Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our text for this morning is the Gospel Reading from Mark chapter 7. At the beginning of this reading, we see the Pharisees and Scribes come from Jerusalem to confront Jesus. They are essentially an official fact-finding commission of theologians. But we see clearly from the start that they are biased and suspicious. You could say that they have a fault-finding attitude, as usually is the case when the Pharisees interact with Jesus. But this shouldn’t surprise us. It was from a similar group that the accusation of involvement with Beelzebul, the prince of demons, came in Mark 3:22 and following. So, we read: Now when the Pharisees gathered to [Jesus], with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed (Mark 7:1-2). The issue at hand is ceremonial purity versus ceremonial defilement. They aren’t primarily concerned with hygiene. Behind this idea of ceremonial purity lies much of the book of Leviticus, specifically chapters 11 & 17, which focus on the Jewish Dietary Laws. Now, this idea of purity might seem somewhat trivial to twenty-first century Christians, but to the Jews in Jesus’ day is was of central importance when it comes to Jewish identity. What marked Jews as God’s distinctive people were three things: the covenant of circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath day, and this idea of ritual purity and the dietary laws which accompanied it. With this in mind, Mark gives us a footnote in verses three and four regarding how the Pharisees observed this crucial element of ritual purity: For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, 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, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches (Mark 7:3-4). Again, remember that this is primarily about ceremonial purity, not hygiene. Look once again at a key phrase at the end of verse 3: “the tradition of the elders.” This tradition is a reference to the oral tradition which was later written down in the Mishnah. This tradition was understood to come directly from God to Moses on Mt. Sinai (though it was passed down orally). It’s purpose was to regulate a man’s life completely. If the Torah of Moses was silent or vague on a point, then you could expect the tradition to be explicit. So, now the confrontation finally comes in verse 5: And the Pharisees and scribes asked [Jesus], “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Notice that the Pharisees attack Jesus’ disciples on a point of ritual, not of faith. And the implication of this attack is clear: If the disciples were ignorant of this “oral tradition”, then the ignorance of their teacher would be obvious.
2. But as we see Jesus’ response beginning in verse 6, he will challenge the Pharisees. Jesus is going to challenge the religious leaders by showing that their focus is in the wrong place. And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain to they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandments of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8). To be fair, the Pharisees earnestness and aim of honoring God outwardly seems to be sincere, but the reality is, they are failing miserably! The issue is their outward actions aren’t matched by an inner attitude. They are, by definition, hypocrites, that is, “play actors”—people whose worship is merely outward. It is clear that their great body of oral teaching failed to get at the heart of God’s commands. In the verses that close our reading, Jesus now gives and example of how obedience to a human tradition means breaking God’s command. As background: many Jews viewed the fourth commandment as the most important in the law. For them, “Honor your father and mother” also included providing for parents when they were old. So, on the one hand, you have the fourth commandment, and on the other hand you have the “Corban” vow. Making this vow meant that you were devoting something to God (and thus restricting access of others to the thing). To be clear, this vow did not mean that this thing was promised to the temple. What it really did was exclude parents from benefiting from the item. This is how the “Corban” vow seems to have been used—as a legal loophole in the law. The point is this: Jesus raises this issue to illustrate the difference of approach between himself and the Pharisees.
3. Let’s take a few minutes to talk more about this difference of approach. The Pharisees were focused on legalism—they were a religion of “doing”. How many of these types of religions do we see today? In Mormonism, they teach that grace only comes after all we can do. In Hinduism, Karma means that what you do in this life affects the next. And even our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters teach that you participate in your own justification by what you do. The Pharisees were a religion of “doing.” The fundamental difference is that Jesus invites us to rest in him by “being” rather than “doing.” How do we do that? I’ll give you a general principle, then a specific example.
4. First, the principle. Notice in verse six how Jesus calls out the heart/attitude issue: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Jesus then goes on to highlight the problem of the “doing” attitude through the “Corban” example. Here’s the principle: “Doing” means a focus on tasks and rules. “Being” means a focus on relationships not rules. This focus on relationships allows for a re-orientation toward the foundational will of God. And God’s foundational will is most clearly and succinctly summarized in the Ten Commandments. But even there we have to be careful. The Ten Commandments must be understood through a focus on relationships not rules.
5. Let me close with a specific example. Let’s think about our relationship with God through the lens of the third commandment. We could think about any relationship through the lens of any commandment, but for sake of example, let’s think about the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” This commandment is focused on ceasing and resting in God’s presence. Luther’s explanation of the third commandment is: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his word but hold is sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Notice the attitude Luther discusses. It’s so easy to drift away from God’s will by focusing on “Doing.” I attend Bible Study or worship. I do devotionals. I have a personal prayer time. I read Christian books. We have a tendency to drift away from the Lord by “doing” tasks, thinking those tasks are what the Lord wants from us. But it’s not. Jesus has already done everything that needs to be done. Jesus faced death and the consequence of our failure to “do” enough so that we can simply rest in “being” his. So, stop counting and tracking your success in these areas. Yes, it’s still good to read the Bible, come to worship, pray, etc. But that’s not the focus. Focus on “being.” When you do those things, you are entering the presence of the Almighty God who loves you more than you could ever know. Simply rest in knowing that the Lord wants you to “be” his. He has already done all the “doing” in Jesus, all that’s left is to enter his presence and rest in “being” his.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Akers, thank you.
Demonstrating for myself even if for no one else, my activity as a measure of being a Christian, is an effective obstacle to the joy and peace which Is mine through Christ, for the taking when and if I only will.
You’ve redirected my heart to Christ. What a good day! ….week, and hopefully life.
Wishing you peace,