The Narrative Lectionary points us this week to Mark 7:1-23 and Psalm 51:1-3, 6-7. I am preaching a series called What Faith Requires and will be talking about this passage and how it relates to our faith.
The Mark text is a fascinating look at how our religious traditions can become so important that they cause us to look down upon anyone who doesn’t practice them. In our text the Pharisees practice a ceremonial washing of the hands – identified as a “tradition of the elders” (vs 3). Mark tells us that “there are man other customs they have received and keep” and he identifies a few of them. Their eyes are on Jesus and his disciples and they naturally want to know why they do not keep the traditions that should be recognized. Jesus’ disciples are Jews and would know about these traditions. But perhaps Jesus isn’t keeping the traditions either and the disciples are just following suit. The question, though, is about the disciples.
Jesus, knowing what was in the heart, identifies their hypocrisy. They do keep the traditions well, but this seems to be a substitute for really putting their heart into the matter (vs 6). He gives them a strong message that upends their confidence in tradition keeping that has replaced heartfelt devotion to the Father. He points out that they even have the despicable practice of failing to support their parents because their tradition allows them to allocate all their funds to the Lord (and nothing left for aging parents who no doubt were dependent upon family for support). That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Jesus lets them know that he is aware that they “do many other similar things” (vs 13).
Jesus calls a crowd together. I do not have any doubt that this crowd of people have suffered under the judgmental eye of the Pharisees and scribes. He lets them know that failing to keep these outward traditions is not causing any defilement or religious uncleanness. It’s what’s going on inside a person that matters most. As followers of Jesus we are used to hearing this kind of message but the disciples ask him about it in private.
The struggle is not with our outward acts of piety. The real struggle is what is going on in our hearts.
For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”Mark 7:21-23, CSB
If anyone was present that day hoping that Jesus would notice how nice they were and be oblivious to the evil junk going on in their hearts, they are now thoroughly disabused of that illusion.
There is much here for the preacher to think about this Sunday. Every religion is rife with religious tradition – and it is often elevated into dogma. This is a danger zone for Christians and it causes much division and argumentation in the Christian world. My list of “traditions” might be your list of “essentials”. Surely everyone knows that old saw about the lady who cut off both ends of the ham when she cooked it. When her husband inquired as to why, she said her mother did it and she supposed that was the right way to do it. When mother was asked, she explained that she never had a pot big enough to cook the ham in and had to cut off the ends for it to fit. This is the way religious traditions develop – sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of reverence, and even sometimes out of conviction. And that’s the trouble with traditions. MY traditions are God’s will, YOUR traditions are expendable.
In connection with traditions but developing further, God is mostly concerned with our hearts. When we feel like we have enacted all the traditions we feel like we did good. But if we did not have our heart in what we were doing, then it was just vain worship.
In vain (fruitlessly and without profit) do they worship Me, ordering and teaching [to be obeyed] as doctrines the commandments and precepts of men.Mark 7:7, AMPC
Our worship only means something to God if He has our hearts. This teaching is expressed both in Old and New Testaments. That relates to Jesus’ further elaboration. If our hearts are not in it when we worship God, then we might rely on the props of our traditions for outward evidence of religious devotion – even if it is insincere. We can easily criticize those who do not participate in our traditions. It makes us look bad if they aren’t doing the same things we are. It’s just a web of deceit.
Jesus assesses the situation and reminds his followers that all these outward religious props are just a distraction. Instead, look into your hearts. That’s where the real issue is. It would have been nice if Jesus had spent time here talking about how dear we were, how devoted, how sweet. But instead he unearths the wickedness that’s rotting away in our hearts and pronounces those things as of vital importance. Those things tend to come out and do harm to others.
Christians can spend a lot of time pointing out the religious practices of others, why they’re wrong (and sometimes why they will miss heaven!), and how they should do it like us. After all, nearly 2,000 years later we’re the ones who have it all figured out, right? But a passage like this calls us to look at what’s happening in our own hearts. I think that truth calls us to be drawn to our Savior. I don’t like that list in vs 20-23. It hits too close to home.
On the other hand, I love that Jesus exposes that list. He knows the real ME. The secrets are out, I can hide nothing from Him! More, He still loves the real ME. Even more, He is saving the real ME. That’s news about which I can rejoice!
But, please do wash your hands before you eat. Really.
You’re invited to join my Facebook Group Narrative Lectionarians where I post resources for the text each week as well as entertain discussions relative to the text.