A sermon preached at Hebron Baptist Church, Denham Springs, Louisiana on Sunday, August 30, 2009 by Pastor, Joe Alain.
Scripture Reading: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (Pew Bible, 678)
We’ve been reminded lately how important washing our hands can be. Recent swine flu outbreaks have led some local Baton Rouge schools to close for several days so that they could be thoroughly disinfected. Hand sanitizers have become a part of our daily life. And of course, what child hasn’t heard a mother say, “Wash your hands before dinner!”
The text for today might leave some of us thinking that the Pharisees and Scribes (“Teachers of the Law”) are acting kind of silly and childish, making such a fuss. All that happened was a few of Jesus’ disciples neglected to wash their hands before they ate. But as usual in Jesus’ dealings with the religious rulers, there’s more going on here than simply hand washing etiquette.
The Setting (7:1-4)
Mark tells us in verses 3-4 that the Jews customarily wash their hands, “holding to the tradition of the elders” and that they hold to “many other traditions” as well (v.4). The tradition of washing one’s hands before eating was an old one. Since the Book of Exodus when the law was given to the Israelites, it was required that the high priest, before he even entered the temple, ritually washed both his hands and feet. Over the years it became the norm for all faithful Jews to wash their hands before eating as a way of identifying with the religious tradition of the high priest, and more importantly, as a way of making the common a holy act.
The Conflict (7:5)
“Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of
the elders?” In other words, “Why do they not do what we do?” Specifically, why do they not wash their hands before they eat? Because the disciples are eating with “unclean hands,” they are viewed as “unclean.” Their thinking is that if the disciples are unclean, they also must be unfit to God.
Jesus’ Reply (7:6-8, 14-15, 21-23)
A Scripture Quoted: Isaiah 29:13
Citing the prophet Isaiah, Jesus accused the religious leaders of honoring God with their lips but their heart was a million miles away. He also said that they were worshiping in vain because they were trusting in their tradition rather than God. What a rebuke against their worship! What about our worship? Do we give God only lip service? Do we trust in Him or our religious traditions? These are important questions to ask ourselves regularly.
Jesus Teaches the Larger Crowd (7:14-15, 21-23)
Jesus said that it’s not what comes from the outside that makes a person unclean, but what is on the inside. You can wash the skin right off your hands, but it will not clean your heart. It’s what comes out of the heart that makes a person unclean. So, if what comes out of a person makes him or her unclean, then what is needed is a clean heart, a new heart.
Jesus redefined what it meant to be clean before God.
A Principle Applied: A Clean Heart Makes for Clean Hands.
No amount of external washing can cleanse the heart, only God can do that. However, when the heart is clean, the hands will be too.
Tradition Gone Bad
On the surface of our text, we have an example of how a tradition, even one that starts off as good one can go bad. Traditions often evolve into something that they were never originally intended for. There are three stages in the evolution of a tradition that has lost its meaning.
1. Stage 1: Tradition as a Means to Glorify God
No doubt, this tradition of washing hands began as a way of making the common holy. The priests would wash their hands before entering into their priestly service. This naturally led to the understanding that all of God’s people should go through their daily lives with the idea that cleansing precedes our serving. But they also wanted to sanctify the common, the everyday. They were bringing a sanctity to the everyday affairs of life. We do this when we give thanks at the dinner table. We bring a sanctity to the most common and ordinary things of life, a meal.
2. Stage 2: Tradition as a Means of Judging Spirituality
There’s always the danger with religious traditions because of the tendency to make the tradition a standard of a person’s spirituality. No doubt that’s what happened here. So what started out as a practice to make the common holy, now has become a standard for what “holy” people do. That’s an altogether different meaning. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were judging their spirituality and the spirituality of others by their man made laws, “traditions of the elders.” The problem from their perspective? The disciples do not practice what supposedly “holy” people do.
3. Stage 3: Tradition as a Source of Fear.
How can a tradition be a source of fear? It creates in the mind of a person this kind of thinking. “If I do not keep the tradition, then maybe the whole faith is suspect and maybe I am suspect.” So we keep the tradition only because we have this deep inner fear that drives us to keep it. Instead of something that is meaningful (that glorifies God) and is a joy to participate in, the tradition becomes a burdensome law and obligation. At this level, the tradition simply becomes a boundary marker to identify who they are supposed to be.
The Pharisees and Scribes were upset with Jesus for several reasons. First, Jesus did not play by their rules, “the tradition of the elders.” “How dare Jesus teach and minister and do things without our permission, our stamp of approval.” But there is a deeper issue at play. They were afraid of Jesus because they were afraid of anyone that was free. Free people do not need boundary markers that tell them who they are supposed to be. Free people do not depend on externals to tell them they are right with God, they have an inner and abiding relationship with God. They have the witness of the Spirit of God living within them. Jesus and His followers were a threat because they were free and the Pharisees and the Scribes were not.
Fearful people become obsessive people! Fear does that to you. Fear turns minor concerns into obsessions. That same fear deludes us. We are afraid that if something in our system fails, then we will fail. If something in our system of belief is proven shaky, if something in our society changes, if something in our system of relationships or life is suddenly broken, then fear causes us to think we are failed, we are broken. Fear distorts reality so that the important concerns of life are missed. In short, fear distorts the truth.
How does this text speak to our observance of the Lord’s Supper? The Lord’s Supper is centered in the work of Christ, the finished work of Christ that brings us freedom, freedom from sin. It is because of His death and resurrection that we are free from our sins and we have been given a new life of freedom. “Who the Son sets free is free indeed!” (Jn. 8:36). This is why Jesus came! He came to set the captives free (Lk. 4:18), He did not come to put you in bondage. Christ sets us free from the fear of judgement and death. Christ liberates us from a small life of obsessing to a large life of blessing!
Furthermore, in observing the tradition we call the Lord’s Supper, we remember that in Christ God has truly cleansed us, He has washed our hands, He has given us clean hands so that we are free to serve Him. A Clean Heart Makes for Clean Hands. So the Supper declares to us, “Come to Me (Jesus said) and I will wash your sins away. I will set you free from yourself and your sin.” But the Supper also says to us, “Now that you are washed and free, go from this place with holy hands of service. You have been freed to serve Me with Joy! God has released you from a life of compulsive obsessive attempts to clean your hands. You are set free in Christ, now go in Christ and serve with Joy and wonder!”
God will never accomplish His work through people who serve Him from a motivation of fear. Fearful people are not more than conquerors, they are conquered. Fearful people are not open to God possibilities, their minds are set on earthly concerns. The Lord’s Table bids us to here God’s Word, “Do not be afraid!” We can bring our fears to Jesus and He will replace our fears with His presence, His presence that comforts, His presence that gives us peace, His presence that gives us abiding joy, His presence that makes us free! His presence that ends our obsessive and vain attempts at pleasing God in our strength.
Our deepest fear is that there really is uncleanness in us and we are afraid to face it. This fear prompts us to present false images of ourselves. That’s the fear that drives us to do all we can on the outside to clean ourselves up when the inside is still unclean. Maybe you’ve been trying to wash your hands yourself, but all your attempts have left you frustrated and even more tired and discouraged. Today, you can experience God’s grace that cleanses from within.
The Lord’s Supper is an invitation to you this morning that you can come to Jesus and be clean today. All souls come clean before God. Are you ready to plunge in to the pool of grace? Open your heart to God, tell Him what’s on your heart, give Him your failures, give Him your sins. What will He do? He will cleanse you, He will renew you, He will give you a new heart. There’s a healing flow from the cross of Calvary for “Mighty Is the Power of the Cross!”
For His Glory!