Void Word, Vain Religion
One of today’s bad words is the word tradition. If someone asks you, “What kind of worship do you have at your church?” you may be embarrassed to answer, “Traditional Presbyterian worship.” If another person asks, “What does your church believe?” you may hesitate for fear of turning him off before you say, “Traditional Reformed doctrine.”
For a lot of reasons tradition is suspect in our culture. It implies an authority from the past that is imposed on us, and we are Americans, whose country was formed in revolution, and we value our individualism and independence and autonomy. Moreover, we live on the other side of the 1960’s when everything old, including anyone over 30, was not to be trusted.
In the Bible tradition is not always a bad word. It often means something that is true and right that has been handed down to you by a trustworthy source, which you are supposed to believe, practice, preserve, and pass down to the rising generation. Traditional Presbyterian worship is the form of worship that our forefathers developed by their careful study of the Bible’s teaching on worship. We do not find fault with their conclusions, so we worship according to the tradition. Traditional Presbyterian doctrine, such as the Westminster Confession of faith, is the summary of the Christian faith written by scholarly and godly men who carefully studied the Bible. We find that their statement remains an accurate and faithful the teaching of the Bible, and so we embrace it.
There is a form of tradition however that is evil – it is the tradition that goes beyond the Bible and that is given a place next to or over the Bible. This kind of tradition makes God’s word void and religion vain. This is what Jesus confronts in Mark 7.
The local Pharisees from Galilee and some scribes from
show up in chapter 7. Whenever
these men appear, we might play the Dragnet theme: “Dum, da-dum, dum”,
for it always means trouble. They are never up to anything good. They are
hostile to Jesus and His teaching, and they are looking for opportunities to
criticize and discredit Him. This kind of spirit did not go away after Jesus
left. The Apostle Paul experienced the same sort of thing as he taught the
gospel of Jesus and established churches built on that doctrine. In Jerusalem
the Judaizers undermined His teaching. In Galatia the “super-apostles”
and “super-spiritual Christians” undermined his authority. When he was in jail
in Corinth ,
some other teachers wanted to take advantage of the situation to advance themselves. Rome
The Pharisees and scribes got their opportunity to criticize Jesus soon enough. Jesus’ disciples were observed eating without washing their hands. Now, even we might be somewhat offended by that, since we have been taught by mothers and teachers to wash our hands before we eat. For us it’s a matter of hygiene. But hygiene was not the issue for these men who had come to look for an opportunity to attack Jesus.
The issue was whether Jesus’ disciples were “clean” or not when they ate. Their concern was not germs but ritual cleanliness. When they saw the disciples not wash their hands and then eat, they believed they were eating with defiled hands. Mark offers us Gentiles an explanation of how this was offensive to them and gave them an opportunity for criticism. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders…” Because
was no longer
under Israelite control and had Gentiles not only ruling but living among them,
they were very concerned lest they contract ritual defilement. They also might
become unclean through contact with a non-observant Jew, one of the “sinners.”
And then there were the kinds of things that conveyed uncleanness that were
listed in the Law of Moses. So they did their best to keep themselves ritually
The Law of Moses taught about only one ritual washing. There was a basin in the courtyard of the tabernacle and temple, where the priests washed their hands and feet before they went to offer sacrifice or entered the
Holy Place. But over the years, a
teaching and practice developed that called for all people to engage in ritual
washings. This became an authoritative tradition. So Mark tells us about some
of the washings they observed. They washed their hands with a fistful of water
anytime they ate. If they went to the marketplace, they went through a more
thorough cleansing. They washed for ritual purposes cups and pots and copper
vessels. They even washed couches – it is uncertain whether these were dining
couches or beds, but in any case it is another indication of how far they went
to assure purity and how much it meant to them. Devotion to ritual purity was
one of the distinguishing marks of the whole Pharisaic movement.
So when they observed the indifference of Jesus’ disciples to these things, they went to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” They went to Jesus rather than the disciples, because Jesus was the Teacher and responsible for the conduct of His followers. They could not respect a Teacher whose rules of conduct for His followers were less stringent than theirs. How could He be a holy man and sent from God, if He did not teach His disciples to observe the traditions about purity?
Not just the Pharisees but many people will always find fault with Jesus when they require Him to meet their expectations. Only when we submit ourelves to Him, and learn from Him who He is, will we be able to believe in Him and follow Him. It is a sad thing that both within and without the church there are many who try to impose on Jesus their ideas of who He should be and how He should act.
The criticism of the Pharisees and scribes was answered by Jesus with a citation from Isaiah. Now before we look at what He says, we need to look at how Jesus responds. For many people, including not a few Christians, Jesus is pretty much the nicest guy who ever lived. He never got upset, never responded sharply, always protected everybody’s feelings. But this is not the Jesus we find here. One of the things most needed in the Christian world today is the liberation of Jesus from those who would strip His personality all manliness. In His answers to His critics, He really escalated the argument to a new and more intense level. He called them hypocrites and then called into question the whole of their worship. Then in the next section, which we will consider in the next point, Jesus uses sarcasm against these men. In content and tone Jesus here is not the Jesus so many want Him to be.
He addresses them as hypocrites. The word for hypocrite came from the Greek word for actor. In those days, before elaborate make-up and disguises, actors performed behind masks. And, it is the idea of someone living behind a mask that is conveyed by the Biblical word for hypocrite. Jesus was not accusing them of being insincere. That is one kind of hypocrite – he pretends to be what he knows he is not. But these men were very sincere, believing that their religion was the way of pleasing God. Jesus is not saying they are not dedicated – that they call people to live by one standard while they themselves ignore it. That is another kind of hypocrisy, one we ministers may be especially in danger of committing.
What Jesus is saying is in effect, “Other people look at you, and they are impressed with the holiness of your life. They see you being scrupulous about your washings. They see how careful you are about your tithes and your prayers. They look up to you and perhaps wish they could be like you. Moreover, you yourselves think of yourselves as righteous because you do all these things. You think God approves of you while He disapproves of others. But what others think you are and what you think you are is not the reality. The reality is that you do not know God; you have no relationship with God; you do not really desire to please Him. You have the mask of righteousness and holiness, but the reality behind the mask is a cold and dead heart and a lifeless religion.”
We hardly need to be reminded that one does not have to belong to the Pharisee party to be guilty of their sin. We can be known for our church attendance, devotional exercises, service, giving, and lifestyle, and be honored by others, when we are far from God. May God save us all from deceiving others, and even more from deceiving ourselves, and may He give us warm and sincere hearts toward Him.
Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah. He found that the description Isaiah had given of the people of his day was appropriate to describe the Pharisees and scribes. It got to the bottom line issue in religion, which is worship. Religion is about whom you worship and how you worship. We spend a lot of energy inquiring into whether worship is pleasing to us, when we should spend all that energy asking if it is pleasing to God.
The people of Isaiah’s day had two problems. One was that, when they worshiped, they said things to God that were worshipful; they used the forms of worship that were prescribed. So far so good. But, when they were worshiping, their hearts were far from God. Right words, right forms, wrong hearts.
Their second problem was that they taught for doctrines the commandments of men. That is, they either added to the doctrine revealed by God, doctrines that had been invented by men, or they substituted the doctrines invented by men for the doctrines revealed by God. Here they were wrong in the form.
What we believe is not a matter of indifference, as though all is fine so long as we are sincere and nice about it. Doctrine is about truth – God’s truth. Whenever we do anything to diminish the accuracy or the authority of God’s truth, we are playing loose with what matters immensely to the Lord God of truth. This makes all our worship vain. We can worship however long we like, with however much excitement and enthusiasm we like. We can even feel very good and very spiritual about it, but if we have denied God’s truth it is empty, useless worship, unacceptable to God.
Nothing should concern us as Christians more than our worship – the form of our worship and whether it conforms to revealed truth – and the state of our hearts in worship and whether they are drawing near to God. Jesus said the true nature of their religion was that they left the commandment of God order to hold their tradition. They turned their back on God’s commandments and embraced man’s traditions. Thus their religion was worth nothing and their worship was profane.
When a prosecutor makes his case, he lays out his charge and then he presents his corroborating evidence. Jesus, by citing Isaiah, has made out the charge that His opponents are hypocrites whose religion and worship are vain. Now He presses on to present one line of corroboration. He focuses in on their handling of the fifth commandment.
Here is where the sarcasm comes into his voice: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition.” Taken literally it is a complement. But, of course, it was not meant to be a complement, for what they have done is to discover a way to get around God’s Law so that they can keep their tradition. Here is where they went wrong. They had the Law of God revealed through Moses. But through the years an oral tradition had grown up that was supposed to show how the Law was to be applied to life. These rules also “put a hedge around the Law,” or a fence meant to keep people from getting anywhere near to disobedience. The problem was that these traditions went beyond the Law to require more than the Law required. These became a burden to the people, rather than a blessing. Then sometimes there could be contradictions between the Law and the traditions. When these arose, the scribes had to come up with a way of settling the matter. Jesus used this to show how the scribes used the tradition to reject the Law.
The example Jesus gave was the fifth commandment. It said, “Honor your father and your mother.” But how do you honor your parents? It can differ according to what your age was. It you were a child, it meant to respect and obey your parents. If you were an adult, it meant to care about your parents, even to the point of taking care of them in old age if they needed it.
The Law makes it clear how serious the matter of dishonoring parents is. One of its judicial rulings said, “Whoever reviles father and mother must surely die.” Now this was not the penalty for a single incident of disrespect in words. It was when a young person became so recalcitrant as to have an habitual attitude of disrespect toward his parents so that he reviled or cursed them chronically. This may seem very harsh to us. And we should note that these judicial rulings in the Old Testament, while helpful us to show us principles of justice, are not in themselves part of the binding Law of God today. But this prescribed penalty for dishonoring parents shows us how seriously God takes this sin.
There are surely Christian children and young people who think they may with impunity show disrespect toward their parents. And there are parents who overlook it. But the commandment has a promise with a negative implication. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). If long life is promised to those who honor, is it not true also that God is warning that a consequence of dishonoring parents could be a life cut short? That should move parents and children alike to take seriously the matter of respect and obedience.
There was a “Corban practice.” Corban, as Mark explains, means something given to God or devoted to God as an offering. The way this seems to have worked was like a deferred giving plan. In deferred giving plans a person gives an investment or a piece of property to a charitable organization, only it does not go to the organization until the donor’s death. During his lifetime the donor retains the use of the gift and any profits that may come from it. It seems that there was a practice among the Jews that resembled this practice. A man could give a gift to God and then retain the use of it until his death. There were all sorts of regulations about the Corban gifts.
What happened if the man’s parents in their old age needed help and what the man had given could help provide for their needs? Well, the Pharisees and scribes turned again to the Law of Moses, which warned very strongly against breaking vows. So they reasoned, “You vowed to give this gift to God, and so you must keep your vow. You cannot take back your gift and use it to help your parents.” Even if a man who had made Corban gift wanted to revoke the arrangement and use his property or other forms of wealth to help his parents, the tradition did not allow it. The result was that the fifth commandment was broken. Adult children of aged parents would not, or in some cases, could not honor their father and mother but using the Corban gifts to help their parents.
Jesus says that this made the word of God void. You know what it is to countermand an order. The order is given and someone says that it must not be obeyed. In the military, or in business, or other structures, it is only the person with superior authority who can countermand an order of someone under him. But in this case the Pharisees used their tradition to countermand the word of God. By their tradition they made God’s word null and void. Did they know they were doing this? Did they think that were voiding God’s word? No. Nevertheless, by their use of tradition they denied the authority of God and His word. Jesus went on to make the point that He was giving one example, not the one case of their voiding the word of God. In fact they did “many such things.” There were many cases where their adherence to tradition given by man voided the word given by God.
What a strong warning Jesus gives us. There is the word of God, which is the revelation of God’s truth and behind which stands the Person and the authority of God Himself. And how prone we are as sinners to invent reasons not to hear or to obey the word of God. We can show how the word cannot possibly be taken seriously in certain circumstances. We can show how the word cannot possibly be meant to apply to us. We can talk about how in certain situations adherence to the word of God is not possible or will result in some unacceptable hardship. When we do that, we do what the Pharisees did. We may not void the word of God by tradition. In fact we may be as suspicious of tradition as any other American. We might never be accused of being traditional. But we void the word of God when we, for any reason, will not hear it or will not obey it. And to make void the word of God is simply a recipe for disaster.
May God give us open ears, softened hearts, and compliant wills, that we may hear the word of God and do it.