Up to this point Jesus has appeared as a figure of powerful action rather than a teacher, and has been received with popularity. But at the beginning of chapter 7 controversy comes and it is met by even more controversial teaching. The religious leaders reenter the picture for the first time in a few chapters and they come back with a vengeance. Jesus doesn’t back down though, and his words only stoke the fire of their hatred. Jesus has just returned to town after some time away and the crowds of people immediately gather around him. Along with the crowds come the religious leaders who were known as Scribes and Pharisees. This next passage is about one of confrontations Jesus had with them.
Start by reading Mark 7:1-13.
Jesus’ teaching here puts him at odds with accepted religious norms. In the next passage, we will see him push the envelope even further. The Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem show up again to confront Jesus. Here again is the reminder that Jesus is making the wrong people angry and as his ministry and notoriety grows, so does the danger that he is going to have to face the consequences of his actions and words. The last time these scribes showed up they told Jesus he was demon-possessed, so we don’t really expect it to go much better this time. They take issue with Jesus over some of the customs of the day called Food laws or Dietary laws. Food laws were a major distinction between Jews and non-Jews. There were several things that separated the Jewish lifestyle from a pagan one and some of the major things were circumcision, Sabbath, and the food laws. Now, in the book of Leviticus there are many rules about how one might become ritually unclean and therefore not allowed in the Temple area, or potentially even in the camp or town. To these Laws, in Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had added other customs to make sure they wouldn’t even come close to breaking the laws. Hand washing was one of these customs that was not found in the Law. So, when the religious leaders see Jesus’ disciples eating without washing, they confront Jesus in verse 5, asking why he allows them to do this and why they do not follow tradition. His answer is a remarkable and gutsy one.
He quotes Isaiah 29:13 saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”. Then in verse 9, he applies Isaiah’s words to these Scribes and Pharisees saying they reject God’s commands to establish their own. With the Isaiah quotation he confronts their thinking in which they believe that by doing the right things God accepted them. In other words, Jesus is challenging the belief that God accepts us based on what we do or our ability to outwardly conduct ourselves in a way that earns God’s favor. Jesus is not advocating moral license or saying we can abandon all the rules of proper behavior. What he is getting at is that God doesn’t only look at what we do, but also our hearts.
Following Jesus isn’t only about what you do, but why you do it. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons is just as offensive in the sight of God as doing the wrong things. Some might then say, well then, shouldn’t we just enjoy doing the wrong things? That question stems from a misunderstanding or a denial of the destructive nature of our sinfulness. Passages like this one show us that God doesn’t allow people to skirt by on a technicality. You don’t technically obey God’s law, but not really. This is the attitude Jesus is confronting in these people.
If the only thing that separates the people of God from people who do not know God is technicalities, then something has been lost. Jesus is showing that there is something much more important than what is seen on the outside. There is something deeper than external behaviors that separate God’s people from the others. He has taught before, primarily in chapter 4 about what separates those in the Kingdom of God and those outside the Kingdom of God. Here he is back to this again, but this time in reaction to the religious leaders confronting him on the issue. They were saying in effect, we know we are God’s people because we are obeying the tradition which says we wash our hands. Jesus is saying, that’s not how you know you belong to God. He must have your heart as well.
In verses 10-13 he offers them an example of what he is talking about. Jesus says, you know that Moses says to honor your parents, but you have devised a way to manipulate God’s law for your own purposes through a custom called “Corban”. It means, “something offered or dedicated to God”. Though it’s not completely clear, it appears that it was possible for a son’s property to be declared “Corban” so that it technically became divine property and thus no longer accessible to the parents. But, somehow it still allowed the son to retain the benefits of the property while denying the benefits to his parents or relatives. This elevated the rule to keep vows over the rule to honor one’s parents. It has nothing to do with the purity customs they were debating, but illustrates how tradition was being misused to avoid honoring the Law. Jesus is showing that the purity laws were not to cause people to be excluded from God’s people, but to show them how to be included. The laws weren’t so anyone could gain leverage over another, yet these people are using them to manipulate people.
Jesus draws careful attention to their misuse when he says in verse 10 “Moses said…” and in verse 11 “but you say”. He is telling these leaders, they are claiming an authority over Moses. In doing this, Jesus says in verse 13 they are “making void” the Law. In other words, they rule the word of God unlawful. We see the evil in this; it’s obvious to us, even if it wasn’t obvious to them. But, If we aren’t careful we can be guilty of the same type of practice.
We like to elevate the spiritual things we are good at, and ignore the things we find difficult to practice. We can make all kinds of judgments about the way other people live, and all the while ignore the glaring deficiencies in our own lives. In our day, we use the same word Jesus did. It’s perhaps the most biblical part about our culture! We know a hypocrite when we see one. This is the only passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus uses this word. He uses it tons of times in Matthew, but since it is only used once in Mark, it needs to carry some serious weight. Jesus is going to great lengths to express his disgust with these people. Then, Jesus decides to take this little discussion to the crowd, and we will look at this in the next blog post.