Clean and Unclean: Mark 7:1-23

Last week Russia resumed its long-range strategic bombing raids on Britain for the first time since the fall of communism 15 years ago.  President Putin said, "I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian strategic aviation," he said. "Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly and on a strategic scale.  Soviet bombers carrying nuclear weapons routinely flew such missions to test NATO’s defences. On a daily basis US and British fighters were scrambled to intercept and deter Russian bombers from entering UK air space. What was it that sparked the communist revolution that led to led to 70 years of Cold War between? It may have been sparked by a simple act of hypocrisy.

Many years ago a small Jewish boy asked his father, “Why must we surrender our Jewish faith and start to attend Lutheran services here in Germany?” The father replied, “Son, we must abandon our faith so that people will accept us and support our business adventures!” The young lad never got over his disappointment and bitterness. His faith in his father and in his religion were crushed. When the lad left Germany he went to England to study at the British Museum where he formed his philosophies for life. From those intensive investigations he wrote a book that changed the world called, “The Communist Manifesto”. From that book one-third of the world fell under the spell of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The name of that little boy was Karl Marx.

His father Heinrich was a lawyer who appears to have converted his family to Christianity for financial reasons. His son went on to influence billions of people through a political system that has ruined, imprisoned, and killed an estimated 94 million people.[i] The influence of one father’s act of hypocrisy multiplied in infamy.

Over the last fortnight we have seen how Jesus demonstrated His Divine ability to feed the 5000 walk on water, and heal anyone sick who touched Him. Not surprisingly, His popularity brought Him into conflict with the religious establishment. In Mark chapter 7 we find the senior clerics arrive from Jerusalem to check out His orthodoxy. What on the surface seems a quibble about etiquette actually had more to do with the fundamental question "What kind of worship does God want from us?" That is what we are going to answer tonight. On offer then, as now, are two, mutually exclusive alternatives. The passage itself breaks into four parts.


1. Breaking the traditions of the elders (Mark 7:1-5)

2. Rebuking the hypocritical Pharisees (Mark 7:6-13)

3. Correcting the misguided crowds (Mark 7:14-16)

4. Instructing the confused disciples (Mark 7:17-23)


There are three lessons which we can learn from this encounter.


1.  Human Traditions invariably fuel controversy (Mark 7:1-7)

“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean’, that is unwashed.… the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:1, 5)


The first thing Jesus does is criticise the Pharisees of confusing people with their hypocritical traditions. The word ‘hypocrisy’ describes an actor. It describes someone whose life is a performance, a show, a sham. Jesus doesn't even bother to answer their criticisms. Instead he quotes,


“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ (Mark 7:6-7)


Notice Jesus questions their motive : hypocritical

Jesus criticises their worship : vain

Jesus condemns their tradition : human rules


We must remember that the people of his day really thought the Pharisees were holy people – to be revered and respected. To be obeyed and feared. But Jesus thought different. The argument wasn't just about whether the disciples should have washed their hands before dinner.  If you have children you'll know the scenario. "Have you washed your hands? Let me have a look at your hands....." That is not what the Pharisees were upset about.


The disciples had not followed the Rabbinic rituals. There were nine different occasions specified when the hands had to be ritually washed before and after meals along with prayers and blessings.  Water had to be poured on each hand three times for most purposes using a cup, and alternating the hands between each occurrence. Further more there were additional instructions concerning the washing of the hands before bread was eaten as part of a meal and before vegetables were eaten before the main meal. According to the Babylonian Talmud, washing before meals is so important that neglecting it is tantamount to unchastity, and risks divine punishment in the form of sudden destruction or poverty.[ii]  


And the ritual washing of the hands was just the beginning. Mark tells us, “And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles” (Mark 7:4). Jesus challenged these cherished traditions. Remember, Jesus wasn't criticising the liberals who denied the Scriptures, but the conservatives who claimed to honour it but added to it. Churches can be just as bound by traditions that are just as confusing, and intimidating. In some churches I occasionally visit, I can be made to feel uncomfortable because I don't wear robes or a clerical collar, or bow towards the altar before taking my seat, or cross myself before taking communion. In other churches I've felt equally uncomfortable surrounded by everyone raising their hands in praise all the time, and shouting out Hallelujah. I come away feeling inferior, less spiritual. Other people can seem so much more devoted. But devoted to what? Which is more important? Lip service or Heart worship?


If you don't feel it is right to do something at Christ Church then don't. And don't worry what other people think. Lets discuss it. Don’t keep it bottled up.  Don't allow yourself to be intimidated. Other people may only be doing it because they think its the right thing to do. You don't have to play religious games to be right with God. "And what does the LORD require of you? "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Why was Jesus so critical of these religious leaders?


Not because they were sinners, but that they liked to give the impression they weren't. You know how easy it is to give the impression of praying deeply, or worshipping in song but be miles away with other things on your mind. I may be able to fool you into thinking I'm better than I really am, but I can't fool God. I don't know what’s going on in your heart, nor you mine, but God knows, He sees. So don't try to hide behind religious rituals. An emphasis on human traditions invariably fuels controversy.


2. Heretical traditions inherently contradict Scripture (Mark 7:8-13)

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—  then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:8-13)


Not only had they confused people, they had contradicted the Bible. Confusion over what did or did not constitute God’s will, led inevitably to the contradiction of the Scriptures. Jesus was always very careful to distinguish between the Word of God and human traditions. Between what God requires and what people have added. Jesus gives an example from the popular interpretation of the 6th Commandment. The Lord had said in Exodus 20, "Honour your parents", but the Pharisees had looked for ways round it. The Pharisees added an exclusion clause. To avoid having to care for elderly parents, you could make a will, giving all your wealth to God when you died, so no one else could have it while you were alive. Neat really isn't it. Today we call it tax avoidance. The Lord still calls it tax evasion. Let me give you a more recent example.


The Second Commandment reads "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God." (Deuteronomy 5:8)


The Second Council of Nicaea in AD 787 thought they knew better and sanctioned picture worship. By the time we reach the 13th Century we find Thomas Aquinas insisting, "The Cross and Image of the Cross must be worshipped with the same supreme devotion, with which Christ Himself is worshipped." The Council of Trent, meeting in 1545 with the express purpose of undoing the Reformation, insisted, "By the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head and bend the knee, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose image they bear." Consequently you will find in most Catholic churches, paintings that represent God the Father as an old man. You will find depictions of God as an eye inside a triangle representing the Trinity. You will find the image of Christ on crucifixes, Statues of Mary the Queen of Heaven, and altars containing relics of dead saints. And you will find these increasingly in some Anglican Churches also. Speaking of the popularity of the crucifix in his day, D.L. Moody wrote,


"It makes our worship and prayer unreal. We are adoring a Christ who does not exist. He is not on the cross now, but on the throne. His agonies are passed for ever. He has risen from the dead. He is at the right hand of God. If we pray to a dying Christ, we are not praying to Christ Himself but a mere remembrance of Him. The injury which the crucifix has afflicted on the religious life of Christendom in encouraging a morbid and unreal devotion is absolutely incalculable. It has given us a dying Christ instead of a living Christ-a Christ separated from us by many centuries instead of a Christ nigh at hand."


How could the Church get away with it? Easy. Simply Re-number the Ten Commandments. For 2000 years before Christ the Jews had kept the order as we have them in our Bibles here at Christ Church. The pre-Reformation Church following Augustine decided to incorporate the Second Commandment in the First Commandment so that the condemnation of idolatry became a sub-clause. The problem with that is the Ten Commandments because the Nine Commandments. No problem. Do you know what they did? To make sure they still added up to ten, they split the 10th Commandment about coveting, into two. So coveting your neighbour's wife became #9 while coveting his ox and other possessions became #10.

Worship at holy shrines, whether Lourdes or Walsingham, and building ornate buildings, chapels and altars may give the appearance of great devotion but God calls it adultery. When our dog Emily was alive, she loved to play football in the garden. The problem was she wouldn’t give the ball back – so we bought a second football so we had one to play with as well. When she had got her teeth around one she can't catch the other. She has to choose. That is what Jesus in effect is saying in verse 8.
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8). You cannot hold onto both at the same time. Jesus says they:


 “Let go" of the Word of God = abandon (Mark 7:8)

 “Set aside" the commands of God = reject (Mark 7:9)

 “Nullify" the Word of God = invalidate/ null & void (Mark 7:13)


The word "hold onto" here means to have a "powerful grip on something". Jesus was saying that the Pharisees had abandoned, the Scriptures in order to retain a powerful grip on people through their rules and regulations. Not surprisingly Jesus didn’t go down to well. They went as far as bringing in the specialists all the way from Jerusalem to condemn Jesus. (Mark 7:1)


Thomas Watson the Anglican reformer of the 17th century wrote, "Though idolaters love the false image of God in a picture, they hate his true image in a believer. Pretending to honour Christ in a crucifix, yet they persecute him in His members." 


Sadly the history of the Church from the very beginning has been largely the history of religious intolerance directed against the faithful who preferred martyrdom to idolatry, a relationship with Jesus to the religion of do’s and don’ts. First - an emphasis on human traditions invariably fuels controversy. Second, heretical traditions inherently contradict Scripture.


3. Hypocritical traditions are inevitably exposed by the gospel (Mark 7:14-23)

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 [16] Nothing outside you can defile you by going into you. Rather, it is what comes out of you that defiles you.” 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you?  19 For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. 21 For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile you.” (Mark 7:14-23)

 Confused over human traditions, the Pharisees had contradicted the Scriptures.  Consequently they were now closed to divine revelation. Even the disciples were in serious danger of being deceived. "Why are you so dull too?" Jesus asks. The Pharisees had reduced morality down to a kind of arithmetic. Wash your hands in a certain way, eat specific food prepared, cooked and served in a particular way and you will be holy. They had accumulated a great number of petty rules and regulations about how to stay pure. They could be defiled by food, defiled by places, defiled by contact with certain people. This is what Jesus found so offensive. They assumed that they could stay holy if they did certain things and avoided other things. But keeping to a list of do's and don'ts didn't go deep enough. Why? Because rules are powerless to change the heart. All Jesus had to do was a little open heart surgery on them, to show what they were really like inside beneath their religious skin.


“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you.” (Mark 7:18, 20)


For many years Marxism has dominated our world. For many people Karl Marx was and remains a kind of saviour, advocating the moral high ground against social injustice and corruption. The complicated political theory can be all very confusing until you look at the man himself. Marx advocated the proletariat rising up against the bourgeois. Yet Marx himself was bourgeois; he despised labour leaders, yet its never once reported that he entered a factory in his life. He riddled the Capitalist system based on credit, yet borrowed money his entire life, and for most of the time was deeply in debt. He argued that his system was based upon scientific method; in fact it was as cruel as the one he wanted to replace. Forcing a third of the worlds population in Russia and China to conform in outward behaviour it has done nothing to change the human heart. Evil is not something we need to guard against from the outside. That kind of reasoning lies behind the anger of some Moslems at the deployment of Western forces on Moslem soil. Evil is not external its internal, it comes from within the heart. That’s why we don't need more rules, we need release. Observing a list of taboos won't deal with our guilt. Only Jesus can.


On another occasion Jesus promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them into the truth. He said "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." If Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their slavery to man made traditions, He clearly condoned the disciples in their liberty. “eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” (Mark 7:2)


We see the disciples liberated, casually disregarding the petty traditions of the elders. Free to enjoy God's creation, free to enjoy Him. They were liberated from being people-pleasers, from hypocrisy, from doing religious things to please people, they could be themselves. That liberation is ours too. Liberated in a living relationship with Him. This is the heart of the Christian faith, not a religious system, but a living relationship in simplicity and sincerity. In Spirit and in truth. Christianity isn't a religion it’s a relationship.

That’s because it centres on a person not a moral system.


It doesn't mean leaving the Church of England. It does mean putting Jesus first, before everything, before everyone. It means coming to Him daily in our reading of His Word, and in prayer acknowledging our sin and need of His forgiveness, and empowering. How then can we be made clean before God?


First, recognise that an emphasis on human traditions invariably fuels controversy. Second, that heretical traditions inherently contradict Scripture. Third, that hypocritical traditions are inevitably exposed by the gospel. What then is true worship? Let me leave you with an answer from Archbishop William Temple,

"To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God."


Lets pray.