Mark 7:1-23

Text Comment

The law of Moses did not require this washing of hands before meals; it was a requirement imposed by the rabbis largely in an effort to maintain ritual purity over against an encroaching Gentile culture. Hence the need to wash after coming from the market where non-Jews would be encountered. The Essenes at Qumran took this necessity for washing further than even the Pharisees, but the Pharisees were more scrupulous about questions of purity than the rest of the Jews. The Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, notes that Mark’s description is accurate and that the dominant trait of Pharisaism before A.D. 70 was concern for ritual purity. There were rules about everything, what needed to be washed and when and how. Fully a quarter of the Mishnah is devoted to questions of ritual purity. [Edwards, 207-208]

Mark explains the customs for his readers who, as Roman Gentiles, would be unfamiliar with them.

Here is the nub of the complaint of the Pharisees: Jesus was not observing the rabbinical traditions, those additional regulations developed by the rabbis as interpretation and application of the Law of Moses.
This worship is vain, it is idolatry because the divine has been replaced by the merely human. [Edwards, 209]
The Pharisees certainly thought that they were honoring the Torah with their rules and regulations, but Jesus says that in fact they had replaced the Law of God with their own rules.
The sarcasm is as obvious in Mark’s Greek as in the NIV’s English. What follows is an example of Pharisaic sophistry that proves the Lord’s point: the true meaning of the Law has been set aside by these rabbinical traditions; man’s laws have replaced God’s.
The practice of “corban,” from the Hebrew word for offering, harkened back to the Law’s provision for devoting particular property to the Lord (e.g. Lev. 27:28; Num. 18:14), an animal, say, or some property. It was something akin to our concept of deferred giving in which the property was withdrawn from ordinary use but remained under the control of the donor until his death, when it would pass into the possession of the temple. But the practice was subject to misuse and became, in fact, a means not of giving something to God but of preventing somebody else from having it. [Manson in Edwards, 210] And who was more likely to have a claim on one’s property than one’s aging parents, needing support in their later years.

The point is that God’s commandment comes first and cannot, in any circumstances, be set aside by the scribal tradition as the Jews were doing both in this instance and in a number of others Jesus doesn’t name.

The real impurity comes from within, not from without. Now the Lord will elaborate the meaning of what he has said for the sake of his disciples who, characteristically, are slow to catch on.
As we saw before with the use of this word in Mark, the term parable has a wider use in Mark. It can also mean epigrammatic sentences such as we have here and encountered before in 3:23.
We can hear the exasperation in the Lord’s voice.
This is an editorial comment by Mark himself, rare in the Gospel and so accordingly especially interesting. He is telling his Gentile readers that it was unnecessary for them to observe the Jewish dietary regulations that, at the time the Gospel was written, some Jewish Christians were demanding they do. The Lord Jesus had swept them aside.
The entire purpose of the ceremonial regulations of purity in the Law of Moses had been to enforce the importance of Israel being and living as God’s holy people. The Jews had lost sight of this deeper purpose and had become enamored of the regulations themselves. In that spirit they had multiplied the regulations far beyond anything found in the Word of God. What had mattered in the ancient epoch and what matters now is the purity of the heart, from which springs the thoughts and behavior of human beings. That is what holiness consists of first of all. It is important to remember that there is nothing new in this teaching. What Jesus is opposing is not the Law itself, as if there were something wrong with it, something needing to be changed. In fact, as he himself makes very clear in vv. 6-8, it is the Pharisees who have undermined God’s law. He is determined to uphold the law, as he often says in the Gospels, but the Law rightly understood and rightly practiced. Obviously, then, when he declares all things clean and so nullifies the authority of the clean and unclean food laws of the Mosaic law, he does not view that nullification as an overturning or undermining of the Law of Moses. Such changes of outward form – there are a number of others (circumcision to baptism; Passover to Lord’s Supper, and many others) – are just that: changes of outward form only. What he opposes is the Pharisaic spirit and theory of obedience which had denatured God’s Law, turned it into something so much less than it was. Fact is, Christians have done precisely the same thing to the ceremonial regulations of the new epoch – e.g. baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Lord’s Day worship, ordination, and so on – that the Pharisees did with the laws of purity; that is, treat them as if the outward act itself were the really important thing, not the attitude, the aspiration, and the commitment of the heart in observing the acts themselves. It is in the heart that we find the true man and his true life. It is the heart that makes a person what he or she really is and so a relationship with God that bypasses the heart is a mockery; the true self is being kept from God. [France, 291]

The text we have read does not present the Pharisees or the first century Judaism of which they were outstanding representatives in a very good light. In that it is hardly unique in the Gospels. From the beginning of his public ministry to its end the Lord minced no words in describing the Jewish church of his time and its leadership as misguided in fundamental ways, hypocritical. He described them in various ways as presenting an outward religious life that masked a heart indifferent to the holiness of God or the love of God and others. They were men who loved to be admired. They were jealous of their position. The Gospels do not hesitate to say that the Jewish clerics demanded the crucifixion of Jesus chiefly because they envied his popularity.

As you may know, this part of the Gospels’ teaching has been undergoing a massive reinterpretation in recent years. The characterization of the Pharisees as hypocrites and their religious viewpoint as shallow and superficial, a concentration on the outward at the expense of the true devotion of the heart, is right now the subject of a frontal attack. There are particular reasons why scholarship should question this view of the Pharisees in our historical moment. Ours is a tolerant day and it does not seem right to people that the Scripture should speak so critically of another person’s religious viewpoint and, in particular, to question the sincerity of people whom we know to have been particularly earnest and serious about their religious life. What is more, the scandal of modern anti-Semitism has made biblical scholars particularly wary of enlisting the Bible in the criticism of Judaism and Jews. Further, in our ecumenical age, when inter-faith dialogue is so much the fashion, many scholars are more interested in fostering rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism than in advertising the Bible’s repudiation of Judaism’s religious outlook. For these reasons and others, biblical scholars of many different stripes have been hard at work defending the religion of Jesus’ day by placing the biblical critique of Judaism in a more positive light.

There is no doubt that some of this was needed. The view that many have long had of the Pharisees in the church was and is nothing but a caricature. The Lord’s criticism of them has made it easy for us to think of the Pharisees as the kind of people who would kick dogs and foreclose on poor widows. As a matter of fact, they were, as a rule, deeply committed people, zealous for religion, with very high views of God, Scripture, God’s law and the importance of a holy life. There was a great deal and a great deal of fundamental importance in the faith of the Pharisees with which the Lord Jesus had no disagreement at all. He even on several occasions commended aspects of their religious life. The Pharisees, if you will forgive the anachronism, were the conservatives of the church, not the liberals. The liberals were the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the Calvinists, the upholders of the inerrancy of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. In more ways than you want to know the Pharisees were like us!

This is important for us to recognize and appreciate. For as long as we think of the Pharisees as notoriously evil, as evil in a way that surpasses the generality of men and women, we will not be inclined to see the most important thing about the Pharisees, which is that their spirit and their sins live in each one of us and that what Jesus found to condemn in them he can find in everyone of us far too much of the time. By demonizing the Pharisees we limit the application of the Lord’s remarks to people whom we think must be very different from and far worse than ourselves. We fail to see that the errors into which they fell and which kept them from the kingdom of God are nothing other than the errors into which the church of Christ has fallen time and time again to the spiritual ruin of countless multitudes of people who were sure that, as Christians, they could not have been subject to the Lord’s denunciations of the Pharisees.

The true answer to the charge that the Bible is unfairly critical of these sincere practitioners of what they took to be nothing other than the ancient biblical faith is not that the Lord’s remarks about them were untrue, or that his remarks have been misunderstood, or that the facts place them in a better light – there is plenty in their writings to justify the charge the Lord has made against them here – but rather that the hypocrisy that the Lord Jesus discovered in the Pharisees is so common in human life and in religious life that it is virtually impossible to believe that it wasn’t a major problem in first century Judaism. It is always a major problem! It became a problem almost immediately in the Christian church of the new epoch and has surfaced repeatedly in Christian circles ever since. We too often forget that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was nothing more or less than the Christian church of that time. Its errors and sins are our errors and sins. When we criticize the Pharisees, we are criticizing a spirit and a viewpoint that can just as easily be detected in the church today.

Obviously there was a massive divide between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries. There must be some explanation as to why the Jews did not welcome their own Messiah, come among them doing miracles as he had, blessing the people in every way as he did, preaching the truth with an authority they could not deny. And the explanation – the only sufficient explanation – is that Jesus repudiated their cherished religious viewpoint. He didn’t think about fundamental things as they had come to do. The differences that separated Jesus from the Judaism of his time were obviously not differences of detail. There were all manner of such minor differences between one rabbi’s interpretation of the Law and that of another, between the interpretations of whole rabbinical schools and the Jews tolerated those differences reasonably well. The disciples of Hillel did not demand the execution of the disciples of Shammai! For all their differences, they shared a fundamental outlook. They would not have crucified Jesus for differing from them in such a way. What Jesus had attacked was their fundamental conception of righteousness, of what it meant to be a true Jew and a child of God. What Jesus repudiated was, we would say today, their understanding of how a man gets right with God. That is why they crucified him. He was a heretic. What made it worse was the fact that he claimed that his heresy was, in fact, the true and ancient teaching of the Torah and that it was they who had forsaken God’s Law and so God himself.

You have only to consider the almost bottomless hatred of Sunnis for Shiites and vice versa to have some understanding of how people regard people, especially people who ostensibly share the same faith, who nevertheless repudiate and condemn their understanding of the faith. What was most precious to the Pharisees – their understanding of what it meant to be righteous before God, to be a good Jew – Jesus said was an affront to God. No wonder the impassible divide between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership. No wonder their hatred of him; no wonder their clamor for his execution.

Here then is the great lesson of this text for us. Hypocrites are rarely self-conscious in their hypocrisy. The Pharisees were not playing at their religious observance; not in any self-conscious way. They were in earnest. Jesus admits they were. Scholars today point out that you can find all manner of statements in the writings of the rabbis of the time, including Pharisees, about the importance of the sincerity of the heart, about the grace of God, and about the importance of love. Of course you can. But it was not the assertion of those biblical truths that told the tale, but the presence as well of an alien element in the Judaism of the time, the tradition of the elders, that in an almost irresistible way, bent the consciousness of God’s people away from him, from his grace, and from his true interests in their hearts and lives. That is always what happens. What happened, Jesus said, was that they had “let go of the commands of God and [were] holding on to the traditions of men.”

Now, it must be said again that that was not what the Pharisees thought they were doing. They fully intended to keep the Law of God and they fully intended to please God in doing what they did. But Jesus unmasks their actions as, in fact, a rebellion against the law of God and a rejection of it.

It is not altogether clear how these many rules and regulations about washing before eating originated. But there is no doubt that they were originally intended to be part of the “fence around the law” which the rabbinical theologians had begun to develop in the centuries between Malachi and Jesus Christ. The intention at first was honorable and understandable, however misguided. The intention was to help God’s people obey his commandments.

Take the matter that became an issue here: the washing of hands. The OT Law with its rules about ceremonial purity spoke of ways by which a person might contract impurity even by accident. Rules about washing hands before dinner – these rules didn’t concern hygiene, by the way; it wasn’t germs anyone was worried about, but defilement – I say these rules about washing hands and many others like them concerning ceremonial purity were added in an effort to make sure that one was cleansed from any ceremonial defilement which he might have contracted without knowing it.

But it did not stop there. Once the principle of the fencing of the law is admitted, there is no stopping its reach. After all, if the regulations are designed to prevent you from disobedience, if the fence is designed to keep you inside the area defined by God’s Law, then the more pickets to that fence and the higher it is built the better. As with the other laws which the rabbis laid down over the years, these laws about ceremonial washing soon took on a life of their own and began a process of development which took them further and further from the spirit and purpose of God’s Law. Soon there were also rules for washing after meals as well as before and then even for washing between courses of the meal, and as the regulations multiplied and as the face of daily life was more and more altered by them, soon they came to have an importance greater than that of the Law of God as it was written in the Scripture. A serious Jew certainly had to think about them much more and reckon with them much more than the commandments of God. It got to the point where that was actually said! There is a statement in the Mishnah to the effect that to break one of the rules of the tradition of the elders was a greater sin than to break one of the laws of Scripture!

So completely did these man-made regulations come to dominate the thinking and the spirituality of pious Jews that, if you can believe it, it came later even to be believed at least by some, that God himself had to undergo ceremonial washings, like to the ones which they had developed for themselves. Their laws had become the Law! But once again, it wasn’t only the Pharisees who did this.

Take this example from our own immediate history as Protestant evangelical Christians. One would have thought that the fact that the Lord drunk wine would have settled the question for Christians once for all. Not only did he drink wine but he provided wine for his friends at a wedding feast. Not only did he drink wine but he made the drinking of wine part of the sacrament he appointed for the perpetual use of his church. Not only did he drink wine, but he drank it publicly enough that he laid himself open to the charge of his enemies that he was a drunk, a charge that could not have been made against a teetotaler. But that did not prevent a generation of Christians – with what they felt were the very best and most Scriptural of motives – from concluding that it was sinful to drink wine. And once that conviction had settled in their consciousness, to a degree one would have thought impossible for serious-minded Christians, whether a professing Christian drank became far more consequential a measure of his spiritual life than whether he loved his neighbor, shared his faith with the lost, cared for the poor, was offended by racism or injustice of other kinds, raised his children to love and serve the Lord, loved and served the church of God, or governed his tongue. In our own circles, in very similar ways, and for the sake of very similar principles we came to have a tradition of the elders and to think very hard thoughts about people who did not observe that tradition.

We would have, of course, denied that we were being superficial in our judgments or hypocritical in our pursuit of righteousness, we would have been aghast at the charge that we were worshiping God with man-made rules and undermining the law of God – as aghast as the Pharisees were – but the simple historical fact is that American fundamentalism’s tradition of the elders was Pharisaical, produced Pharisaism, and, had it been left unchecked, unrepented of, and unreformed, would have eventually killed us all.

The Pharisees had started down that road with the best of intentions. They meant to uphold God’s law, to express its intent, and to apply it to matters of everyday life. So did we. But in practice the proliferation of regulations – and more important still, the creation of our own regulations (inevitably pride of ownership produces a greater concern for our own regulations than for God’s) – shifted attention away from the true intentions of the law to peripheral matters. No longer did the law strike deep into the conscience; no longer did it drive us daily to Christ for forgiveness. Regulations are meant to be kept and can be kept, and so they foster pride and a sense of religious accomplishment. The Law of God with its high and spiritual demands lays us in the dust before God. Regulations give us a sense of achievement. Over time the Pharisees began to think of themselves as genuinely righteous. They began actually to speak as if they could climb up to heaven by their own efforts – which no Old Testament saint had thought or said. And they never noticed how far they had traveled from the spirit and principles of God’s revelation in Holy Scripture.

The Law of God concentrated on those great obligations to God and man that define true righteousness in the Bible: love, mercy, honesty, and justice. The man-made regulations directed attention instead to an array of acts that had little or no direct connection to biblical goodness. Righteousness came to be understood as simply conformity to regulation rather than a life of love for God and man. This mistake had blighted the spiritual life of Israel many times before the days of the Pharisees and has blighted the spiritual life of Christendom many times since their day. Of course it blighted the life of first century Judaism. A religion of regulation rather than the love and devotion of a humble and grateful heart must produce that dismal result. To be sure, they thought they were loving God and man. They took great umbrage at the accusation that they were not. Religious people always do. But history has proved far too many times that they were fooling themselves and what was produced was not a biblical faith and life, but a parody of it; an unimpressive and weak imitation of the real thing and different at the key point.

What you and I are to carry away from this famous text is most assuredly not contempt for the Pharisees, but instead a concern that we might be like them in precisely those ways we do not recognize or see for what they are. Look at these men. They loved the Bible. They studied it carefully. They were churchmen. They cared about the ancient faith. They were generally admired by the people for the seriousness with which they lived life and sought to practice righteousness. They were blind to their hypocrisy. They didn’t see that they were neglecting the weightier matters of the law. It didn’t occur to them that with all of their regulations they had in fact substituted their own religious viewpoint for God’s. But they had. The Son of God said they had and told them precisely how they had. They had neglected the heart. They had concentrated on the outside instead of the inside: a very easy thing for people to do. Unbelievers do it all day every day. But even Christians do it far, far too much. We create for ourselves a form of godliness but it lacks the true power that comes from love, humility, and the longing for God’s will in the heart.

The other day Florence and I traveled to Chattanooga for a meeting at Covenant College. There was runway construction and weather in Minneapolis and our flight from Sea-Tac was delayed for two hours. We were reassured that all flights in and out of the Twin Cities were being delayed and so our connections were likely to be delayed as well. What is more, they said, there were plenty of later flights. Not to worry. Famous last words. When we arrived in Minneapolis our next flight had been cancelled and the remaining flight to Nashville was full. An agent helped to re-route us to Atlanta, but made a point of saying that whether our bags would find us there was anyone’s guess. As it turned out, all was well and we suffered no more than a late night and a more expensive rental car. But the experience was, for me, another window open to my heart.

That is what matters Jesus says: the heart is the key. Ouch. How easy to think hard thoughts of others! How hard to remember how much God has forgiven me! What a struggle to be gentle and kind when one is inconvenienced! How hard humbly to bow before a sovereign God. And all of this prompted by something as inconsequential as a cancelled flight and possibly mislaid baggage. But, you see, it is that humility, that goodness, that justice, that generosity of Spirit, that love that the pure, unadulterated Law of God is after, not the regulation of conduct for its own sake.

“Above all else guard the heart, for from it flow the issues of life.” So we read in Proverbs. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” said the Lord Jesus. He also said, “Make the heart good and you will make the life good as well.” It is life itself to take that admonition seriously. It is the heart that we are to offer to God, our attitudes, our aspirations, our longings, our commitments, our thoughts of him and others. When we strive to do that two things become immediately clear to us: what failures we are and how desperately we need both the forgiveness of God and the renewal of our hearts. The proof that the Pharisees were not, in fact, truly attending to the heart was that they felt they could please God without Jesus Christ. But with forgiveness and renewal we will then be content with nothing less than to say to Jesus Christ, in the words of the motto of John Calvin:

“Lord I offer my heart to you, promptly and sincerely.”