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Posts Tagged ‘religious rules’

We have looked at a number of stories from the gospel of Mark over the last year or so. And in the same way, now I want us to work through, here and there, some of the teaching of Jesus in Mark.

We begin today with an important passage – Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two issues going on in the passage – human traditions and the issue of purity. The plan is to deal with the first today in vs. 1-13. And we will look a the second, purity, next week.  The Scripture begins with Jesus involved in –

A conflict

vs. 1-2 – “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, 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.”

So some Pharisees and some experts in the Law from Jerusalem have come around. They’re checking Jesus out. What’s he up to now And lo and behold they see some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they eat.

Now, this isn’t about good hygiene. As v. 2 indicates, it has to do with ritual uncleanness or defilement; that is to say, eating this way makes you unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain – vs. 3-4 – “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews 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, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)”

[“All the Jews” is a bit of a generalization. Certainly the Pharisees who were influential held to the need for washing hands, as did the Essences another prominent group of Jews. One word in not translated. It comes at the end of the phrase, “they wash their hands . . ..” It says literally “with a fist.” No one knows for sure what this means. It might mean “carefully” or it might refer to how the hands are ritually washed. The very last phrase, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all manuscripts. So if your bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers understand the situation. 1) Washing things was a big deal for many Jews. Especially the Pharisees. And 2) the command to wash hands comes from “the tradition of the elders” not the Law.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It is sometimes called the oral law. The idea was that Moses wrote down the Law in the Bible, but other instructions were passed on generation to generation by word of mouth. (This tradition was later written out in the Mishna, and other writings.) So there are two sources of commandments, the written Law and the oral tradition of the elders.

v. 5 – “And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” This is really an attack on Jesus. The charge is that his disciples are not faithful to God, which means, since he is their teacher, he is not faithful. (see Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of keeping the traditions, and what purity means. We will focus on the first, ‘Why don’t you keep the tradition?’

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response is, You abandon true worship of God for your tradition. vs. 6-7 – “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 do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 29:3. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

He is focusing on their relationship to God in this first part of his response. His point is that they look like they are honoring and worshipping God with their lips, or on the outside. But their heart is far away. That’s why he calls them hypocrites – with them it looks like one thing but it is really another.

Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because it is only about teaching and following human rules. He is saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys. v. 8 – “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

There is a contrast here between:

  • worship that is based on God and God’s commandment, and
  • worship that is based on men’s commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response is, You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your tradition. v. 9 – “And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

That is to say, when the two come into conflict, God’s commandment and your tradition, you go with your tradition for how to treat people. And this annuls God’s commandment.

Jesus then gives an example of their error. v. 10 – “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” Jesus is quoting Exodus 20:12 the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17.

It is understood by all that honoring parents (for adult children) means caring for them financially when they are older. The second reference (Exodus 21:17) shows how serious this issue of honoring parents is. Those who revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

vs. 11-12 – “But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother . . .” Notice the strong contrast between what God has said through Moses, and what they say based on their tradition.

The word Corban is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (the Temple), but you still use them until a later time. Based on their tradition the Pharisees said that you must honor your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents.

v. 13 – “. . . thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” They allow people to nullify what God commands, in order to keep a vow that is unrighteous in the first place. Indeed, they allow not only the breaking of the fifth commandment, but an action that is on a par with reviling one’s parents, which deserves the death penalty!

A summary of the argument. Their charge was – Jesus, you are not faithful to God because you do not keep the tradition. His response was – Pharisees, you are not faithful to God because you keep the tradition.

  • You abandon true worship of God, for your traditions (section 1)
  • You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your traditions (section 2)

More specifically notice the word “honor” in both Isaiah 29 and Exodus 20. Jesus is saying, you neither honor God nor do you teach proper honor of parents.

And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law (Exodus 20) and the Prophets (Isaiah 29). That is, based on God’s true word.

Well it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees,

But what about us?

What religious rules do you have that are not from God’s word, but things that you think are really important. So important that everybody should really follow them. It’s not hard to find them. For instance there are many connected to the way we worship at church. Do we sing old hymns or new choruses? Should the sermon be long and about evangelism each week – with an altar call, or not? Should there be shouting of praise and dancing, or not?

Maybe you would see “the tradition of the elders” as equaling doing things the way we have always done things. But maybe our religious rule is that we have to be on the cutting edge and always do something new in worship. It can work either way.

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to worship as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some rules. The question Jesus raises is do we love our rules so much that we place them above God’s commands?

Let’s look at another example. The way we dress for church. You see how I am dressed today – old paint clothes and they are dirty as well. I have not conformed to the rules for how a pastor should dress for church according to our received religious rules.

But you know what? There is nothing in Scripture about how I am supposed to dress for church, apart from being modest. We are to cover our bodies in such a way that we are not a sexual temptation to others. (Which I think I have done.)

I know that many have the conviction that you ought wear your best to church in order to honor God. That is fine. If you are doing it to honor God then that is excellent!

But here is where we can cross the line. If you come to me and say, “Pastor, why aren’t you dressed up today? You have to dress up on Sunday to be faithful to God! You have to wear a certain kind of clothes to be a real pastor!” If you do this, you have put a mere human religious rule above God’s commands. Because you say I cannot be faithful to God unless I follow your rule. And I am condemned because of it, even though God does not condemn me.

And, of course, this can go the other way too. You can go to a church where if you don’t dress down, you are breaking the religious rule and are condemned.

Well, this is what Jesus is warning us about today.

  • Don’t let your worship of God be based on human rules. There are thousands of different ways to worship God faithfully – that look nothing like the way we do it here. So don’t say that if others don’t follow your rules that it isn’t real or faithful worship. It has to be judged based on God’s commands.
  • And don’t nullify God’s law, just so you can maintain your religious rules. Love and welcome your neighbor instead of wrongly condemning them because of how they dress, or whether they shout “Praise the Lord” during worship.

In every area of life, beware that your religious rules don’t take over and become more important than God’s word and commandment.

William Higgins

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