Video cameras are everywhere. It’s been said that you should just assume that if you are out in public, you are on a camera somehow. Now aside from a multitude of YouTube videos of surveillance cameras catching thieves, cutting down a tree to steal a bicycle, accidents and people doing dumb stuff, what video cameras are trying to do is to control people’s behavior. The theory is that if people know they are being watched, external behavior is controlled.
While the people in ancient Palestine didn’t have video cameras watching their every move, they had something almost as effective for that culture. They had Scribes and Pharisees who seemed to observe the behavior of most everyone. And if you were a high profile person like Jesus, you were watched even more closely and your external errors were pointed out quickly and condemned. That is what Jesus encounters now in Mark 7. But what Jesus teaches is that what is far more important is what goes on inside in our hearts. Let’s read Mark 7:1-23.
I. The Initial Conflict is seen in verses 1-8.
Jesus is now back in Galilee and the conflict with the Jewish leaders resumes. Remember that the Scribes had come up from Jerusalem in order to check out what Jesus was doing and saying. In Mark 3, the scribes had determined that Jesus’ miracles were from Satan. The Pharisees in Mark 7 are likely in that group that came up from Jerusalem.
At some point, these Jewish leaders saw that the disciples were eating their bread without having first washed their hands ceremonially. The Pharisees saw this as a breach of proper pious living and called them on it. What they were really concerned with was Jesus’ apparent disregard for the whole collection of laws that the Jewish leaders had developed.
These laws covered every area of personal and corporate life. These regulations, however, were vastly different than the spirit of the Law that was first handed down through Moses. In areas where the Law of Moses was silent, their laws were very vocal and specific, making life very tedious and demanding for the people.
This hand washing had its basis in Exodus 30:18-19 where Aaron and his sons were required to wash their hands and feet prior to entering the tabernacle. There was good reason for this practice that God had given. Contact with God was very special and this washing reinforced God’s holiness. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish leaders had included all the people in this requirement. The intention was that all of Israel would be devoted to the Lord.
The problem was that this good idea had gotten out of hand. Before the people had only been required to wash themselves before eating bread. But by now Mark explains that the Scribes had added many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles. None of this was actually required in the Old Testament. So when the Pharisees accuse Jesus of not having his disciples live “according to the tradition of the elders” they are really accusing Jesus himself of ignoring their traditions.
Jesus, however, knows that they are living more by their own traditions than the word of God. So in verses 6-7, Jesus, quoting Isaiah, calls them hypocrites. They honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God. Jesus then gives a clear example of what he means in verses 9-13. He says with biting irony that they have a “fine or beautiful way” of setting aside the commands of God in order to establish their own traditions. These men are setting aside God in order to try to justify themselves. Not only is this wrong, but it is also utterly foolish! Imagine a man caught in a rip tide in the ocean and after a long time, he finally escapes the tide by climbing a rock near the shore; however, he then jumps back in to cling to a piece of straw that he sees floating in the water. What utter folly to place man’s laws above God’s law and think that by following those man-made laws that it will save them.
It’s very easy for us today to set up all kinds of traditions and rules and then have them determine whether or not a person is behaving as a good Christian. When I was growing up it was: “Do you play cards, go to movies or dance?” People could do all the right things religiously and be considered good, but do things that were completely wrong in the rest of their lives. For example, Cecil T. Turner of Louisville, Kentucky, was arrested in 2003 for burglary and fraudulent use of a credit card. Mr. Turner had obtained the card by going through several women’s purses while they were attending a church meeting. Interestingly Turner chose to use the credit card he stole at a Christian bookstore, where he had used it to purchase ten copies of a Bible study called “Making Peace With Your Past,” as well as a study called “Moving Beyond Your Past.” It doesn’t work to say one thing but then do something completely wrong.
The case that Jesus cites involves a person’s responsibilities to his parents. Jesus says there are two ways of stating it in the Law as reflected in Mark 7:10. First, “honor your father and your mother”. That is the positive side. But also “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” Both statements indicate the seriousness of honoring and caring for one’s parents.
Yet the Pharisees’ tradition thwarted this teaching found in the law. How? Through the traditional teaching of “Corban,” which literally means “given to God”. Corban would be instituted simply by uttering a vow which reserved something specially as an offering dedicated to God. As such it is removed from ordinary use and reserved for God’s use. But it’s important to note that the object need not actually be given to God. It would be like stating on your schedule A that you are giving money as a donation for income tax purposes, but then you don’t really ever give it.
How did this affect the Fifth Commandment on honoring parents? The Scribes and Pharisees were telling people that there was a way to get around the heavy responsibility of providing for the elderly parents’ care. If a son had something that the parents needed, all the son had to say was “it is Corban.” Then the obligation of the son to help the parents was officially removed. Whatever he has now or will have in the future is reserved as an offering for God. However, remember that saying Corban did not actually give the gift to the temple or to God at all; the son could keep it for himself.
Even more, Jesus says that if a son changed his mind about the vow he uttered about “Corban” and decided that he wanted to help his parents, the Scribes said it could not be done because then he would be breaking his vow, and that was strictly forbidden! So the son would be prevented by Scribal law from doing anything for his parents. In verse 13, Jesus says that this evil Scribal tradition nullifies the intent of God’s Law. Moreover, Jesus says that there were many things like that they did.
III. Then Jesus gives a lesson for the crowd and his disciples in verses 14-23.
The lesson for the crowd in verses 14-16 is his answer to the question of hand washing. Jesus is saying that hand washing only washes the outside. What is really important is what makes a person dirty on the inside. Jesus tells the crowd to listen to him for what follows is from God himself. Here Jesus makes a clear distinction between physical purity and moral purity. The food going in doesn’t matter, even when one’s hands are properly washed. Jesus makes it clear that uncleanness comes from within and not from outside. The inner heart and soul is where the evil is found and where the problem is. Jesus here is attacking the delusion that anyone can be pure before God through the strict observance of the law, which is powerless to cleanse the natural sinfulness of the heart. Mark then adds that in doing so, Jesus said that all foods were now clean!
It’s not surprising in verses 17-19 that the disciples didn’t understand the riddle. Their lack of understanding shows that in spite of their position of privileged relationship with Jesus, they are not really different from the crowd. So Jesus speaks very harshly to them reflecting just how dull their hearts were. Jesus makes it clearer to the disciples with his reference to the “heart.” In Hebrew thinking, the heart is the center of human personality and action. That is why Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
What makes a person pure or impure is the person’s heart, not the food he or she eats. Jesus doesn’t deny that the purity laws occupy a significant place in Moses’ law. Clearly some people in the Old Testament were so faithful to God that they were willing to die rather than break those laws, as we see in the book of Daniel. But the ultimate seat of purity or impurity before God is the heart.
Jesus becomes very specific as to what he means in verses 20-23. The catalog of sinful acts which flow from the heart reflect this. At the top of the list are evil thoughts which lies at the root of all the evil actions. Sexual immorality is a broad term covering all acts of sexual sin and lewdness covers openly expressed sexual immorality. Theft, murder and adultery occur in this sequence in the Ten Commandments. Greed and envy reflect stinginess or that grudging jealousy with which a person looks at the possessions of another. Malice appears to be a general term denoting deliberate acts of evil. Deceit describes actions of cunning and treachery. Slander here carries the clear implication of “blasphemy” against God. Arrogance describes one who wants to be honored because of one’s pride. Folly describes a person who does not know or wish to know God. These acts are what defile us and they have their source in a heart rebelling against God.
So let’s ask ourselves the question: What needs to be cleansed in our hearts? Look at the list of things that Jesus describes once again. Some of these things we can easily say we don’t do and they aren’t a problem. Some things are more challenging for us as we daily struggle with them. But the point is that we must realize that these are the things in our hearts that will pollute us and ruin us.
Here’s the good news of the Gospel: Jesus came to not only establish his kingdom and rule; he came to forgive those sins and cleanse the pollution of our hearts. All the things that we struggle with, all the things that come out in our lives – whatever they are – are forgiven and being removed by the power of the Holy Spirit. And that is the ONLY way that such sins and pollution can be removed.
However, we can be made pure only by what God does in us. Philippians 2 says that God is the one working in us to will and to work. We cannot change ourselves or cleanse our sinful hearts ourselves. So we yield to God; we listen to his word and we talk to him in prayer. Confessing our sins and yielding to God and the Holy Spirit’s power is how our sin-filled and polluted hearts get changed. And someday – praise God! – our hearts and we will be renewed completely!