“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’” - Mark 7:1-8
As Jesus’ fame continued to expand, so too did the size and demands of the crowds that gathered wherever he went. As we read last week, he and the disciples could barely find time to eat, much less get away for some rest and relaxation. Although Jesus was increasingly popular amongst the people, the Pharisees continued to scrutinize and challenge him at every opportunity. Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, they questioned Jesus about eating with sinners and healing on the Sabbath, which violated religious laws and customs. That theme continues in today’s reading. Upon seeing that the disciples ate with unclean hands, the Pharisees pounced and asked Jesus why they did not observe the traditions of the elders.
When considering the Pharisees’ question and Jesus’ response, it is important to understand the origin of these rituals. Scripture did not actually mandate the washing of hands prior to a meal. In fact, the Law only required that priests clean their hands before performing ceremonial duties in the temple. Over the years, however, religious leaders had vastly expanded priestly practices and rituals, applying them to all Jews and myriad circumstances. By Jesus’ day, the revised rules were firmly entrenched in the culture and every faithful Jew was expected to obey. As Jesus later told the Pharisees, they had laid all kinds of burdens upon the people.
The rituals prescribed by Scripture were designed to prepare people – heart, mind, and body – to approach the Lord, to worship him and experience his presence. The Pharisees had reduced these practices (and the many others they implemented) to a series of legalistic duties, a man-made checklist for holiness. How quickly humans can distort the teachings of God! The Pharisees were so focused on the letter of the law, on the appearance of obedience, that they completely missed the spirit.
Jesus challenged them by quoting Isaiah 29:13, in which the prophet preached against external displays that did not align with one’s heart. The Pharisees would have been very familiar with this verse and well aware that Jesus was calling them out. In essence, he accused them of being devoted to the rules and accolades of man, rather than pleasing the Lord. They were so focused on satisfying human criteria that they forgot about God’s ultimate commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Today, many Christians still get ensnared by legalism or focus on outward displays. Perhaps we attend church every week to be seen, rather than to worship. Or we serve our communities but grumble inwardly the whole time. Or we preach forgiveness and yet hold a grudge. God is not fooled by lip service or surface obedience; he sees our hearts, our true intentions and desires. (Fortunately, he is also abundantly gracious and merciful.) Faith is not a series of tasks that can be checked off a to-do list; it is a way of life. We are called to follow Jesus and devote our whole selves, all that we have and all that we are, to pursuit of the Lord.
Reflect and Respond:
Do you see modern day examples of legalism inhibiting the work of God? Do you ever get caught up in external displays of faith rather than living into it? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Let's face it, the Christian life is hard. Relationships take work. Christians forget. Sometimes it is tempting to go back to the days when God was not the center of our lives - to backslide. We are all faced with tremendous pressures to drift away from intimacy with Jesus and the community of the Church. However, the Lord invites us to pay attention, to move forward, to draw near, and to live lives of worship. Draw Near: Hebrews on Christian Worship is a Bible study on the Book of Hebrews intended to lead participants into a deeper intimacy with the Living God in the context of New Testament worship. Draw nearer to God in authentic worship today!
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