“The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Him. They observed that some of His disciples were eating their bread with unclean — that is, unwashed — hands. (For the Pharisees, in fact all the Jews, will not eat unless they wash their hands ritually, keeping the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, jugs, copper utensils, and dining couches. ) Then the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ritually unclean hands? ” He answered them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men. Disregarding the command of God, you keep the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:1-8 HCSB)
As I get older I seem to spend more time thinking about the past. I reminisce often about my childhood and those memories. I remember how simple and good things seemed back then. Lying on a grassy hill watching the clouds and picking out various shapes among them. Flying a kite or jumping my bicycle over a ditch or even my little brother. Practicing some new trick with a yo-yo or reading the latest edition of my favorite comic book. Saving my money for weeks to buy a small bag of penny candy, especially Beich’s banana taffy, or maybe an orange Dreamsicle or a grape Nehi soda. This may be just one of the many illusions that age brings on because I suspect every generation looks back on their childhood like that.
We do the same in church, too. We look back at our past practices, traditions and methods with a sense of nostalgia and pride believing that the old ways were the “best” ways. Just like my yo-yo and banana taffy, I look back at my years in Sunbeams, Royal Ambassadors, Sunday School, Training Union and Bible sword drills with a sense that things were better back then. Different? Yes. Better? Maybe, maybe not. Before you react and call me a heretic, hear me out.
It’s easy to take what we value and make it more valuable than it should be. For example, on my sixteenth birthday my parents asked me what I wanted. We didn’t have much then and my parents were struggling just to make ends meet. I asked them for something rather odd. I asked for a “Tom’s” peanut jar. My mother and dad found one at a garage sale or flea market and bought it for me. I’ve kept it all these years. For the last twenty or so years, it has been in our bedroom or bathroom and had become the place where I drop my pocket change. At least, it was until a few days ago when we had a tragic accident. My wife accidentally knocked something off the wall and it broke the jar. The lid had broken years earlier, but the jar is now broken and mostly unusable. My wife was upset because she knew how much I valued it because my dad had given it to me. She immediately began searching for a replacement. Holy cow! Even a broken one like mine was bringing $50 on eBay. One that was in good condition was bringing $250-$300. Yeah, we’re not buying a replacement. Nostalgia sells really well, to those who’ll pay for it.
This week, our focal passage deals with this idea of nostalgia and tradition and the place it holds in our lives and our religious beliefs. Mark is preparing us for a change in direction and before he takes us down this new road he wants us to know why we make this sharp turn. More on that in the weeks to come, for now just know that there’s divine design in what he’s telling us in these stories about Jesus that we’ll consider over the next few weeks. While we’ve already seen some of the conflict that is developing between Jesus and the Pharisees, Mark brings it clearly into focus in this passage. The Pharisees and some of the Jerusalem scribes now gather around Jesus and confront Him over an issue of “serious” concern, their tradition of ritual washing.
It is apparent that Mark is writing to an audience that includes many (if not, mostly) non-Jews because he takes time to explain this tradition to us outsiders. Now, my mother always insisted we wash our hands before dinner. But let me assure you, her insistence was not based on a religious concern but a more practical health concern, the filthy hands of a six year old boy. But the traditions of the Pharisees is strictly a religious tradition observed for many, many centuries. The Old Testament makes only one command regarding the washing of hands (and feet) and it is directed towards Aaron and the priests prior to them entering the Tabernacle. However, the Pharisees determined that if it was good for Aaron and the priests, then it would be best if all of the people submitted to ritual hand washing.
It is very important to note that Mark makes a very clear distinction between the uncleanness of the spirits that Jesus has confronted and driven away and the uncleanness of people’s hands. It would appear that the Pharisees considered the “unwashed” hands of the people to be spiritually unclean and defiled, unfit before God, but Jesus doesn’t. Notice, the Pharisees and scribes “observed that some of His disciples were eating their bread with unclean – that is, unwashed – hands.” Two very different terms are used here and you can see it in the English translation: unclean versus unwashed. The unclean spirits Jesus has encountered were “not pure – rebellious/sinful” but the unclean/unwashed hands were just “common” or normal. In other words, the spirits were in rebellion to God’s will and purpose and those who had failed to wash their hands were simply not prepared (like a Temple priest) for worship in God’s presence.
You might not have caught it, but we have three states of uncleanness we are considering here. We have the “unclean” state of the rebellious and sinful (or evil) spirits, the ritually unclean hands/feet of the priests prior to Temple service and the unwashed/common hands of the people. The traditions of the Pharisees had taken an expectation given only for the Tabernacle/Temple priests and extended it to the daily burden of the common people. The people were expected to wash their hands for a ritual cleaning from the elbow to the knuckles prior to eating. They were expected to bathe themselves upon returning from the market place. Would ritual cleansing before eating or after visiting the marketplace be bad or wrong in itself? No, not in the slightest. But the Pharisees had taken it to the next level, it was expected and even DEMANDED! If you didn’t do so, you were obviously not very spiritual, religious or close to God. If you failed or refused to do so, you were, simply put, no better than a heathen!
Ah, therein lies the core issue. It is a question of spiritual authority and superiority. This is all about personal pride and cultural power. No wonder the Pharisees are in conflict with Jesus. If you don’t follow our traditions and rules, you are unworthy of God and His love. You don’t wash your hands like you should. You don’t bathe when you return from the market. Your not cleaning your cooking and eating utensils like a good Jew should. They couldn’t challenge Jesus on the letter of the law, so they had to confront Him over their expectations regarding fringe, cultural traditions. If your disciples aren’t washing properly then OBVIOUSLY you aren’t as holy and righteous as you think you are or claim to be. You CAN’T be the Messiah because He would look like us, act like us, meet our expectations and follow our traditions and cultural rules.
So, Jesus responds by appealing to the very scripture they deeply value and claim to obey. “He answered them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.” (Mark 7:6-7 HCSB) By now, I know all of you are very familiar with the word hypocrite. It describes someone who puts on a mask and plays a part in a play or drama. Culturally, it means someone who says one thing but does another. Isaiah says, it is someone who honors God with their mouths or words when their heart is far from Him. They worship God in vain or out of pride and self-honor. In other words, they only worship God for what they gain from Him. That’s the focus of this passage and, as such, it must be our focus for this study.
Hypocritical worship. Vain worship. Worship with our mouths alone. Why would someone worship God only with their words? Pride, pure and simple. You say the right things for purely selfish reasons – what you gain from it. As Isaiah said, their mouths, lips, or words honor Me but their hearts are far from me. They are just playing a part in the drama of life. In other words, they don’t really care what God thinks or says but only what others think or say. Really, they don’t care what God thinks? If you believe in the God of the Bible then you recognize that He knows our hearts, our thoughts and intentions. You admit that you’re unable to hide those things from Him. He knows. So, if you truly believe in God then you know that just saying the right words are not what He truly wants from us.
So, how does this play out in worship? We say the right words but our hearts are devoid of any real love for God or actual obedience to Him. We sing the songs and quote the scriptures but we reject His authority over our thoughts, desires, goals, and actions. We treat worship as a performance or as entertainment and not as a life altering encounter with the one, true God of the universe. We treat prayer as a prescription we must fulfill rather than a pleasure that we should treasure. We treat music as entertainment rather than an expression of our love and passion. We approach scripture as a burden that demands actions of us rather than the empowering and life giving bread of Heaven. What does God want in worship? Not our words, not our actions, not our performance, not our lip service but our hearts. He wants US.
Oh, this is so deep and rich. Let these thoughts settle into you: He doesn’t want us to come wearing our masks. He wants us to rip them off and to bare our hearts to Him. I would encourage you to go read all of Hebrews 3 – 4. But consider these words: “No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account.” (Hebrews 4:13 HCSB) Why must we come naked and exposed before Him? Because we’ve been mostly taught to believe that what God wants is a performance from us. Dance the right dance. Sing the right song. Recite the right prayer. Do all the right things and you get Heaven in return. NOT! That’s simply not Biblical.
I mean, even our jokes reflect this false belief. Our jokes about heaven always start, a guy shows up at the pearly gates and Peter’s looking in this book for why he should let the guy in. Let me tell you, the Book of Life doesn’t list that guy’s good deeds but contains names written in blood, lamb’s blood – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. When we follow Jesus and by faith surrender to Him as Lord over our lives then He writes our names in that book. That’s what Peter’s looking for, not our personal goodness outweighing our sin but our name written in His blood. That’s the only way into God’s presence.
“Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 HCSB)
Next, notice how Jesus addresses the source of the Pharisees’ and scribes’ authority. Continuing from Isaiah: “They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.” Vain worship is empty, meaningless, purposeless worship. Worship that is vain, meaningless, purposeless is worship that is focused on us, focused on our personal needs, our feelings and desires and not on God. Be careful, here. It is easy to think that this kind of worship is obvious and easy to identify but therein lies its subtle danger. It’s not so easy to identify and we fall into this trap far, far too often. You’d think that a Temple dedicated to the worship of God would prompt men to worship Him and Him alone and, yet, Isaiah writes these words to men in just that situation.
What’s the source of this empty, meaningless worship? Replacing the power and authority of God’s Word with the empty, false doctrines and commands of men. “Disregarding the command of God, you keep the traditions of men.” Oh, be careful here CHURCH. Be careful lest you let these words miss their mark! I know the temptation is to sit back, hear these words and wag our long bony self-righteous fingers and shake our holier-than-thou heads at a lost world. These are NOT words directed at those outside the church. NO! These words are directed at those of us inside her ranks. This is not a condemnation of the irreligious but of the religious elite. Those who try to make the trappings of man’s religious efforts serve their own selfish purposes. This is what happens when the will, word and wisdom of God is replaced by the ways of men.
However, I should also note, this also happens when the church listens to and bends to the will of cultural influences. The church must always be aware of cultural trends and influences to be ready and capable of responding to them as we properly apply God’s Word to their influence on our people. But we must not let them sway us away from humble obedience to God’s Word and His commands. But it is essential that we don’t replace one cultural trend with another. We often want to respond to a secular trend with a religious trend or replace a cultural fad with a religious fad. God’s Word is timeless and timely and will enable us to respond correctly when we “correctly teach the Word of truth.”
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 HCSB)
Finally, we must not be people who disregard God’s commands even as we strive to keep our own traditions. We don’t often admit how much influence our own culture has upon our personal religious beliefs and traditions. For example, tradition often drives our specific modes, methods and mechanics of observing baptism, partaking in the Lord’s Supper or participating in worship services. We tend to deify certain aspects even as we demonize others (think worship music styles, baptism modes, communion elements).
Please don’t misunderstand me, I recognize that we baptists believe immersion is the right, biblical way to baptize a believer. But we will fall into this trap if we aren’t careful. Never forget, God cares more about our hearts than He does our lips. You can properly baptize by immersing a man all day long and it won’t necessarily get him any closer to heaven or deepen his faith. How you’re baptized isn’t nearly as important as to why you’re baptized. You can argue juice or wine for decades but it doesn’t change the fact that He shed His blood for the remission of our sin. What you drink isn’t nearly as important as to why you drink – as often as you do this, remember what I’ve given/done for you. What you sing, a hymn or a praise chorus, isn’t nearly as important as to how you sing it – with a heart full of love, adoration, gratitude and worship.
Let me end by asking you a question, is your worship fake, empty or vain? Worship is fake when we wear a mask before God and try to conceal our faults, our fears, our doubts, and our disillusionment. We can only worship God when we drop the mask and come openly, honestly and humbly before Him. When we confess our faults He beckons us to turn from them and to turn to Him and find mercy and forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9). When we expose our fears to Him we discover His perfect, unconditional love is capable of driving away even our deepest, darkest and most debilitating fears (1 Jn. 4:18). When we reveal our doubts to Him we find that His faithfulness will strengthen us and protect us (Ps. 91:4). When we voice our disillusionment we will find that His Word and His Spirit are capable of sustaining us and keeping us until the very end (Jn. 14-17; Phil. 1:6).
Is your worship empty or vain? Worship is empty and vain (pointless) when it is focused on us and not on God and worship is focused on ourselves when it is all about how it makes us feel, our experience, or what we get from it. True worship is NEVER about what you get but about what you give; what you give to Him who alone deserves worship, the one, true and living God of all creation. Stop worrying about what someone else might think and focus on Him. Stop worrying about how you should worship and just pour yourself out to Him. Stop concerning yourself with what you brought, what your wore, what you can do and just give Him yourself. Stop trying to form the right words and just open your heart up to Him. I promise, if you’ll do that you’ll never be satisfied with anything less, ever again. Come, let’s worship Him together…