They Worship Me In Vain

Ordinary 22B

Mark 7: 1 8; 14 15; 21 23


Our reading for meditation comprises selected verses from Mark 7: 1 — 23 which deal with the common theme of "cleanness". It is easy for us to discount the text as of rather low relevance to Christians. However it does contain very significant points of interest for Christians which have become somewhat buried in recent times. In St. Mark's Gospel, it also serves to introduce the extension of our Lord's ministry to the Gentiles in vv. 24 — 30 (the Syro-Phoenician woman), in vv. 31 — 37 (the deaf and dumb man in Decapolis) and, in fact, in vv. 8 — 10 (the feeding of the 4000). We do not know exactly when the incident occurred.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 1 4

The text introduces the situation and contains a brief explanation in brackets, for the sake of gentile readers:

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 'unclean' that is, ceremonially unwashed hands.

(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.

When they come from the market place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

The text refers to washing. The real purpose is ritual purification. In the minds of some modern readers, this practice can bring a slight reaction of contempt for such a pre-occupation. As with so many customs arising in traditions different from our own, it is important to understand their purpose before we pass comment. Bratcher and Nida (U.B.S.) inform us that this purification is described in various ways, eg. "to become really clean", "to become not mixed", in the sense of contaminated, "to take away pollution". Even for Christians, these would be important.

So we can see that the custom originated from a very practical need to keep the Jewish Faith from becoming watered down by lax practice and a lowering of standards. These customs were "the traditions of the elders" and formed a great mass of oral tradition handed down to help the faithful live up to the requirements of God's Law (first 5 Books of Moses). In our Lord's time it was still in oral form and was not written until about A.D. 200 when the Mishnah was formed.

The tradition of the elders started out as a well-intentioned guide for believers. Because it was not in a fixed format, many burdensome demands came to be incorporated and handed down as essential religious practice. The problem arose as time went on, that it was not the original focus on God's Law that was passed down, but a diverted focus on lesser things which did not help the people to carry out essential religious practice. These therefore became a stumbling block to the ordinary devout Jew who couldn't cope with the ever-increasing weight.

Verses 5 8

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with unclean hands?"

He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written; "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

The senior authorities asked Jesus to explain why his disciples did not obey the "tradition of the elders". The answer given by him is worthy of our closest attention. The first thing we notice is our Lord's bluntness: he calls his challengers "hypocrites" and then quotes the Prophet Isaiah to them. Mark takes it from the Greek (Septuagint) Old Testament: "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." To make his point even clearer (or more forceful) he added that they had become more concerned about the man-made rules than God's own commandments.

We need to be clear that Jesus was not opposed to Judaism's practice of interpreting the Law of Moses with standard explanations and regulations guiding the devout in their practical daily religious life. This is the rightful duty and responsibility of religious leaders in any tradition. They would be failing if they did not do this. What our Lord is objecting to in this passage is something which history constantly shows us, sooner or later takes place in all religious traditions: the authorities forgot the original reason for the regulations; forgot that their purpose was to help people remain close to God in their ordinary daily life.

Instead self-interest took over, and the Pharisees, in this case, became obsessed with outdoing one-another in the less important matters while paying little attention to true Biblical principles. In fact, they used their "traditions" to get around having to obey the law. Verses 9 — 13 record how Jesus reveals to them just how bad this irreligious practice had become.

Verses 14 and 15

Jesus seemed to take a break and then later call the people around him again, returning to the above topic and adding further light upon it:

Listen to me everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean'.

Unfortunately this passage is often wrongly used and interpreted. It does not give licence for eating and drinking anything and everything and clobbering people who live according to strict religious dietary codes. Jesus was not here abrogating the religious laws about food. Nor did he ever wish to undermine the importance of spiritual purity. He did, however, loudly denounce those who in fact cared little for inward purity but pretended to value it by performing some external ceremony. That was contemptuous and he called it so.

Essentially, Jesus was here explaining that while a food may be ritually unclean, it is not the state of the food that brings about inner defilement: it is the wrong attitude towards obeying God.

Verses 21 23

Having gone aside from the crowds to explain some of this to his closer disciples, Jesus then poured forth what he had been waiting to say to his opponents; an expansion of verse 15:

For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.

All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean'.


It is unfortunate that so many popular commentaries take a somewhat shallow view of this passage and misguide their readers by failing to point out the real message of Jesus. This passage is not about tradition versus commandment, or human tradition opposed to the Word of God, and those who are obsessed with demonstrating this, display a prejudice equally as unhelpful as the attitude of the Pharisees. Christians today must look more carefully at our Lord's teaching and not perpetuate shallow, convenient interpretations. We conclude by looking at two key ideas in our Lord's teaching in this text.

First, focussing on what makes us spiritually unclean. If we were to take Jesus absolutely literally, we might find ourselves believing that you cannot offend God or harm your spiritual integrity by anything you consume. If this were so, we might soon find ourselves in trouble.

Then there are the examples from Scripture of food, good in itself, but not recommended! For example, Adam took the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3: 6) and it sent all creation in a new direction. St Paul declared, "drunkards shall not possess the kingdom of God." Using the logic of Jesus, it was not the fruit Adam ate that caused the trouble, but his disobedient heart. Excessive wine is bad but the evil is in the lack of constraint in the consumer.

The issue is, we cannot pass the blame to the external object and call it unclean. The blame rests within us. In effect Jesus was saying to the religious authorities,

"Yes, there are religious laws to be fulfilled by the members of our Faith, and practical guidelines from the Elders on how to carry them out in daily life can help them. But you have become preoccupied with the secondary regulations and seem to have forgotten what they were meant to uphold. You have become so intent on these lesser rules that you care little about your own inner spiritual purity before God. You take great care to be seen carrying out petty little customs you have devised, but do not care about a whole range of evil thoughts and attitudes, your actions display. That is sheer hypocrisy."

Secondly, we should not confuse the place of tradition in the Church with our Lord's condemnation of the Pharisees and their "traditions of men." In 2 Thessalonians 2: 15, St Paul states in plain language, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle."

Our word "tradition" comes to us via Latin, which means, "what has been passed on," and refers specifically to what has been communicated in teaching. Jesus, in our text, is not complaining about tradition as such, that the elders have passed on guidelines for the practice of the Faith. His complaint is what they passed on. The true tradition or teaching had become supplanted by man-made rules. True religion had been hijacked!

The warning is relevant to all Christian groups. Some constantly point the finger at other Christians for their customs and traditions, only to overlook the fact that they have themselves become imprisoned in their own; yet they cannot see it.

Our Lord was well aware of the natural tendency of people to adopt all the stereotypes of religion in order to give the appearance of being part of the "in group". As long as we are aware of that and reflect from time to time on this passage, we should be able to help one another avoid falling into the same habit.

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