Tradition Rules, 9 February 2020

Tradition Rules
Series—Mark: The Real Jesus
Mark 7:1-13

Series Big Idea: Mark’s gospel is the most concise biography of Jesus.

Big Idea: Motives matter and tradition should never be more important than obedience to God.

I love Celebrate Recovery! I’m so grateful for Sherry and Hollywood and the others who lead this vital ministry on Wednesdays at 7 PM. I’m grateful, too, for the team at Saddleback Church who took the 12 Steps and enhanced them with a robust biblical foundation. Although Celebrate Recovery is perfect for anyone struggling with grief, loss, and pain, it may best be known for its ability to help those dealing with any form of addiction.

Arguably the most important step of the twelve is the first one, to admit we are powerless and that we have a problem. No transformation can begin while denial is present, so let me begin with this admission…

My name is Kirk and I’m a recovering Pharisee.

This month we’re returning to our series from the gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the biographies of Jesus. It’s clear and concise. We began this series in 2017 and have taken quite a few breaks along the way! I doubt we’ll finish it this year, though I encourage you to read the book of Mark this year…and every year! Over the years, we have looked at every verse in the first six chapters, bringing us to chapter seven. Our text today revolves around one word…tradition!

It begins,

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 7:1-4)

What is a Pharisee and why do I consider myself a recovering Pharisee? I’m glad you asked!

There are actually many debates about this group of religious leaders, but here are a few things we know:

  1. 1. They were the authorized teachers of Jesus’ time
  2. 2. Many of them were politically active
  3. 3. They were significant, popular, and influential in Israel
  4. 4. They were the largest of the groups within Judaism, possibly numbering 6000 members during Jesus’ life
  5. 5. They promoted not only their own holiness but also that of other Jews
  6. 6. Their chief concern was purity within the story and tradition of being Jews, God’s elect people
  7. 7. They were highly religious and devout

Is this a good thing? Yes. Can it become a bad thing? Yes.

We usually think of Pharisees as legalistic, self-righteous, hypocritical bigots who look for the speck in the eyes of others while ignoring the 2x4 plank of pride in their own. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for all Pharisees, and it certainly wasn’t their intention.

In fact, hardly any group of people are always bad…or always good. This is important to remember, especially in our day of division and stereotype. There are few things that can be said about ALL Republicans or ALL Democrats or ALL refugees or ALL African-Americans or Asians or ALL rich people or ALL Christians or ALL Catholics or ALL doctors or ALL Buckeyes! Labeling is harmful. Period. We need to look at each person as an individual masterpiece in need of varying amounts of restoration.

Josephus, a first-century Jewish writer, said the Pharisees were

  • - considered “the most accurate interpreters of the laws”
  • - the leading sect of the Jews and “extremely influential among the townsfolk”
  • - devoted to Torah—the Law, the Jewish Bible—to its interpretation, and living according to the Torah

When we mention the Pharisees, we often think of zealots, likely an extreme form of Pharisaism. Saul—who became known as Paul in the New Testament—was a zealot. He was so passionate about preserving the Jewish nation that he oversaw the killing of early Christians who began following Jesus rather than Judaism. To that end, Dr. Scot McKnight makes these observations:

1. Pharisees, with others, opposed John and Jesus for their kingdom ministry (Matt 3:7). 2. Pharisees had a “righteousness” that Jesus said was inadequate (Matt 5:20). 3. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for eating with the wrong sorts (Matt 9:11). 4. Pharisees had a different fasting routine (Matt 9:14). 5. Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcising demons in allegiance with Satan (Matt 9:34). 6. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their sabbath practices (Matt 12:2). 7. Pharisees wanted Jesus to attest to his vocation with a sign (Matt 12:38). 8. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their lack of handwashing before meals (Matt 15:1-20). 9. Pharisees taught things Jesus thought were contrary to God’s will (Matt 16:6, 12). 10. Pharisees tested Jesus’ “theology”/”practice” on divorce (Matt 19:3). 11. Pharisees wanted Jesus put away (Matt 22:15) and Jesus knew it (Matt 21:33-45). 12. Pharisees were accused of hypocrisy by Jesus (Matt 23). 13. Pharisees are nearly absent in the trial scenes of Jesus. [They did not have the power to put him to death.]

They had a clear interpretation of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, and opposed any other interpretation or practice related to it, which explains their conflicts with Jesus. They obviously thought they were right and, therefore, anyone who didn’t believe and behave exactly like they did was a heretic, an enemy. They had a noble motive to protect the nation of Israel.

Here’s the real issue: The Pharisees saw the Torah largely as a comprehensive rule book which must be followed in order to please God. Jesus taught the Torah was about loving God and loving others.

Now let’s return to our text.

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 7:1-4)

Washing hands is a very good practice, especially before eating or touching any part of your face. The Mayo Clinic says the number one way to avoid the cold and flu (or coronavirus) is to…stay away from sick people! They add, “Don’t put your fingers into your eyes, nose or mouth” and “wash your hands frequently, especially when out in public.”

Actually, the issue here was not related to physical health, but rather tradition. They didn’t literally wash their hands, but merely rinsed them (Mark 7:3-4). There’s nothing wrong with tradition in and of itself. We have many traditions here. For decades, First Alliance Church has gathered on Sunday mornings. Why not Tuesday at 11 PM?
We take communion on the first Sunday of the month. We take a benevolence offering on the second Sunday of the month. We sing at least one hymn each Sunday. We have a group of men who pray each Tuesday morning. We have activities on Wednesday evenings. We have annual services on Good Friday and Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Why? Tradition!

The problem arises when tradition becomes an idol, more important than Jesus. The Bible itself can become simply a tradition if it becomes more important than Jesus. Our faith is based upon a person, not a book.

In the context of this scene, the Pharisees had built an agenda which was both political and religious. Does that sound familiar? Scripture was being interpreted and applied through an agenda related to revolt against Rome. God’s Word got polluted.

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)

The Jewish religious leaders began with accusation. Their question is literally, “Why don’t your disciples walk…?” Why are they not following tradition? The religious leaders loved to find fault in others, especially someone as popular and threatening to them as Jesus. The issue really wasn’t hygiene, but rather tradition given to the people to add to their burdens (Matthew 23:4). Jesus had already broken their fasting and Sabbath traditions (Mark 2:23-3:5) and now they’re looking for more evidence to discredit him and elevate their own status. At issue was these teachers had access to the written Torah, but they also relied upon the oral traditions of their forefathers.

A little bit of background is necessary to grasp this event. The Jews—as God’s chosen people—saw themselves as special. They sought to distinguish themselves from Gentiles—or worse, Samaritans. By ceremonially washing, they announced they were special while others were “unclean.” What was once a good reminder that they were God’s elect became an empty ritual filled with pride and religious separation. Such washings were tangible and visible.

Jesus taught that while externals matter, it’s possible to do the right things externally while having a sinful interior life. For Jesus, the focus was always about loving God and loving people. These two commands would summarize the 613 laws in the Jewish tradition.

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6-8)   

The word “hypocrite” means “play actor.” These religious people would often perform for crowds their good deeds despite their wicked hearts.

Have you ever done something you didn’t feel like doing? It can be easy to pretend with people, but God always knows our hearts. He knows our thoughts. He knows our attitudes.

It reminds me of a little boy whose mother kept insisting he sit down in his highchair. When he finally unlocked his knees and plopped into the seat, he declared, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I'm still standing up on the inside!”

The Pharisees knew how to impress people by their actions, but on the inside they were becoming prideful. They were more concerned about human traditions than the commands of God. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially in our consumer culture where we are assaulted with the message that it’s all about us. “This is MY church and I want things done MY way, regardless of what the Bible does or doesn’t say.”
The Pharisees generally began with good motives, but they lost their focus. Instead of knowing and loving God, they became more concerned about looking good for others and even thinking their good works would win them favor with God. We call that religion.

I like to think of religion as anything we do to try to make God like us, but He already loves us. That’s why He sent Jesus to live and die and resurrect for us. We can’t earn salvation. We can’t get to heaven—now or after we die—by following the rules. We’re saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! (Mark 7:9)

If you wear a fancy suit on Sunday but fail to love your neighbor…
If you have memorized the book of Mark but fail to love your neighbor…
If you attend a church service every Sunday but fail to love your neighbor…
If you wash your hand or your face or your car or your clothes but fail to love…

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Paul, the former Pharisee, said,

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Pharisees had abandoned God’s commands while keeping human tradition.

Back to Jesus…

For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:10-13)

These Jewish leaders begin with teaching tradition as God’s Word (Mark 7:7), setting aside God’s Word (7:8), rejecting God’s Word (7:9), and robbing God’s Word of its power (7:13). It doesn’t matter how sincere you are or how religious you are or how pious you appear to others, God sees your heart.

Jesus says they do many religious things. They do many traditional things, yet they miss the point…love God and love others as they love themselves. While they claim to love God, they don’t even love their own parents, breaking the fifth Commandment. They dedicated their wealth to God while failing to support their parents. They place tradition above God’s Word.

Let me say again traditions aren’t necessarily bad, but when tradition rules above God, when preference rules above the Bible, when we do the right things for the wrong reasons with bad motives, we risk becoming like the prideful, self-righteous Pharisees.

And I’m a recovering Pharisee. You might be one, too.

I used to not only follow the rules but judge others who didn’t behave just like me. I still do, sometimes, which is why I’m recovering.

I used to get nervous when someone didn’t worship exactly like me, dress like me, or think just like me. I still do, sometimes, which is why I’m recovering.

My focus needs to always be on Jesus. What would make Jesus smile?

I’m a recovering Pharisee. I sometimes want people to see how good I am. I don’t smoke, chew, or go out with girls that do! Look at me, mister holier-than-thou.

It amazes me how much the religious people seemed to dislike Jesus…and vice-versa. You can serve God or religion. You can follow the Bible or tradition.

Motives matter. Underneath everything we do is an attitude, good or bad, self-serving or God-serving, prideful or humble.

Are you a Pharisee? Are you, like me, a recovering Pharisee?

How is your heart? Why do you do the things you do? Is it to make yourself happy? Is it to impress others? Or is it to honor God?

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

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