Sermon October 13th: God’s Word and Man’s Traditions

Today I want to look at another of Jesus’s teachings in Mark’s gospel, which we’re working our way through this semester, and it’s one which in my opinion needs to be heard as much today as it did in Jesus’s own time. It is Jesus’s reply to the question He’s asked in 7.5: Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?

In vv 3 and 4 Mark describes some of the ‘tradition of the elders’: washing hands before they eat, washing cups and pots and copper vessels and even dining couches, but if we’re to apply Jesus’s teaching in this passage to our own lives, it’s important to understand that these traditions had a religious purpose. The Old Testament had given the Jews the basic, fundamental commandments of God such as the Ten Commandments, and it had also given some examples of how those commandments were to be applied in practice. In the Ten Commandments, for instance, we are given the general principle Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, and elsewhere in the Old Testament we are given examples of what that means in particular situations. The words in the commandment apply to a court case, as is clear in Exodus 23.2, You shall not bear witness in a suit… so as to pervert justice. But it is explicitly applied to ordinary conversation in Zechariah 8.16, Speak the truth to one another. It can also cover what we do, as well as what we say: Proverbs 23:10, for instance, Do not remove an ancient landmark. Landmarks were used in determining property lines, and a dishonest person might sometimes move a landmark in order to be able to claim property that wasn’t his. That is also bearing false witness. Now the Old Testament only gives us some examples of these applications of the commandments; those examples are supposed to be enough that having seen how it works, we’re expected to be able to figure out for ourselves what counts as false witness and what doesn’t as different situations arise. And the same thing with the other commandments. But over the centuries Jewish leaders, of whom the Pharisees were the best example in Jesus’s day, had tried to provide a specific rule to cover every conceivable situation, so that if you followed all the rules, you would be bound to be following the Commandments. These rules are what were called the Tradition of the Elders.

Jesus’s reply to the question in vv 6–9 challenges this whole system of applying the word of God to people’s daily lives by giving them rules. In v 7 He quotes the prophet Isaiah (29.13), whom God told to tell the people that the teachings they claimed were from God were in fact the commandments of men. Then Jesus says to them 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… 9 a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! And in v 11 He gives them an example, based on a tradition, known as corban. Corban was a practice analogous to what today is called, if I remember rightly, a ‘charitable remainder trust’ or something like that. Today you can give a substantial sum to the church, for instance, and get a tax deduction for doing so, and still earn interest income on the amount donated, because it doesn’t actually become the property of the church until you die. Corban was like that: a person could declare part of his wealth corban, which meant that he could live on the income from it, but at his death the principal would go into the Temple treasury. The tradition seems to have arisen from an attempt to encourage obedience not to any of the ten commandments, but to the commandment to tithe, or give a tenth, that was part of the Levitical system. And people sometimes declared part of their wealth corban, as they sometimes declare part of their wealth a charitable remainder trust, as a way of making sure that their money didn’t go to someone they didn’t want it to! In Jesus’s example, money is being declared corban in order to relieve the declarer of the duty of supporting his parents in their old age. Jesus points out that this practice, despite being part of the Tradition of the Elders and intended to support obedience to a commandment, can actually lead a person into violation of another commandment, in this case the commandment to honour father and mother. And after explaining this in vv 10–12, He says in v 13, you make void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

Jesus is obviously untroubled by the fact that some of his disciples ignore traditions of this sort—in fact, the only way the disciples would have been likely to set aside the tradition of the Elders would be because Jesus had taught them its dangers already. He explains why He is untroubled by pointing out the destructive consequences that devotion to tradition can have. His disciples are not to obey it, because it is part of a religious system that is not of God, and because it is not of God, it leads people away from God rather than towards God. Verse 8, You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. When there’s a conflict between God’s law and man’s traditions, it seems to be human nature to leave God’s law and hold to tradition. His quote from Isaiah in v 6 makes it clear that people can obey religious traditions and still have hearts that are far from God, and be worshiping God in vain.

Only after making the principle clear does Jesus discuss the particular tradition that had started the discussion, which was that the disciples had eaten without washing their hands first. The point of that tradition was purity. The Old Testament says that those who are God’s people are to be holy as He is holy. To be holy is to be free of any trace of sin. And many of the sins talked about in the Old Testament are said to make the person who commits them unclean, to make that person impure. Adultery, for instance, in Leviticus 18:20, is said to make the person who commits it unclean, and the same thing is said of many other sins. The word is also used concerning what is sometimes called ‘ritual purity’, as opposed to the moral purity that is at issue in the case of adultery. To touch a corpse made a person unclean, even though it wasn’t sinful, according to Numbers 19:13; and the hand-washing tradition appears to be related to this rather than to any ideas of hygiene. When you go about your daily business you come into contact with all sorts of people and things and you have no idea what they have touched or who has touched them, so one’s hands are always considered ritually unclean, just in case, and the way you purify something ritually unclean is to wash it, as the passage in Leviticus explains.

But ritual unclean-ness is not what really matters, Jesus explains. Verse 14, 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. A few verses later, He explains to the disciples exactly what He means—they don’t appear to have got the point even though they were practising it—v 21: 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.

What comes between human beings and God is not ritual impurity, but moral impurity, and that impurity is in the heart, and that is what is real about us in God’s sight whether we express it outwardly or not. Sometimes evil thoughts come out of our mouths; more often they stay in our hearts. That way we can deceive others, and we can even deceive ourselves, but God is not deceived. Remember I Samuel 16:7, the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. And what God saw in the heart of the Pharisees and the scribes, what He sees in my heart, and what I dare say He sees in yours too, is what keeps us from our right relationship with Him.

What was in the heart of the Scribes and the Pharisees was a devotion to the commandments of men that had become so confused with the commandments of God that they were willing to oppose the greatest act that God had done for mankind. It’s Matthew’s account of this incident that tells us this; Matthew says that the scribes and the Pharisees were offended by what Jesus said. They were offended, because as long as they kept their traditions, they didn’t feel the need to examine their hearts. They had stopped thinking about the purpose of their traditions, and were offended when Jesus told them that as long as they turned these traditions into rules, they were drawn away from God rather than closer to God. So they missed a wonderful opportunity: if it’s what’s in my heart that defiles me, washing my hands won’t achieve anything. It’s my heart that needs to be washed! And there in front of them was the only way to have a clean heart—Jesus, the only way for sinful human beings to be put right with God. It is through faith in Him as Saviour and Lord that our hearts are washed clean and we are put right with God. Nothing wrong with washing hands—unless you think it makes you right with God. Nothing wrong with the religious traditions we observe today—unless we think they put us right with God. If we’re even tempted to think that, better not to observe them at all. Personally, I’m a man who loves traditions. Nothing warms my heart more than the tradition of singing the hymn ‘Abide with me’ before the opening whistle of England’s biggest soccer match, which is a tradition going back long before I was born. Now that I live here, I never get to take part in it, but even so I’d be heartbroken if I found out that it had stopped. When I was young I almost joined the army just because I loved what I read about the traditions observed in the officers’ mess—pass the port to the left unless ladies are present in which case pass it to the right, or something like that! But in my relationship with God, I avoid anything that is merely a human tradition, just because I’m the sort of person who would make a rule out of it as quick as you can say ‘Jack Robinson’. So much safer to focus on Jesus, whose death on the cross cleanses from sin all those who put their faith in Him. What I need to concentrate on is what Jesus says when He explains the hand-washing business. Washing our hands before we eat makes sure that we don’t add dirt to our food, but it has no spiritual value, even if it is part of a religious tradition. Vv 20ff, What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolish-ness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. There’s too many of those things coming out of my heart every day for me to have any time to waste criticising someone else because of what they do. So much better to look at my own life, admit to God all the ways in which I fall short of His will for me, and seek His forgiveness, and the power of His Holy Spirit to do better in future. That’s the gospel of the Kingdom, the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that Jesus came to proclaim. It’s what I need more than anything. If it’s what you need too—and I’m willing to bet you’ll find yourself somewhere in that list that Jesus gives—don’t let any religious tradition, or any non-religious tradition for that matter, draw you away from the fact that God has given you a way to be right with Him, the way of faith in His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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