Silly Rituals. Serious Business.
Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Mark 7:6-7 NLT
The Pharisees took themselves way too seriously. But in reality, they were silly. They had become so wrapped up in their “age-old traditions” that they lost sight of just how ridiculous it all appeared. They had all kinds of cleansing ceremonies they went through before they could eat. Mark tells his primarily Gentile audience just how silly it all was. “The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions” (Mark 7:3 NLT). Notice he makes a point of saying that this was required by their ancient traditions, not God. He goes on to say that “Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of the many traditions they have clung to – such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers and kettles” (Mark 7:4 NLT). They had convinced themselves that all this madness somehow made them clean and acceptable before God. They lives in fear that they could have somehow become defiled by coming into contact with something unclean of unholy. But they gave no thought to what was going on in their own hearts. Jesus makes this distinction quite clear. When they confront Jesus and demand to know why His disciples don’t follow their traditions, Jesus pulls no punches. He quotes the prophet Isaiah who was quoting God Himself. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Mark 7:6-7 NLT). This was God speaking against the city of of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. Their religion had become routine. They were going through the motions. They thought that offering sacrifices was enough. But God was more concerned about their hearts than their offerings. And Jesus was more concerned about the hardened hearts of the Pharisees than He was their silly ceremonies for staying clean.
Their real problem was that they gave more credence to their own rules than God’s commands. They came up with all kinds of convenient work-arounds and loop holes that allowed them to ignore God’s commands and do what they wanted to do. And Jesus made it clear what they were doing. “And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition” (Mark 7:13 NLT). Their rules trumped God’s laws. Their silly rituals held more sway in their lives than the righteous demands of a holy God. And not only that, their rituals were worthless. They didn’t even accomplish what they hoped they would. Because the only impurity God is concerned about is that which is on the inside. God is obsessed with clean hearts, not clean hands. Jesus tells the crowd, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you” (Mark 7:20 NLT), not what comes from the outside. It is that which comes from a person’s heart that defiles him, and no amount of ceremonial hand washing is going to fix that problem.
These men had focused on the wrong thing. They were wasting their time obsessing over the externals, when inside they were corrupt, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, and in direct opposition to the will of God. They refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. They credited His power as having come from Satan. They called Him a drunk. They ridiculed Him and tried everything in their power to discredit Him and, ultimately, would go out of their way to see that He was put to death. Their example of ceremonial hand washing and ritualistic cleansing was sending a wrong message to the people, and Jesus cleared it up. He made it painfully obvious that these men were far from pure and anything but holy. And the list He gave was more than likely one that applied to these sanctimonious religious leaders. “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:21-23 NLT). Interestingly enough, there is no recorded response from the Pharisees. No rebuttal. No defense. No denial. The conversation simply ends. Which speaks volumes. Jesus knew their hearts better than they did. And while they were content to play their silly games and pretend that they were holy, Jesus was letting them know that God takes holiness seriously and saw the true condition of their hearts.
Father, You can see into our hearts and You know things about us that we don’t even know ourselves. Forgive us thinking that the silly religious rituals we go through somehow make us right with You. Keep us focused on our own hearts and never let us forget that only You can cleanse the heart. We simply need to confess our sin and allow You to forgive and cleanse. You are in the heart transformation business. Don’t let us settle for the anything less. Amen.
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men