Last week we looked at Jesus’s odd statement that you must eat of Him and drink of His blood in order to have eternal life. Taken literally- physically- this was a really morbid and gross thing to say, a statement that many took offense to and thus followed Him no longer. However, Jesus’s closest 12 disciples didn’t leave Him; they knew in their hearts that Jesus had the words of eternal life. Though they didn’t understand all that He taught at the time, they wrestled with His teaching, and history shows us that eventually they came to understand what Jesus was saying when He called Himself “The Bread of Life”. They and those who followed after them learned to eat and drink of Jesus, to take all of Him- His goodness, sacrifice, deity, exclusivity, all that He taught- and consume Him, bringing all of Him into their very being. Now this conversation took place shortly after Jesus had fed the thousands by multiplying the bread and the fish. They liked that miracle, but they didn’t like that Jesus said He had come down from Heaven. They were offended that Jesus stated His origin was divine in nature. This equating Himself to God was blasphemous to them. So, from this offensive conversation and onward, the religious leaders’ offenses, grievances, and attacks on Jesus only multiplied. This morning we’re going to look at their next attack, and I believe that Jesus’s words to the Pharisees in this passage will also speak to the inner Pharisee that we each wrestle with from time to time. (Mark 7:1-5)
Now at first glance, this seems like a fairly innocent concern the Pharisees and scribes had. I mean, aren’t we all taught from an early age to wash our hands before we eat, to eat food cooked from a clean pot, and to drink from a clean cup and water pitcher? That’s just good hygiene, staying away from bacteria, right? Well, there was much more to this concept of ritual washing than just avoiding bad bacteria. The concept that the religious leaders and Jews of the time had was more oriented towards avoiding spiritual uncleanliness. In order to be right with God, one had to do all the requirements of the law, and avoid any thing in the law that would make them “unclean”. Being unclean was to be out of right standing with God. It was like a disease you could catch, a disease in which certain steps had to be taken in order to be cured. “Defilement” is another term that describes this type of uncleanliness-disease. One could become defiled or unclean by: worshipping idols, committing sexual sin, coming in contact with a dead body or with someone diseased, rejecting God’s commandments, eating foods that God said not to eat, etc. Even a woman’s menstrual cycle or sexual intercourse within marriage caused temporary defilement, temporary separation from God and the community. And after becoming unclean in this spiritual sense, there were certain steps to be taken in order to be cleansed and to once again become right with God and the community.
These cleanliness rules were intended by God to set apart His people, to provide an opportunity for their obedience, and to protect them from the spread of disease within the community. Ultimately these rules were to pave the way for the people to one day understand the grace, mercy, and cleansing power of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. But at this time, in this passage, the cleanliness laws had only evolved into more of an arrogant exclusiveness. The religious leaders had added on to what God said, making up their own customs, traditions, and things to do in order to not be “dirty” like the other nations were. The concept of washing that the religious leaders in this passage had in mind was more in line with the kids’ game known as “cooties”. Do you remember cooties, the despised disease that one could contract by a touch from the opposite sex? There’s even a ritual set in place to be cleansed of the cootie disease if you are unfortunate enough to contract it. Someone else had to come and perform the sacred cleansing ritual: “Circle, circle, dot, dot- Now you’ve got the cootie shot!” This is what the religious leaders were worried about. They washed their hands not to just clean off the dirt and grime, but rather to clean off the spiritual cooties that they may have contracted that day in accidently bumping into a non-Jew. The Greeks, the Romans, the Samaritans, others from Asia, or Northern Africa- it was so easy to accidently come in contact with them, or unknowingly touch something they had touched, and in doing so contract the cootie disease of ungodliness and become defiled before God.
I believe it was with this mindset that the religious leaders brought their question to Jesus. They pretended to show concern for how the disciples were neglecting the exclusive manmade traditions, but their real intent was to turn the crowd on Jesus, casting doubt on His leadership and authority. Jesus knew this, and so He responded in verse 6… (Mark 7:6-9)
Jesus began His rebuke with God’s words recorded in the book of Isaiah 29:13. What a powerful verse, stating God’s perfect knowledge of hypocritical behavior. May it never be said of us that we honor God with our lips, but our hearts are far from Him. May we never be involved in pointless worship that elevates the teachings of men over the teachings of God.
In the following verses Jesus gives a specific example to the religious leaders of how they were honoring a manmade teaching over a teaching of God, verse 10- (Mark 7:10-13) So God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, and one of those 10 commandments is to honor your Father and Mother. Also recorded in the book of Exodus is God saying to the people “He who speaks evil of Father or Mother, is to be put to death.” That’s how serious God is about honoring your Father and Mother. But the religious leaders of the day were teaching the people to turn away a Father or Mother who was in need. They were giving the people an excuse to use when they didn’t want to offer help to their aging parents. They basically were teaching the people to say (as well as follow through with actions) that any extra money or provisions they had, were going to be gifted to God. “Sorry mom and dad, there’s nothing left. What you have asked of me is a sacred thing that I have given over to God. It’s in His hands now.” And the parents would then be silenced, not wishing to rob God in any way.
Now why on earth would the religious leaders promote such a heartless teaching? Well, perhaps it benefitted the people to have an excuse, letting them off the hook if need be, so that they wouldn’t necessarily have to devote any extra time, money, or resources towards taking care of aging parents. So, the religious leaders gained favor with certain people in giving them this teaching. In addition to this, many of the religious leaders were priests, who as God’s ministers, received the offerings made to God. Perhaps this teaching of theirs also stemmed from their own greed and covetousness, and maybe they attempted to prosper by providing an excuse that allowed the people to keep more of their money, and at the same time guilted them into giving more money to “God”, which might actually have ended up more often in their own pockets. Now the Bible doesn’t spell out that this is what they were doing, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this was their motivation behind the wicked teaching they were promoting. If this was true, you can see why Jesus got so upset at the corruption and hypocrisy of the religious leaders. The only reason they would want to change or add on to God’s law was if that change somehow benefitted themselves, or made life easier in some way for themselves. And Jesus says in verse 13 that the religious leaders were doing many other hypocritical change/add on things like the particular one He mentioned to them!
On a side note, it’s difficult for me to understand why some people turn away from Christianity because of other’s hypocrisy. If anything, getting upset over hypocrisy should only endear Jesus to you. Hating hypocrisy is a sentiment shared between God and Jesus of the Bible. If you’re fired up over hypocrisy then don’t turn away, rather join God’s club- you’ll fit right in with He and Jesus. Verse 14 (Mark 7:14-23)
Ok, so here’s where Jesus corrected the religious leaders’ mis-interpretation of God’s cleanliness laws. Jesus states that people don’t contract the spiritual cooties by touching others who are infected; other people’s disease of sin isn’t transferable. No, your standing with God is not determined by any other person. You alone are responsible for your unclean illness- no one else gave it to you. You didn’t contract it, pick it up over time, or learn it- no, you were born with it. The thing that contaminates each of us comes from within, it starts in our heart. Every sin against God begins in our heart. It starts within, and then manifests itself into all kinds of different defiling acts displeasing to God.
Jesus here asserts that the religious leaders’ ritual hand washing attempted to address a certain type of uncleanness that is of little importance in comparison to moral uncleanness. Unless the heart is cleansed, any other type of cleansing would be useless. Heart cleansing comes from repentance, and from consuming Jesus- the Bread of Life who sacrificed His life in our place. He is the only answer to the heart disease that we are each born with.
The book of Matthew gives us a few added details to this passage, Matthew 15:12 adds that the disciples came and said to Jesus “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” 13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:12-14)
Here we have proof of the serious influence of the Pharisees. The disciples believed that Jesus would have been concerned with having offended those who opinions were held in such high regard. But in verse 13 Jesus assured them that their influence would only be temporary, that every man- made law, teaching, and tradition that was not of God- would one day pass away. Those teaching their own teaching instead of God’s teaching are blind, and those that follow them are blind. We use this expression today, its origins being Jesus’s own words here in the Bible- we say it’s “like the blind leading the blind.” And the only way to not be the “blind leading the blind”, or the “blind following the blind” is to know what God’s word really says- to seek to understand it in its entirety.
We ourselves have some of the same tendencies that the Pharisees had. And it isn’t that their sin was so much greater than our sin, no- the main difference between the Pharisees and us is that we as followers of Jesus recognize and admit our sinful nature and need for Jesus to cleanse us- and the Pharisees were unwilling to admit their sin and need for Jesus. But even in recognizing and admitting our sin and need for Jesus, we are still susceptible to having to wrestle with some of the same Pharisaical traits that Jesus confronted during His time on earth. This past week I read an article by a writer named Marshall Segal, and in his article, he listed 6 different Pharisaical traits that appear in the Bible. I’m going to read them to you, and as I do, I want us to each look at the possible inner Pharisee within us.
1. Pharisees know what to say, but do not do what they say. Most of us have the correct answers, right? But it’s another thing to walk life in consistent accordance with those answers. 2. Pharisees practice their faith to be seen by others. Do we ever shrink back our expression of faith depending on what set of people are around us? 3. Pharisees keep people from Jesus and his grace. I’m confident none of us would consciously attempt to keep someone from believing in and following Jesus. But perhaps we are guilty of clouding peoples’ vision of Jesus by our silence in not talking about Him, or by living in a way that doesn’t display the qualities of Jesus. 4. Pharisees add their convictions and traditions to the word of God. This is the specific trait that we saw in today’s passage. May we as a people be very careful and fearful as to never add on to, take away, or misconstrue scripture in any way. We should also always be very mindful in our churches to prevent any practice or program from becoming just an exhausting and/or unfruitful structure that replaces something God has really called us to do. Nor may we ever preserve and impose something just because “we’ve always done it that way”. Rather may we hold tightly to God’s word- not budging from it ever, but be willing to adjust our methods as needed to be most effective for the Kingdom of God. 5. Pharisees lack love for people in need. They often looked for every conceivable reason not to help the poor, oppressed, and needy. They looked down on Jesus for sitting with sinners, instead of having compassion on them. In today’s busy world with overwhelming needs, it’s easy to become calloused in many ways to those around us who are in need and hurting. May we as a people never let a Pharisaical attitude override the compassion and love of Jesus. 6. Pharisees cover sin instead of confessing and repenting. In today’s society, it seems that there is an escalated amount of pride and arrogance that hinders people from the simple act of apologizing. So many relationships could be restored and strengthened, so many anxieties and stresses could be relieved, so many more blessings could be experienced with a simple, sincere, and humble apology. May we each be quick to resolve conflict, quick to make things right and take ownership for our part in any wrongdoing.
Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself? These really aren’t just mere Pharisaical traits, these are human nature traits. Believers and unbelievers, young and old, poor and rich- people from all different backgrounds, cultures, and races- all possess hearts that are prone to these 6 tendencies. These 6 tendencies only become Pharisaical traits when one denies, excuses, and/or ignores their existence. I want us to spend a little time now in introspective, self- examining prayer, each one of us considering our own personal tendencies towards these 6 traits. Let’s enter into a time of confession with the Lord, asking for His forgiveness and help in each of these areas.