“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.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1-23)
Here we see Jesus, out walking and talking with a group of disciples – probably with a larger crowd of people around them listening in, when they are interrupted by yet another group of religious experts who want to question Jesus. This time we have local group of Pharisees who have decided to bring in some big-shot scribes (or lawyers) from the city of Jerusalem.
Think of it like having the Beckwith Township hire a group of law professors from McGill or U of Toronto to come and interrupt our church picnic so they can ask us some questions about ways that they believe we are are engaging in civil disobedience and breaking local standards of conduct. The day would go from pleasant to extremely dramatic in very short order.
Mark gives us some back-story on what’s going on here, explaining to his readers (who were probably gentile Romans), why the forthcoming conversation about washing one’s hands was such a big deal. It would be easy to wonder why Jesus said what He did, if you didn’t know the background of the story.
Now, if you know me, then you know that I have a love-affair with hand sanitizer. My brain no longer associates the smell of lemon and pine with clean – now it’s the nostril stinging scent of hand-sanitizer that smells like clean! Mmm Purell.
But what the Pharisees are talking about is far more than just washing one’s hands before they eat. Mark uses some very specific language to describe what they are doing. He says they don’t eat unless they “wash their hands properly”. That literally translates to “wash their hands with a fist (or “using a fist” or even “up to the elbow”), holding to the tradition of the elders”, which probably describing some kind of hand-washing ceremony that was decreed by human teachers, and is not in the Law of God. Think of the sign you see on the wall in a hospital or restaurant that tells you how to wash your hands – and now imagine that sign was enforced by the laws of the city.
Then Mark he goes on to say Jews “do not eat unless they wash”, – which literally means “baptize (or purify) themselves”, and has a very religious meaning. This goes for everything – cups, pots, serving dishes, everything. For them, cleanliness wasn’t next to godliness – it was godliness!
But this conversation with Jesus wasn’t merely about washing hands. Jewish religious teachers had added hundreds of religious traditions to God’s laws, which they saw as important and inviolable as God’s Law itself. Common people didn’t follow the rules as strictly as the Pharisees, which made the Pharisees look and feel morally superior. It also helped to keep them in power since anyone who challenged their rules was – by their definition – challenging God Himself!
The problem was that their moral superiority and hard-core commitment to their religion actually became a barrier between them and God. Their rules became blinders where instead of being a path to, and reminder of, their God, they became short-sighted and saw only the ritual and tradition. Their practice actually prevented them from seeing what God really wanted from them. They started with a concern for honouring and obeying God, but as they created more man-made rules, forms and functions for their religion, they began forgetting about the God they were supposed to be worshipping. This wasn’t a new problem for the Jews, but is spoken about multiple times in the Old Testament too. (Isa 1; Micah 6:6-8).
Jesus, however, disregards their oral traditions and rituals and speaks only of what is in scripture. This confused and aggravated them, because they thought that if Jesus really was sent from God, and a good, Jewish Rabbi, then He would have to follow their rules and teach it to His followers. But Jesus’ followers were clearly disregarding it! So, naturally, they had ask Him about it. Clearly Jesus hadn’t spent enough time explaining the most important things about God – like how to wash one’s hands – to His followers, and they wanted to correct Him.
As usual, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but cuts to the heart of the issue. He knew that hand washing wasn’t about having clean hands. They were trying to look holy, keep up religious appearances, show how unlike the dirty gentiles they were, and trying to out-do each other and the common people in their devotion – not to God – but to their religion. And so Jesus called them “hypocrites!”
We know a hypocrite is someone that says one thing and does another, but in Greek, the word literally describes a “play-actor”. Someone who is merely pretending to be something he is not for the sake of the show. That’s exactly what these people were doing and Jesus nails them to the wall for their hypocrisy.
During His last days, before His crucifixion, Jesus sat in the Temple teaching many things. One of the most passionate teachings He gave was the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees”, where over and over He called them “hypocrites”.
Matthew 23 gives us an even better view of what Jesus is talking about.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’” (Matthew 23:1-4)
In other words, these teachers do read and speak the words of the God whenever they read the Bible – so listen to what they say – but don’t do what they do. They teach the Word, but don’t listen to it. They memorized it, but didn’t apply it. They could quote it at will and have hours of debate about it, but never listened to what they were saying. They could teach for hours on any passage, but learned nothing. They were amazing at keeping the law and the traditions, performing their religious ceremonies – bit it was all mean to impress God and everyone else with their devotion. They were play actors who looked the part, but their hearts were far from God.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:23-28)
Jesus says, “Sure, you tithe, right down to the penny! But you don’t love people – you’re a hypocrite! Sure you perform religious ceremonies, show up in public with clean hands, but you full of sin on the inside – you’re a hypocrite! Sure, you have the reputation of a solid believer, righteous before all, a pillar of the community – but God knows you are dead inside – you’re a hypocrite!”
Over and over, throughout His ministry, Jesus warned His disciples and the crowds about the dangers of thinking like a Pharisee – and Paul did too. Why did He have to warn them so often and so loudly? Because hypocrisy – pretending we are something we are not – is infectious and comes so naturally to us.
Religion can be an easy source of hypocrisy. If we check the religious boxes, we can look and sound like a good, successful, godly, happy person. But we’re sinful creatures who fail to live up to the standards of God, and often the standards we set for ourselves, so when we fail to walk the talk of our religion, it’s so much easier to fake it than to admit it and ask for help.
The Pharisees couldn’t afford to show a crack in their religious armor. They couldn’t admit that their rules were too hard. They couldn’t admit that they didn’t really understand what God wanted – so they became professional, religious, play-actors.
The Heart of the Issue
Back to Mark 7:14. Jesus gets to the heart of the issue of hypocrisy by making sure that everyone knows the truth about what it means to be clean before God – and it has nothing to do with what happens on the outside of our bodies:
“And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’ And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’” (Mark 7:14-23)
Jesus tells them that He is far more concerned about what is going on inside a person’s heart than what is going on with their body. Just like Jesus said of the Pharisees: A person can be like the Taj Mahal, called the Crown of Palaces, the Jewel of art in India, white marble and precious stones glittering in the sunlight for all to see and be amazed at – but inside is merely a tomb full of dead bones. Repulsive to all who can see inside.
Again, just like handwashing isn’t just about handwashing, Jesus talking about food isn’t just about food. The Pharisees accused the disciples of washing with “defiled” hands – a religious and ceremonial term speaking more about their character and relationship with God than the amount of dirt on their skin. They spoke as though the tiny bit of dirt you may have on your hands would be what created the sin inside of a person – that if you washed your hands, performed your religion, followed the rules, executed the right maneuvers, then you would be sure to keep the sin from getting inside of you.
Jesus says that thinking is all backwards. The religious actions on the outside are not what changes your heart on the inside – it is what is on the insides that gives meaning to the religious actions. Jesus isn’t against clean hands, He’s against hypocrisy and the belief that God is more interested in religious activity than personal purity. The Pharisees were amazing religionists, but terrible people.
His issue is that we need to realize where sin comes from – it comes from the inside. People do not get right with God and grow in righteousness because they perform a ceremony and live by a certain ritual – that’s where many Catholics get it completely wrong. The ceremony may have some value, but only inasmuch as it reflects what’s going in inside a heart. Going through the ceremony doesn’t fix your character or make you clean or forgiven – that requires a change of heart.
Baptism, Communion, Public prayer, church attendance, singing songs together are all godly and good only inasmuch as they are done with a heart turned towards God. That’s what God wants – a heart turned to Him. Jesus’ bottom line is that we don’t become pure by changing our actions – we need to have our insides changed first. And the only way to change our insides, know we are pure, and feel clean in God’s eyes, is when we recognize ourselves to be sinners, hate our sin, turn our hearts to God, and ask for forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. Then Jesus, forgives us, cleanses us, renews our minds and begins the process of transforming us into His image. That inward change affects our outward behaviour.
Jesus said to his followers, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.” (Matthew 16:5-12) because their thinking will grow invisibly among believers just like yeast grows invisibly in bread – it’s infectious. Let me ask you a few questions to see if some of their yeast has gotten into your heart. We have to keep watch, because it’s very, very sneaky.
In what ways have you elevated a manmade systems to the status of God’s Word?
Maybe it’s a diet, a favourite book or author, a financial system, a religious practice, a system of rules for living, or a tradition, but for you it’s just as important as anything God has ever said. Is there something that you have elevated to the status of scripture, even though it’s a human idea?
Have you ever rejected someone’s thinking because you didn’t like their background, training or personality style?
It doesn’t matter what they say, you’re not going to listen because they’re wearing the wrong shirt, drinking the wrong drink, hanging out with the wrong people, or using the wrong words. The Pharisees certainly did that to Jesus. They didn’t listen to Him because He wasn’t like them. No matter how much truth He spoke, they wouldn’t listen because of their pre-formed bias against Him. Let us be careful not judge by the outsides.
Do you ever perform religious ceremonies so you can feel superior to others?
You can do this by attending church services, singing songs, praying publically, or fasting. Instead of having that religious activity bring you closer to God, you use it to one-up fellow believers. You attend more, sing louder, pray longer, and fast harder than anyone! You Facebook about your devos so others will know how holy you are. Religion has value when it is done with the right heart, but not if you’re trying or impress God or others.
Do you ever try to indoctrinate people into your version of your religion, rather than trying to introduce them to Jesus?
You need to come to my church, to listen to my pastor, and read this book, and do this devotional guide, and sing this song, and pray this prayer, and give this much money… because that’s how you come to God. Or do you introduce them to Jesus and let God work on their heart?
Those are just a few ways that Pharisaical thinking can sneak into our hearts and religion can start taking over our relationship with Jesus.
The Story of Two Men
As an application, I want to close with a story. I think it will help us understand the difference between hypocritical religion and a heart turned to God:
Two men are full of anger, bitterness, and jealousy. They both hate their lot in life and grumble incessantly to anyone who will listen. They live alone now, after messing up a dozen relationships and spend most evenings and the whole of Saturday surfing for porn and defiling themselves. Their current girlfriend comes over that evening, and they fight with her until midnight, when she final has enough and leaves crying. The next day, they get in their cars to get to church. The only reason they are going is because they volunteered to do something and are the only ones who can do it. They protest and complain the entire way, thinking themselves stupid for ever getting involved with God or His church in the first place. They walk into church, see each other, shake hands, do their job, and then sit down for the beginning of the service. Thankfully, no one else bothered them.
Now consider these two options. The first man sits near the front, in his usual spot. He greets the folks around him with a big smile on his face, even prays for one of the ladies who says she’s having a rough day. The songs start and he stands up before anyone else. He closes his eyes for one of the songs, raises his hands, and starts to sway. On the next song, he’s the one that leads the clapping. When it’s offering time, he realizes he’s forgotten his chequebook, and lays a twenty on top of the envelopes, giving the usher a wink and a nod.
During the sermon, His “amen’s” are always the loudest, though after 20 minutes, he starts to check his watch, counting down the seconds until the preacher is supposed to be done. After 30 minutes the pastor is still going strong, when he lets out a bit of a cough, and tries to catch his eye – to no avail. His foot starts to tap, and he’s anxious to get to the closing song. On the way out, he lets everyone know that he wishes he could stay, but has to get going because he made some plans he can’t get out of — tells the pastor that he did great, thanks the pianist, and pats the hand of the elderly ladies who stand by the door. Everyone smiles and waves at him as he walks away – and one of the people on the Nominating Committee whispers to another, “We really need to ask that guy to be a deacon!”
The second his hand hits the steering wheel of his car he lets out a big sigh. As he leaves the parking lot, his brow furrows, his lips curl downward, and he mutters under his breath, “Great. Late again. Now I’ll never get a good seat. Stupid service is always late….”
Now let’s move to the second man. He doesn’t sit in his usual spot, but finds a place near the back – he doesn’t want to shake anyone’s hand. He feels miserable. Guilty. Ashamed. He considers leaving, but when he stands the music starts and something compels him to stay. He remains seated for the song, arms folded, his eyes fixed on the powerpoint slide – he doesn’t want to make eye contact with anyone. But he can’t help but read the words. By the second song, the knot in his stomach is really starting to hurt. The third song is one of his favourites, and he starts to quietly sing along – and the words wash over him like never before. He starts to choke up and can’t sing. He doesn’t even notice when the usher misses him with the offering plate. Unbeknownst to even him, he’s started to pray: “God, why am I such a mess? I hate feeling like this. Why am I here? I shouldn’t be singing this. Why am I stuck in this vicious cycle? I need some help.
When the sermon starts, it feels like the pastor is talking to him. At the beginning he feels exposed, as though the preacher was sitting in his house during that week, and the shame washes over him again. But as the preacher continues, He speaks of the love of God, forgiveness in Christ, hope of purity and strength. He’d been coming for months now — why hadn’t he heard this before? The man feels the break happen inside his heart – light starts to flood inside. He talks to God and says, “I want that.” That’s it. It starts with three words. “I want that.” Then two more. “I’m sorry.” Then two more. “Help me.”
The preacher begins to wrap up his talk – where did the time go! – and encourages anyone who wants to, to stay behind to talk, pray and share with God’s people. The man knows something has changed inside him because instead of wanting to bolt from his seat, he wants to know more, to listen to more. It’s like he’s hearing it for the first time.
Instead of leaving his seat at the end of service, he just sits there – he’s not even really thinking. He just doesn’t want to leave. The sanctuary starts to empty and he stands up to walk out with red eyes and a wearied expression. The preacher shakes his hand at the door, asking if everything is ok and wondering if they can get together this week. He says sure. He walks past the musicians, past the elderly ladies, past everyone on the way to the parking lot. He doesn’t return their smiles and one of the people on the Nominating Committee whispers, “What’s his problem?” He sits in his car for a full five minutes, in silence, before driving away.
Now, I ask you, which one of these people went away from church closer to God? But on the outside the first guy looked so much better, didn’t he? That’s Jesus’ point.