July 24, 2016
The Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” opened in 1964 and ran for over 3,200 performances at the Imperial Theatre in New York. It didn’t’ close until 1972. It won a Tony for best musical of the year, and, at the time, was the longest-running show in history. The movie version released in 1971 won three Oscars.
Among the many famous songs in the show are Matchmaker, If I were a Rich Man, and Tradition. Now, you’ll be humming those songs the rest of the day. As you may remember, that last song, Tradition, was the theme of the play. Tevya, the milkman and the Papa, had five daughters. The three oldest daughters get married in succession – each one departing a little further from Jewish tradition. By the time the third daughter chooses to marry a Russian soldier, not even a Jew, she’d gone too far and doesn’t receive the Papa’s blessing – in fact, she and her new husband are shunned and have to move to the honeymoon hotspot of Poland.
The drama deals with a problem that has been an issue with the Jews for hundreds, even thousands of years – tradition. The problem, specifically, is when tradition comes into conflict with choices, or even truth. In the musical, the conflict arises between tradition and the choices of the daughters. That’s a fun one, but in our passage this morning, tradition comes into conflict with Jesus and God’s Law. And the consequences are far more severe than Poland.
Our text is found in Mark 7. At first glance, Mark seems to take a right turn – but he’s actually returning to a theme he introduced earlier which we’ve talked about – namely, with Jesus’ rising popularity came rising opposition. And that opposition will ultimately result in His death – in Jerusalem – at the hands of Rome, but instigated by religious leaders who didn’t like Jesus opposing their tradition. So while it will seem a right turn, it actually serves Mark’s purposes quite well. Let’s begin by reading another one of Mark’s summaries to see Jesus rising popularity. It’s found at the end of chapter 6. It’s after the storm when Jesus joined the disciples by walking on the water. Let’s read chapter 6, verses 53-56.
So after Jesus met the disciples in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the storm, He joins them in the boat, and John tells us they were immediately at the shore. Here we read that was at Gennesaret – a very fertile plain on the western bank of the Sea of Galilee between Capernaum and Tiberias. Upon arriving, as usual, people recognized Him with His rising popularity. They ran about the whole country, bringing Him the sick. He then traveled throughout the region – and as many as were able to touch the fringe of His cloak – likely the blue tassels Jewish men wore on the four corners of their outer garment – were healed. Big stuff going on. But please notice, again, who Jesus is attracting – the broken, and the unclean of society. Enter rising opposition. Let’s read our text for this morning – Mark 7:1-13.
Now that sounds a little obscure. And immediately you may be thinking – no wonder you’re preaching from the other building – that’s so you can’t see us when we fall asleep. Let me tell you what I hope to accomplish this morning. I want us recognize there may be things in our own personal lives – there may be things in our church life, in our religious observances that come into conflict with the Word of God. And if they do, then tradition needs to go. That is, doing things because we’ve always done them, if it results in vain worship, empty observances, hypocrisy – it needs to go. This was the problem of the Pharisees.
Which sets the stage for this conflict. You see, the problem here, at least for the Pharisees was this: in all the thronging and pressing in of the crowd, who knows who was touching Jesus? It could have been an unclean person, or even worse, a Gentile. Truth is, He had touched unclean people – lepers and dead people and demon-possessed and hemorrhaging women. And guess what – from this point on in chapter 7, He will be touching Gentiles. Well, every good law-abiding Jew, especially Pharisees, when they first returned from the market, where they might actually have been touched by one of these unclean people, would have gone through some kind of ceremonial washing to rid themselves of moral, ritual filth. Know, this had nothing to do with personal hygiene. So kids, don’t use this passage to tell your parents Jesus said you don’t have to wash your hands before dinner. This was ritual cleansing, and the religious Jews would certainly have washed before they ate. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me give you the outline:
- First, in verses 1-5, we see the Pharisees making their accusation.
- Then, in verses 6-8, we see Jesus pegs them with Scripture.
- Then, in verses 9-13, Jesus pegs them with their tradition – He makes a counter-accusation.
Now, as we begin, I want you to understand this is a two-part message. The context of this passage actually goes through verse 23, but we’re only going to get through verse 13 today. This week isn’t a lot of fun – Jesus is going to peg Pharisees, and in so doing, He’s going to uncover the mask of hypocrisy in empty, worthless worship. And we’re going to have to do some self-examination. We need to examine our hearts to see why we do what we do.
I’ll go so far as to say this: there is a worship God hates. I know those are strong words, but that’s what Scripture says. Jesus describes it here as vain worship – worship that is empty, worthless, meaningless, superficial, hypocritical that looks good on the outside. It does the religious things, it sings the songs, prays the prayers, hears the sermons, even agrees with the sermons, it honors God with the lips, but with hearts far from Him. In Isaiah 1, God says to a group of people who were indeed very godly in their own eyes:
11 “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
12 “When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
13 “Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies – I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
14 “I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.
15 “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.”
What you need is not more religious stuff, not more praying, not more singing songs, not more pious, empty observances, what you need are clean hands and pure hearts. What you need is a change on the inside. Amos 5 says it this way:
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 “Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
23 “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.” [even when you have a great worship time, I don’t like it.]
You say, certainly that couldn’t be true of us – we’ve got great worship. We sing hymns and choruses. We pray, we read Scripture, why, some of us even raise our hands – surely God likes that, doesn’t He? I would suggest the content of our worship is second only to the heart of our worship. You see, the Israelites were doing it right. They were offering sacrifices prescribed in the Law. They did new moons and Sabbaths and incense and festivals and solemn assemblies and appointed feasts and sang songs, too. And God said – it’s all a smoke in my nose. Why? Because of the passage Jesus quotes here from Isaiah 29,
13 Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,” And Jesus adds, “But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
It’s just tradition. They’ve made it all up. It’s just a matter of show. It’s just an empty observance. It’s just vain worship, and it makes me sick. Why do we do the things we do? What is the heart of our worship? Those are the questions we must deal with this morning.
So let’s begin with that first point – the Pharisees’ Accusation in verses 1-5. You need to remember the Pharisees were the legalists of their day. Theirs was the hypocritical, self-righteous, religious establishment of the day. There was no heart in their worship – everything was based on what they did to look good before God. Whether they gave offerings so everyone could see, whether they prayed on the street corners so everyone could see, whether they fasted and look terrible so everyone could see – it was all show – it was just external observance and ceremony – but their hearts were never touched, their hearts were never changed. Which meant their religion was on a collision course with the ministry of Jesus, because His is a religion of the heart. It doesn’t mean we don’t do these things, but they spring from a heart of love and worship for God. Where is your heart this morning – when we pray and sing? Are you just going through rote motions?
Now notice, these weren’t just any scribes and Pharisees – these were guys from Jerusalem. This was likely an official delegation, who’d heard about Jesus’ rising popularity. Till this point, Jesus’ ministry had primarily been up north, in Galilee. So they called in the big guns. No doubt the Galilean Pharisees thought these guys would be able to take care of this Jesus problem. I’m sure they arrived with great pomp and circumstance – they were the heavy hitters, everyone knew it. They came to Jesus, and they came for one reason and one reason only – to publicly discredit and destroy Him. They probably watched Him for awhile to gather some facts – some ground of accusation against Him. And there it was. One day, about lunch time, they watched with incredulous disbelief as Jesus’ disciples actually began to eat their French fries without washing their hands. Can you believe it? Oh my, this was a an egregious error of tremendous proportions. This was a violation of the tradition of the elders. Please notice – the word tradition is used five times in these verses. The disciples action came into conflict with the tradition of the elders, and the tradition of the elders came into conflict with the Word of God.
You see, the Pharisees level the charge – your disciples violate the tradition of the elders – then they give the example – they eat without washing their hands. Jesus answers their accusation with the same tactic – He levels the charge – you violate the commandment of God – then gives the example – you don’t honor your parents.
Now, remember, Mark is writing to Roman – that is, Gentile believers, who would not be as familiar with Jewish traditions. So Mark explains it. These Scribes and Pharisees observed Jesus’ disciples eating with impure, that is, unwashed hands – then verses 3-4 are parenthetical. For Pharisees and religious Jews won’t eat unless they carefully wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders. In fact, when they come from the market, they cleanse themselves – the word is actually baptize themselves – they immerse themselves completely in water to wash away all ritual defilement. They do many other such things – washing cups and pitchers and copper pots. It’s interesting to note, they were required to wash anything that could hold liquid – but if it was flat, like a plate – they didn’t have to wash that. Why? I have no idea.
So, the charge against Jesus was your disciples violate the tradition of the elders. So, what is this tradition of the elders? We need to do a little Old Testament history here. The Israelites were given the Law of God at Mount Sinai, what we know as the Mosaic Law. That Law is contained primarily in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20, are the apex of the law – all the rest of the some 600 laws flow from them.
Of course, the Israelites were unable to keep the law, but they weren’t supposed to be able to keep it – the law was never intended to make someone righteous – it was always intended to be a schoolmaster to lead them to faith and Christ. That’s why God gave them the sacrificial system – He gave them the law in Exodus, then He gave them the sacrificial system in Leviticus, because He knew they would need forgiveness when they transgressed the Law. It was their faith in God to forgive them through the sacrifices that was to be the point, because that sacrificial system all pointed to Christ. That’s what the book of Hebrews is all about – which we’ll do next, hopefully from this room. But the Hebrews, the Jews missed it completely.
In their inability to keep the law, they turned from it altogether and started worshipping other gods. As a result, they were sold into captivity, into Assyria and Babylon. Of course, they were shocked when this happened – we’re God’s people – He’s done this because we didn’t keep His law. So when they returned after the Babylonian Captivity under Ezra, they determined to keep the law – never mind they couldn’t. Ezra was considered the first scribe. The scribes thought since they were sent into captivity for not keeping the Law – what they needed to do was make sure they kept it once they got back.
These scribes, and later rabbis, became convinced it was their job to do three things with the Law: first, they were to be deliberate in judging, that is, applying the Law; second, they were to make disciples to ensure the Law was passed on to succeeding generations; and third, they were to build fences or walls around the Law to protect it.
It was that third one that produced the tradition of the elders. This is how. The reason we went into captivity was because we didn’t keep the law. So, let’s make sure people keep the law, but in order to do that, they need to know how to keep it. So the scribes began interpreting the law – in fact, they began adding to it. Oh, at first, they were just commentaries to help people understand, but after a time, these commentaries became as binding as the law itself. And because they couldn’t keep the law, they came up with all kinds of external observances that helped them keep their own brand of the law – the Pharisaical system. These commentaries and additions to the law became known as the tradition of the elders.
In fact later, these traditions were written down. In 200 AD, Rabbi Judah pulled them all together in what became known as the Mishna. By the way, they actually suggested that Moses received two laws on Sinai – the written law that we know as the Torah, and the oral law passed on, now found in the Mishna. Then, commentaries were needed on the Mishna, so the Gemara was added. Later, some rabbinical schools in Jerusalem put the Mishna and Gemara together in what is called the Talmud. And the commitment to all these traditions became paramount. Pretty soon, you couldn’t see the Law anymore. But it didn’t matter. The Talmud actually says “The word of the Scribes are more lovely than the words of the law…” It also says, “My son, attend to the words of the scribes, more than to the words of the law.” They were more committed to their traditions than they were the Word of God.
That was the problem. And remember – it was all external, hypocritical, self-righteous observance. Now, part of the system which later became written, has whole sections on cleansings or washings – up to 25% . There’s a whole chapter on how to wash your hands. And that’s what the Pharisees were talking about here. Listen, Jesus, your disciples aren’t keeping the tradition of the elders. How do we know? They don’t wash their hands before they eat bread.
What’s that about? Again, we’re not talking about hygiene here. They weren’t in trouble for not washing their hands before they came to the dinner table. The religious leaders taught that washing their hands was necessary to get rid of any defilement. After all, you may have touched a Gentile, or touched someone who touched a Gentile, or a dead person – it was all the same to them. And if you touched your food with defiled hands, your food became defiled. And if you ate defiled food, you got it, you became defiled.
And just what was involved in ceremonial washing? You had to use at least a quarter of a log of water, which was equal to one and a half egg shells. In verse 3, where Mark writes, they carefully washed their hands – the word carefully is literally, they washed with the fist. Most likely, that means, they washed with a fist full of water.
The water was to be poured on the hands with the fingers pointed up. The water was supposed to run down your hands and off your wrist, taking the defilement with it. Then, you weren’t allowed to touch the water again, after all, it was defiled. If you did, you had to wash again. After the water dripped off, you were to dry your hands by rubbing one fist in the hand of the other. They were so committed to this procedure that the most devout Jews would not only do it before every meal, he would also do it between courses of the meal. It was absolutely ridiculous and had no basis in Scripture. Of course, there is a remote connection in the Scripture. In Exodus 19, the people had to wash their clothes before they could come into God’s presence. And in Leviticus 17, the priest had to wash themselves before they could carry out their duties. And in Psalm 24, we read that it is only the one with clean hands and a pure heart who can come into God’s presence.
So, they wrote traditions on how to have clean hands. Of course, this ceremonial washing had nothing at all to do with having a pure heart, which is what it was all about anyway. You could have a black heart, but if you washed your hands with a couple of eggshells of water, you were okay. It was nonsense.
Which brings us to our second point where Jesus doesn’t even answer their question, but lowers the boom with Scripture – that which they claimed to fastidiously follow, but missed altogether.
Notice Jesus didn’t even address the accusation leveled against Him – it didn’t deserve His time. It would have been a meaningless discussion. He often did that with Pharisees. They thought they were going to trap Him. And He always turned the table and trapped them. You’re accusing me of transgressing the tradition of the elders? Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? Boom. He landed a solid counterpunch. They put their tradition above the Word of God, even if it violated the Law of God.
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you.” This is the first time Jesus calls them hypocrites – but remember – these Pharisees were from Jerusalem, and He often reserved His harshest words for them. Look at what Isaiah said about them, verses 6 and 7, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of man.” Jesus went on in verse 8, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
The problem with their tradition is that it allowed them to look spiritual, sound spiritual, to look religious, put on a religious show – and all along break God’s law. Religious tradition that is not based in Scripture promotes hypocrisy. It produces people who do all the religious stuff without having a heart for God. It allows people to come to church, sing the songs, say the words, bow in prayer, lift their hands, listen to the sermons and drink coffee in the Commons, all the while having a black heart that is far from God.
And, point 3, He gives them the example in verses 9-13. The law clearly says in Exodus 20 and 21 to honor your father and mother, and to not speak evil of them – anyone doing so is to be put to death. You, however, have found a way to skirt the command with your tradition. How?
Everyone understood that included in honoring your mother and father is respect, love, reverence, a sense of dignity, and financial obligation – taking care of them – meeting their needs, especially as they grow older. By the way, I Timothy 5 in the New Testament repeats that principle for us. We’ve kind of switched things around in our society – we expect our parents to get rich, then leave the inheritance to us. But in that culture, and in biblical principle, we are to make sure our parents’ physical needs are met.
But, the Pharisees had that all figured out. If you didn’t want to meet your parents needs, if you wanted to be greedy and selfish, when they came to you with a need, all you had to do is say corban over your stuff. The word corban literally means, a gift devoted to God. This is the way it worked. You need money, Mom and Dad? You need food? You need clothing? Sorry, I’ve said corban over all my stuff – it’s like a vow – I’ve committed it all to God – doesn’t that sound spiritual? I’d love to help you out, but, after all, it is a vow, can’t break it, which means, I can’t help you. In fact, verse 12, he is no longer permitted do anything for his father or his mother.
Oh, and by the way. Saying it was a gift devoted to God didn’t mean you had to give it to God. It was deferred giving. You could use it yourself, it became His after you died. And after all – you live for God. And, besides that, the tradition allowed the person to lift the corban any time he wanted to. It was a ridiculous, sinful way to get around the commandment to honor their parents and to meet their needs. But it was within the tradition of the elders, so not only was it okay, you could feel good doing it. And Jesus says, you have invalidated, you have negated the Word of God with your tradition.
God is not interested in ceremonial, ritualistic, external religion. He is not interested in people keeping traditions – even if they’re good traditions, if their hearts are far from Him. Let me spell that out for us. He’s not interested in you keeping a checklist. He’s not interested in you punching a time clock on Sunday mornings. He’s not interested in you reading your Bibles so you can say you read your Bible through in a year. He’s not interested in your empty, meaningless, repetitious prayers. He’s not interested in your shallow quiet times. The spiritual disciplines – all of them – prayer, fasting, Bible reading, solitude, Bible memorization, etc., are not an end – they are a means to an end. God wants your hearts. That’s it. Why do you do what you do? If it’s just tradition, ritual, it’s just a smoke in His nose. I want to make sure we don’t honor God with our lips on Sunday, and dishonor Him through neglect – through a cold heart the rest of the week.
He’s looking for genuine worship. Some of us are so focused on the how of worship we forget the Who of worship. Do we sing hymns, do we sing choruses, do we raise our hands, do we dance, do we use drama, do we, do we, do we. And that’s the problem – it’s all about we instead of God. There is a worship that God hates. Which is why Isaiah chapter 1 goes on in verses 16-18 to say this:
16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil,
17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.
18 “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.”
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean – He’s not talking about ceremonial washing mumbo-jumbo. He’s talking about spiritual purity, that comes through the cleansing of sins. And that comes only through the finished work of Christ that came in direct conflict with the traditions of the elders. We call it the Gospel.