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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tradition and Hypocrisy (Mark 7.1-23)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - February 16, 2014
Text: Mark 7:1-23

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Be Thou My Vision" (Hopson)
Song of Praise: "Praise is Rising" (Brown, Baloche)
The Word in Music: "Create in Me a Clean Heart" (Reeves)
Offering of Music: "Lord, Dissolve My Frozen Heart" (Red Mountain Music; Murphy)
Hymn of Sending: "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" (MORECAMBE)
Postlude: "Triumphant March" (Tambling)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 
1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. 7 ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ 8 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” 9 He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”
14 After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 [“If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”] 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” ~Mark 7:1-23
We continue today in our series entitled, “It is written.” We are looking at the way in which Jesus interpreted and enacted Scripture, captured most succinctly in Matthew 5:17, where he says, “I have not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill them.” Today, we are drawn to a passage in the Gospel of Mark where, prompted by criticism of the disciples not washing their hands before eating, Jesus quotes from the Prophet Isaiah and then speaks to deeper matters of heart-obedience. This chapter is similar in method to the Sermon on the Mount, where he used scripture not only to challenge the rather empty religious practices of his day, but to invite a deeper obedience. So again Jesus demonstrates that he does not intend to abolish or do away with the Law, but to fulfill or complete God’s intent through His Word.

Breaking Tradition

So the text describes the situation pretty thoroughly. The Scribes and Pharisees, the usual folks taking exception to Jesus, gathered around with the complaint (accusation?) that the disciples of Jesus were not keeping the “traditions of the elders.” (It’s okay if the song from Fiddler runs through your head at this point – me too!) And the text parenthetically provides quite a bit of the background. It had become the practice, the tradition, to carefully wash hands, cups, pitchers, pots, and more after being in public. It was an interpretation and application of the Law of Moses and an expectation of being a “faithful Jew.”

And as we’ve come to see, the Scribes and Pharisees had it out for Jesus. So, when they saw the disciples eating bread without having washed their hands, they thought they had something to use against Jesus.

To be clear, this washing was not required in the Law; it was interpretation and practice developed by Jewish teachers over hundreds of years. It might be comparable to modern traditions like having a steeple on a church or using traditional choirs and organs only or saying the “God is Great” blessing before meals. There is nothing wrong with tradition, in and of itself. Religious tradition often begins as well-intended interpretation or application of scripture. But they are not biblical commands and can also disconnect from biblical origins as they are transported over generational or cultural transitions. Further, religious traditions can become substitutes for actual faith and take on a kind of superstitious or ritualistic meaning that is counter to God’s Word.

Pulling Back the Covers

Jesus responded by quoting scripture. Quoting Isaiah, he as much said to them that they were only giving lip-service to God’s Law (well, and he outright called them “hypocrites”): “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me.” (Isaiah 29:13) That verse goes on to say “…and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote.”  That’s just the move Jesus made with the Law in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. It is not enough, Jesus says, to keep God’s Law outwardly if our heart inwardly betrays those externals. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “You don’t murder; but what of your angry hearts?” Here he is saying, “You wash your hands; but what of your filthy, unwashed heart?”

He goes even further and calls them “experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” Then he presses in with more scripture, with a case-in-point to illustrate. He quotes the Law of Moses, both from the Ten Commandments’ “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) and the startling (to us), “He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9) His point? No doubt that the Law teaches that we are to honor father and mother.

But then he describes the practice of the day whereby someone could declare resources that should have been used to support aging parents as “an offering” (corban). After doing so those resources would not have to be used for the parents. This practice was not even as spiritual as it might sound because the evidence we have says the Corban resources were not actually given to the Temple. The practice was just used (or misused) to throw a seemingly spiritual cover over dishonoring one’s parents.

And Jesus concludes, “[You are] invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down.” And, he says, this is just ONE example of such behavior. (v. 13)

This is just what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount; you can see why it did not endear him to the Scribes and Pharisees!

Going Deeper

From here, though, Jesus heads in a different direction. He expands on his response, first with the crowd and then even more so privately with his disciples. Returning to the original accusation of eating with impure or “defiled” hands, he elaborates: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (vv. 14-16)

We could pause there and try to interpret, but in the next few verses the disciples question him about the meaning of his words, so let’s let Jesus explain: the reason that what goes into a person from outside cannot defile him is because it does not go into the heart, but into the stomach. He is specifically referencing food here, and Mark notes that in teaching this Jesus declared all foods clean. (Note: this continued to be a point of tension with early Jewish Christians for at least a generation!)

It’s the heart that matters, Jesus says, because it is FROM the heart that evil things come forth, and it is those that “defile the man.” Jesus cites a sin list of evil thoughts, sexual sin, theft, murder, coveting, and many more. Said another way, our problem is not skin deep where a surface religious practice is going to take care of it. Our problem is heart-deep, at the root of our being, and only God’s Word and intervention will address that need.

Yet that is just what God has done. In that same passage that Jesus quoted from Isaiah, condemning God’s people for their lip-service and hidden hearts, God also declares, “Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people… wondrously marvelous!”

Whole Hearts

What are we to do? Our tendency is just that of the people in Isaiah’s day and in Jesus’ day, isn’t it? The last thing we WANT to do is lay our hearts bare before God. That’s where all the worst stuff is hidden, the stuff that we hold closest to the vest. And it is so easy to cover over the visible part of me – my face, my reputation, even my emotions – with whatever religious behavior or practices cause me to look holy. That can be anything from dressing up for church to singing in the choir to preaching in the pulpit to being on the front lines of feeding the hungry.

Clearly, none of those things are wrong. Each came about and can continue as an authentic response to God’s leading in your life.

But if we’re honest, all of them CAN be abused in the way the word “Corban” or “offering” was in Jesus’ day? I’ve seen it in others… and I’ve seen it in myself.

And if we are really honest, our sin and darkness and evil isn’t primarily something that we can pin on some external thing or person; it exists in the human heart… in my own heart. And yet God’s Word is not that if He discovers that, He will crush us; it is that He will “deal wondrously marvelously” with us. God delights to bring healing and wholeness to the human heart – the human life.

As I’ve said in recent weeks, that is freedom! It is freedom to recognize our failure, experience redemption, and live. What a tragedy to miss that and substitute (consciously or unconsciously) the false veneer of surface religious behavior and tradition. Jesus offers so much more; God desires so much more.

If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear! Amen.

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