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Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I invite you to open your folder or your Bible to Mark chapter 7 as we listen in on Jesus’ teaching about what really makes a person clean or unclean in God’s eyes.
Traditions can be a good thing. Traditions can be a bad thing. Traditions can start out good and become bad, especially when they lose their meaning or become more important than God’s Word.
We have a tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 24 and 25. Many churches have the tradition of having the children present the Christmas Gospel on Christmas Eve. It’s a good thing to celebrate the birth of Jesus by gathering at church, reading the prophecies and the Christmas Gospel from Luke 2. But, it can become a bad thing if someone says that Christmas must be celebrated on December 24 and 25; or that children must be the ones to present the Christmas Gospel and they must do it on Christmas Eve. That would be bad because it would make a human tradition into a command of God, and God has not commanded us to do those things. We don’t even know the exact date of the birth of Jesus, and it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that children must be the ones to present the Gospel on a date we choose. There are many good things about the tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 24 and 25 and having the children be involved in presenting the Christmas Gospel – reminding everyone that Christmas is all about Jesus coming to earth to be our Savior. But the moment we insist that we can’t celebrate Christmas on any other date or in any other way, we sin by implying that a tradition is equal to or more important than the Word of God.
Jesus told the Pharisees and experts in the law that they were guilty of being hypocrites. They were claiming to worship God. They were proud of how religious they were, more religious than most others. But the rules they were following, which they thought brought them closer to God, were actually separating them from God.
Mark explains what led Jesus to criticize them so harshly. Verses 1-2, The Pharisees and some of the experts in the law came from Jerusalem and gathered around Jesus. They saw some of his disciples eating bread with unclean (that is, unwashed) hands. And verse 5, They asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders? Instead they eat bread with unclean hands.
To us, eating with unwashed hands doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Yes, we have signs in almost every restroom that remind workers to wash their hands before returning to work. But if someone doesn’t do it we just think it’s gross. We don’t accuse them of sinning against God. But the Pharisees didn’t look at hand washing only as good hygiene. They saw it as a religious ceremony, as obedience to God. If they were in the market place, we might say Wal-Mart, when they returned home, the first thing they would do is wash. Not because their hands were full of germs, but because they would have had contact with dirty, or sinful, people, like gentiles or fallen away Jews. And they had developed a special way of washing. They scrub their hands with a fist. They make sure the “uncleanness” of being in contact with sinners is completely gone and that the contaminated water doesn’t run back down their hands, kind of like you see doctors scrub before surgery. They even had special pots of water set aside for this ceremonial washing, like the ones that held the water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding of Cana.
This tradition of washing was so important to these Pharisees and experts in the law that they expected Jesus to reprimand his disciples for sinning by not following the tradition.
Jesus didn’t do what they expected. Instead of reprimanding his Disciples, Jesus reprimanded them. Why? What was the big deal? Why didn’t Jesus say, “You are right, they should wash their hands before they eat, it’s good hygiene.” He didn’t say that because there was a bigger issue at stake than whether or not the disciples had poor hygiene. He tells them clearly what the issue was. Verses 6-8 These people (you pharisees and experts in the law) honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching human rules as if they were doctrines. You abandon God’s commandment but hold to human tradition.
This washing of the hands may have started out as a good thing, but it had become bad. It had developed into more than just a tradition. It had become, for them, a means of worship; a doctrine; something that was more important to them than the commands of God.
The point is that an outward washing can never make you clean before God, no matter how many times, or how thoroughly you wash. God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, he looks at the heart. If you trust in your heart that going through the motions of some tradition, whatever it may be, is what makes you clean in God’s eyes, Jesus calls you a hypocrite too. If you think that just because you attend worship somewhat regularly, and participate, saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed and singing hymns, that by going through those motions you are clean before God, you are a hypocrite. Your outward appearance is great. People might look up to you as setting a good example, but if your heart is not in it; if you are not trusting that only the blood of Jesus shed for you on the cross makes you clean before God, then all your outward actions are in vain, your worship is worthless.
Jesus wants to make sure everyone understands this point. Purchasing something that an unbeliever made or touched doesn’t make you unclean before God. Even eating something that God said was unclean for his Old Testament people to eat doesn’t make you unclean. Verse 15 There is nothing outside of a man that can make him unclean by going into him, that is, unclean before God.
So what does make you unclean before God? Sin. And Jesus makes it clear that sin is not judged only by outward actions. Verses 21-23 From within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual sins, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, slander, arrogance, and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and make a person unclean. The uncleanness of sin starts inside, in the heart and mind. No amount of water, no outward religious ceremony, can wash away that uncleanness.
We aren’t told the reaction the people had to Jesus’ words, but we know what our reaction is. “I’m unclean! I can’t help but see myself in that list of things that make a person unclean before God. I have all kinds of evil thoughts every day. I’m often greedy and envious. I’ve been deceitful, and I’ve slandered others. Unless I am cleansed on the inside, I’m doomed. God won’t have anything to do with me and I’ll be separated from him for all eternity.”
Being clean before God is important, the most important thing in the world. What really makes you clean, clean before God?
Thankfully God’s word, not human tradition, answers that question very clearly for us. It tells us that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. It says, To the one who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood be praise and glory. It says, In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.
Jesus’ blood can make us clean because it is the blood of the Lamb of God who is without spot or blemish, who was tempted in every way, but remained without sin. He not only didn’t do anything sinful, no deceit was found in his mouth, he didn’t retaliate when abused and unjustly accused. He was never lustful or envious. Because he alone was without sin his blood shed on the cross in our place was able to cover over our every sin and make us clean before the Father. And this cleansing is not received by any outward actions, but only through faith; through trusting God’s promise that because Jesus shed his blood for us we are cleansed.
Jesus’ strong warning to the Pharisees and the experts in the law is very fitting for us today. If you think that celebrating Christmas on a certain day, or in a certain way; if you think that a certain style of music, or a certain liturgy or form of worship, or any outward thing you do makes you better than others and makes you clean before God, by Jesus’ definition you are a hypocrite. You are letting human traditions distract you from the truth of God’s word. You are trusting outward things to make you clean before God and that’s dangerous because they can’t make you clean.
Jesus didn’t warn about these things because he hated the Pharisees and wanted to put them down in public. He warned them, and he warns us, because he loves us. He doesn’t want us to let anything come between us and God. And, when we realize that we have elevated something that is only a human tradition to the point of a doctrine, when we are more interested in keeping a tradition, or preserving the past than we are in making sure people hear God’s word, how thankful we are that there is a cleansing bath that washes away our sin and makes us clean before God.
The blood of Jesus alone makes you clean before God. The blood of Jesus alone cleanses you from all sin.
We don’t have it in our hymnal but the old Gospel hymn says it well: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus; what can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”