Passage – Mark 7:1-23
As some of you know, we recently acquired a new member of the family, a black Labrador puppy, called Otto. At the moment we are in the midst of puppy training. Every day we’re employing techniques, almost always involving food, in an attempt to get his behaviour as we’d like it. Well behaved dogs, like well-behaved children, are a joy! We’re not really bothered about what’s going on inside Otto’s head, all we want to do is get his behaviour right. Sadly, a lot of people think that this is what religion is all about- behaviour. Indeed, as the church, we can fall into the trap of making conformity to certain external behaviours the sign of acceptance. What is true today, was equally true in Jesus’ day. In this week’s Pep Talk, we’re focusing on a major dispute that Jesus had with the Jewish religious leaders. They begin by voicing their issue with Jesus, but it ends with Jesus putting his finger on, not only their problem, but the problem all of us have with God. It’s not about behaviour, but our hearts.
Wash your Hands (v1-5)
Most of us have seen the PM’s Coronavirus briefings from No10 and those three words across his lectern- Hands, Face, Space. The message is clear- wash your hands, cover your face, keep your space. That’s what we must all do in an effort to keep safe. There wasn’t a pandemic in Jesus’ day, but the emphasis on hand washing in Jewish circles was huge, in an effort to keep pure. So when Jesus’ disciples were eating food without having washed their hands, this was a massive faux pas in the Pharisees eyes. Now what Mark makes clear is this, the requirement to wash hands before handling food, was not from God’s Law but rather a man-made tradition (v3, v4, v5). They believed that unclean hands would make food unclean and therefore make the person unclean before God when they ate it. Conversely, clean hands meant clean food and made you right with God! So the Pharisees confront Jesus- “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” (v5) Their thinking was clear. If Jesus allowed behaviour from his followers that flouted their traditions, then Jesus is not a leader to be trusted.
Man-Made Religion (v6-13)
Jesus’ reply is scathing. Remember he’s addressing the Jewish religious elite who were revered for their law-keeping and morality. “He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (v6-7, quoting Isaiah 29:13) Ouch!! There are two things wrong with their man-made religion. Firstly, it was behaviour focused and by-passed the heart. Secondly, it was based upon human traditions rather than God’s Word. Three times (v8, v9, v13) Jesus says much the same thing- they let go of God’s Word and hold on to their own traditions. He then gives them an example of this, in how they fail to obey the Fifth Commandment (honouring your father and mother) by not providing for their needs, when they’d devoted a gift to God (a tradition called Corban). Jesus adds- “And you do many things like that.” (v13) Before we’re tempted to think, ‘how stupid could they be?’, just think of the number of traditions we have as Christians: going to church, singing songs, praying certain prayers, listening to sermons, preaching sermons, having a quiet time, journaling, communion etc. All of these are good things. Like washing our hands, we should be doing them but only for the right reasons. This passage calls us to examine what we think we accomplish by doing them. If we think that we’re pure, holy and acceptable to God because we do these things, we’re in danger of being just as hypocritical as the Pharisees.
Unclean Hearts (v14-23)
Jesus then summons a crowd and tells them a parable- “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 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’.” (v14-15) Then, as often happened, behind closed doors the disciples asked Jesus what the parable meant? “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean”).” (v18-19) The food laws that God gave his people were not about making them clean before him but making them distinctive amongst the nations. No food was intrinsically unclean or evil, hence Jesus declared all foods clean. So our standing before God is not about external behaviour, whether it was compliance with food traditions years ago, or good spiritual habits today. Jesus then focuses on the real issue- “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.” (v20-23) In this punchy list of sins, Jesus is describing you and me. We may be super moral and hyper religious on the outside, but in our hearts, where it really matters, it’s a stinking sewer. Uncomfortable? We should be. You see, only when we’re confronted by our uncleanness before God and his certain judgment, will we see our need for a Saviour! As we sing- ‘Guilty, vile and helpless, we; Spotless Lamb of God was He: Full atonement- can it be? Hallelujah! What a Saviour!’ (Man of Sorrows). The good news is that through faith in Christ, God changes our hearts by His Holy Spirit as Ezekiel declared- “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26)
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Ps 51:10-12) Amen