this is what they were doing by imposing the traditions of men. And MANY such things you do. This wasn’t just about ritual washings or corban. This was a pattern.

Commentators believe that “because they based their decisions on the logical analysis of the explicit and implicit data in Scripture, the Pharisees considered them rooted in Scripture and equal in authority.” They believed that their tradition had been delivered to Moses by God. And I had to ask myself, “what would this look like today?” Does the twenty-first century church still hold tradition as high as, or higher than, Scripture itself?

The Pharisees were guilty of having hearts that were far from God. Their worship was not accepted. In following the letter of the law, they were actually steering people away from the kingdom of God. And the same can be true today.

David Garland, in his commentary, gives us some insight into what following Christian traditions might look like. He writes, “What are the Christian affinities with the Pharisees’ traditions of the elders? (1) Christian communities also have an oral tradition that fills the gaps and directs them on what precisely they should and should not do. For example, someone may ask, Should we tithe the gross income or net income? Do we need to tithe the produce from the garden? Should a church accept a tithe from lottery winnings? The answers to these questions usually do not come from explicit passages in the Scripture but from a tradition that tries to honor God’s requirements and make things definite so that we know what we are to do and when we have done it. But we court danger when we treat decisions on such matters as sacrosanct and apply them rigidly.” In other words, sacrificial giving for one person could be five percent of their income and to another it could be fifty percent. Our giving is a sacrificial act of worship and not a rigid standard to abide by.

Because the Pharisees and scribes desired to maintain their identity in the midst of secular humanism, they tried to impose regulations on all the Jews. And they did so to a fault. They were exclusionists. How is it that the Christian Church can be susceptible to this? How do we impose certain traditions in order to remain distinct from others? We need to be able to continually discern biblical truth from traditions. This does not imply that tradition is bad – only that it can easily become more emphasized than it should.

  The tension that needs to be wrestled with resides in the correlation of doctrine and tradition. In our spiritual development, we strive to understand God’s word more clearly and precisely so that we can respond more faithfully. There are ample references to hold to sound doctrine.

On the flip side, we need to acknowledge that some things are not as important as fulfilling our call to make disciples of Jesus. As important as denominational affiliations may be, they cannot interfere with the Great Commission. We are not calling people to be converted to Baptist distinctives or reformed theology. Though we value such doctrines and continue to teach and encourage them, they are secondary to the mission. We are a church that believes that there are distinct gender roles in the family and the church. But we are not calling people to trust in these things. We are calling people to trust Christ. We want to ensure that we do not exclude people on the basis of these things. We unite in Jesus Christ. We want to be part of the mission of the kingdom. And if we exclude people on secondary things, do we become like the Pharisees? 

Secondly, there is Heart Trouble. In verse 14, Jesus wants this to be heard broadly. And so he calls the crowd to him again and declares, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Was the crowd in on the confrontation with the religious leaders? Or did this come across as rather random and out of the blue? Whatever the case, can you see how radical this may have seemed to them? They had studied the Old Testament dietary laws. They had been influenced to an extreme by the Pharisees and scribes regarding tradition. And Jesus makes this remark.

And then apparently he leaves the crowd to chew on that for a while. He leaves them and goes into “the” house. And his disciples, once again, didn’t get it. Perhaps they were also ingrained with this thinking. Jesus doesn’t give up on them, but teaches them. And he begins with a rather curious statement. He asserts that the things that we ingest don’t contaminate us because they do not enter the heart but the stomach. And we all know what happens to the things that enter the stomach. They come out. Literally, the rendering is that they go into the latrine.

Rather, Jesus says, it is the things that come out of the person that “defile” him. Morality is internal not external. The religious leaders thought of sin as a germ – an external thing to be avoided or purified. Jesus taught that sin was like cancer. It is an internal problem that cannot be avoided. The Pharisees are concerned about impurity and piety on the surface. Jesus is concerned about internal impurity that one cannot wash away by the washing of hands.

Jeremiah 17:9–10 says, “9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 10 “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” The heart does not refer to the emotional, affectionate element but rather is the mind and will of a person. And this is where we are utterly sick. It is internally that we are guilty of evil thoughts and these other vices. Read verses 21-23.

If what Jesus teaches on the Sermon on the Mount is true, than we are all guilty of these things. Those who hate are guilty of murder. Those who lust are guilty of adultery. Which of us is innocent of coveting or pride? These things are what leave us desperate and needing a Savior.     

In verse 6, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah where he said that their heart is far from God. Apart from Jesus Christ, we are unable to worship or draw near to God. We have a sin problem. We have heart trouble.

Listen to the Psalmist as he describes the relationship of the heart to God Psalm 24:3–6 “3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” Psalm 51:10 “10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

From Proverbs 20:9 “9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?

Listen to a prayer from Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles and how it deals with the heart and ritual cleanness. 2 Chronicles 30:18–19 “May the good Lord pardon everyone 19 who sets his heart to seek God, the Lord, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” Romans 6:17 “17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Hebrews 10:22 “22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

            Worship is a matter of the heart and not external appearance. It is possible that we have succumbed to thinking that worship resides in the externals – church attendance, tithing, ministry participation, or doctrinal precision. And our hearts are far from God. We need to check our relationship to him and respond with a heart of worship according to his character and his deeds.

It is possible that we have unknowingly elevated tradition to the level of God’s word and thus canceling its effect. We have a responsibility to both understand and obey the clear teachings of Scripture, discern the secondary matters, and exercise humility and grace as we seek to be faithful to his word. Let’s pray.


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