Mark 7:1-13 “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 ‘unclean,’ 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 washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 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 “unclean” hands?’ He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’ And he said to them: ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: “Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban” (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his 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.'”
The more you enter into this scene the more confrontational it gets. We are told that a delegation of leading Pharisees and teachers of the law had walked from Jerusalem, 90 miles away, specifically to deal with Jesus of Nazareth. There was not a gentle country Galilean accent to be heard as these men of Judah gathered around our Lord hemming him in, isolating him from his disciples, intimidating him. These were the men from HQ, from the ‘Ministry of Religion’, who’d come there specifically to deal with this Teacher. We might be concerned speaking to one another today about a threatened preacher, “Do you know that officials have traveled from London to investigate him?” A serious matter. Americans would say, “The Feds have come from Washington to talk to him.” Clearly the Saviour was heading a movement that was already judged in distant Jerusalem to be subversive to the 300-year-old Pharisaic establishment. New attitudes and ideas were being taught; crowds of people were following Christ. Messianic speculation was spreading. It was time for the chief Pharisees to crush it.
That is the scene, a standoff between Christ and the teachers of the law. Then, as they try to overawe our Lord with their posturing, one or two of them happen to notice that the Twelve, who were sitting down nearby keeping an eye on the scene, had begun to eat their lunch. They watched in a pose of outrage and disgust as these fishermen and tax collectors didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before they started to eat. Here was the starting point at which they could begin to interrogate Christ at his ignorance of the tenets of true religion. They didn’t need to question Jesus any further: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” (v.5). “You call yourself a religious man and yet in the elementary duties of religion you fail.”
This washing might seem to us a trivial matter, but the Pharisees were actually raising two issues of crucial relevance to the world today. The first was this, “What is uncleanness in the eyes of God?” and the second was, “By what authority do we live our lives?” Here were the men who believed that they knew about religion. Let me remind you about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
Almost four centuries before the birth of Christ the 39 books of the Old Testament Scriptures had been virtually completed, and it was at that time, when there was no more revelation or ‘vision’ to be given to the nation by God until Messiah came, that then a new class of men, legal experts and casuists, had arisen who came to be known as the ‘scribes’ or the teachers of the law. These men were not content with having the ten commandments and seeing the ways that the law of God was applied to Israel by the prophets and in the writings of the Bible. These scribes had a passion for regulations. They amplified God’s commandments, and they expanded and broke down the law of God into thousands of different rules which governed every action in life. This, of course, was done to make living the religious life easier not more difficult. You simply turned to the ‘Index’, as it were, to a defined category “Sports”, “Leisure,” and then, without much thought, you obey what the regulations say. Legal traditions treat people as slaves, or children, or as a raw recruits in an army being presented with a rule book But for the Christian it is a matter of the personal application of the law of God from the Bible to daily living, to where the lines are to be drawn. What is convenient . . . what is helpful . . . where do you fear you are becoming a slave to something while a fellow Christian is not . . . what is to the Lord’s glory? You ask yourself such questions, not turn to a human Index.
The “traditions of the elders” weren’t actually written down until long after the life of Christ. That host of regulations in Jesus’ time was in the form ‘oral law’. That is what the Pharisees are referring to in our text in the phrase ‘the tradition of the elders,’ (v.5) The Pharisees were not talking about the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, when they used the word ‘elders’. They were referring to the well known legal experts of more recent centuries, teachers of the law, like Hillel and Shammai. It was by submitting to the authority of their traditional teaching that the Pharisees lived their lives. Doing what those handed-down traditions taught had become their entire religion. When these traditions came to be written down 300 years after Christ they were called the Mishnah. Those hundreds of orthodox Jews who come to Aberystwyth each August, who can be seen on the mornings of fine days at their tables outside their rooms on the campus studying Hebrew Texts, are actually examining those same traditions – the Mishnah. Let us look at what these tradition say about ritual washings so that we can understand what the Lord Jesus was opposing.
Dr. William Barclay was not a safe guide concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ, but he could popularise the Greek language, and the background of the New Testament. This is a typical vivid description of his concerning Pharisaic handwashing:
“There were definite and rigid rules for the washing of hands. Note that this handwashing was not in the interests of hygienic purity; it was ceremonial cleanness which was at stake. Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way. The hands, to begin with, had to be free of any coating of sand or mortar or gravel or any such substance. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars, so that the water itself was clean in the ceremonial sense, and that it might be certain it had been used for no other purpose – nothing had fallen into it or had been mixed with it. First, the hands were held with fingertips pointing upwards; water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was one quarter of a ‘log’, which is equal to one and a half eggshells full of water. While the hands were still wet, each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. That is what the phrase about using the ‘fist’ means [in verse 3, but translated by the NIV ‘hands’]; the fist of one hand was rubbed into the palm and against the surface of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but that water was now ‘unclean’ because it had touched unclean hands. So, next, the hands had to be held with fingertips pointing downwards and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the fingertips. After all that had been done, the hands were clean.
“To fail to do this was in Jewish eyes not to be guilty of bad manners, not to be dirty in the health sense, but to be unclean in the sight of God. Anyone who ate with unclean hands was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. To omit so to wash the hands was to become liable to poverty and destruction. Bread eaten with unclean hands was not better than excrement. A Rabbi who once omitted the ceremony was buried in excommunication. Another Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, used the water given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking, and in the end nearly perished of thirst, because he was determined to observe the rules of cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst.
“That, to the Pharisaic and scribal Jew, was religion. It was a ritual and ceremonial religion, and regulations like that they considered to be the essence of the service of God. Ethical religion was buried under a mass of taboos and rules” (William Barclay, “Mark. The New Daily Study Bible” St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh, n.d., pp.190&191). There were certain animals which were considered unclean. A woman after childbirth was unclean, as were lepers, or anyone who touched a dead body. Gentiles, Samaritans and tax-collectors were unclean. Food touched by Gentiles became unclean So when a strict Jew returned from market he immersed his whole body in clean water to take the taint of uncleanness away. Vessels could also become unclean, so our text talks about “the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles” (v.4). The Mishnah had no less than 186 pages on the subject of ritual washings. This was the locked-in religion confronting Jesus. Its essence was ritual purity, rules, ceremonials and regulations. To observe them was to please God. This last summer, when a thousand Orthodox Jews come to stay on the campus the University has to purchase scores of new refrigerators for them, because the refrigerators that are here are considered ceremonially unclean. The Orthodox Jews then take these refrigerators with them when their holiday month in Aberystwyth comes to an end. All this is you know is very different from what God himself required in the Old Testament. According to the Scriptures only priests were required to wash before entering the tabernacle, and the washing of hands was prescribed only if one had touched some bodily discharge. That was about it. The religion of Judaism is very unlike the Hindu religion which also abounds in ceremonial washings.
So the first issue of debate between the Lord Jesus and the Pharisees was how does one become clean in God’s sight, and the second was this: by whose authority do we live? The first question is “What is good?”, and the second question is “What is true?” How did these Pharisees and the teachers of the law know what was good and true? They knew the answers by consulting those oral traditions of the elders. You see how this phrase is repeated throughout our text? “The tradition of the elders” (v.3); “many other traditions” (v.4); “the tradition of the elders” (v.5); “the traditions of men” (v.8); “your own traditions” (v.9); “your tradition” (v.13). Their authority was the oral traditions of these famous rabbis. Why all this ceremonial washing? Why all those regulations for every conceivable activity? Because this is what those traditions demanded. Adhering to this oral tradition and spelling out what was good and right was everything. The rabbis in fact blustered to the people that Moses actually had received from the Lord on Sinai two laws, the written law and the oral tradition. It was an utterly erroneous claim.
Whenever some other authority is introduced alongside the Bible, then you know what happens, that authority goes up and up, and the Bible almost disappears. You can see this clearly in the religion of Roman Catholicism in which its most visible features – the mass, the priesthood, Mary, the papacy, the confessional boxes – all come from its ‘holy traditions’ and not from the Bible at all. You see it in the cults; the ideas of the Book of Mormon have gone up and up and the Bible has come down. You see it in modernism where the so-called ‘assured results of modern criticism’ have gone up, and the Bible has come down. That is why there can be a homosexual sort-of-bishop. Our interest in this scene in our text in Mark 7 is the response of our brave young Saviour, how he was not at all intimidated by these men. How did the Lord Jesus answer these people?
We are living in an ecumenical and inter-faith age, in which delegates of all religions and beliefs are invited to take a part in services on official occasions. You would expect, if that approach had been given by God and knew the blessing of the Lord Christ, the Son of God, that Jesus would have replied to the Pharisees’ inquiry about why his own disciples did not ceremonially wash their hands, with some such sentiments as these, “Well, we all have our own ways to God. You have yours and we’ve got ours. The important thing to make absolutely clear is that no one claims that they are the only ones right, and we all respect one another. Everybody is right and nobody is wrong. There are no failures or heresies in the sight of God.” That may be humanism, but it is not Christianity. That is not at all what the Lord Jesus said to these men as they gathered around him, and tried to intimidate him, stopping his preaching. What in fact Jesus said to them was this: “‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding to the traditions of men.'” (vv.6-8). What is the constant stance of Christ? There is truth and there is error. There is right, and there is wrong. The Lord Jesus erects an antithesis and he repudiates entirely the religion of the traditions of the fathers. It is a man’s religion. It is a vain worship. It is lip service only. It is the faith of hypocrites. It is not from God, and it does not lead men to God. Men should abandon it immediately. That is what the Lord Jesus said, and for us he can say no wrong, because he is the incarnate God.
You understand certain convictions that we hold in this church, let me make them clear, because they are not startling: there are Christians in every single denomination. We, in this particular Alfred Place congregation, are not the only ones who are right. We don’t say that, or believe it – at all, but we do believe that there are false religions, zealously believed and pursued, that are wrong, and those who hold such beliefs and propagate them and are engaged in wrong practices should abandon them. We have been taught that by our Saviour. These words of Jesus Christ constrain us to examine ourselves as to whether our own religion is true. Do we have the heart of the matter in us? Is God’s blessing resting on us today? These Pharisees and teachers of the law were sincerely religious but they were absolutely wrong. Where did the Lord Christ say their mistakes lie?
1. THEIR RELIGION WAS DERIVED FROM MEN.
“They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding to the traditions of men” (vv. 7&8). All that washing and cleansing of hands and bodies and cups and kettles were nothing more than rules taught by men. While we have, Jesus says, “the commands of God” (v.8). They’ve been graciously given to us by God himself, as absolute, supreme, authoritative, infallible and unchangeable standards of faith and practice. When I hold this book in my hand I am gripping the commands of God. They tell me to be a certain sort of citizen, that kind of preacher, this sort of son, this type of church member, this sort of father, this sort of neigbour, and this sort of husband. The divine commands show us how we are to order our lives.
I can turn to a part of the Bible like the book of Leviticus, and perhaps no part of the Bible presents to the ordinary reader so many peculiar difficulties as that book, and yet no less than fifty-six times do we meet with statements like ‘the Lord called to Moses and said . . .’, ‘the Lord spoke to Moses and said . . . .’ In other words Leviticus claims 56 commands of God. He spoke, and Moses wrote it down. Such claims are made throughout the Bible. There is the constant refrain, “Thus saith the Lord.” But what had the Pharisees done? Let go of God’s word and clung to the commands of men. What a stupid decision! They were spending their precious years memorising the traditions of men. What a waste of effort! Suppose you had an expensive little box made of 28 carat gold. The lid of this casket was studded with precious stones, and everyone who saw it admired its beauty. It was not at all tacky because of its exquisite Faberge-type workmanship and design; it was well-nigh perfect. The people who looked at it sigh with envy and are fascinated to know what you actually keep inside it. One day you give in to their pleadings; the lid is opened and what is revealed is some fluff, four paper clips, a few torn off postage stamps from Monaco, a shell, a piece of string, some elastic bands, the plastic top of a ball-point pen, old Monopoly money and six tooth picks. What an anticlimax. So valuable a chest, lined in velvet, but it is being used to collect trash. That golden casket stands for your mind, the most precious part of your body, and yet you are filling your mind with junk. You are deadening it with nicotine and alcohol and drugs. You are deluging it with images from videos, and blasting it with heavy rock. Your memory in old age is going to be like a crazy witch’s. It will be treasuring up rags and straw and throwing jewels out of the window.
So it was with these Pharisees. They loved human ideas, and were ignoring the book that comes from God. His names, his words and his actions are found on nearly every page. By searching we cannot find God, but he has chosen to reveal himself to us in the Bible. He has spoken through at least thirty distinct writers, scattered over a period of fifteen hundred years, and yet with a marvelous and striking unity. The Pharisees could have charged their memories with those truths, but what they had done Jesus says is to “let go” of all that and clung to the traditions of men. So much that was fine in our heritage and culture and church life has simply been “let go” in the past few decades. Don’t let go the Bible. Francis Ridley Havergal was amongst the most outstanding of women hymn-writers, and when she died she was only 42 years old. When she was still a teenager she memorised the entire New Testament, the book of Psalms, and the prophecy of Isaiah. Then in her twenties she memorised the twelve minor prophets. Little wonder, with her mind saturated with the Word of God, that she could write such great hymns.
Never let go of the commands of God; never stop attending a church where the Bible is preached at both services on Sundays; don’t stop reading the Bible. If you should then you will have no answers to the four greatest questions a man can ask. Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Why am I in the state I’m in? What must I do to be saved? Shouldn’t you all know the answers to such questions? To whom will you go? To the various traditions of mankind – all their thousands of religions and psychologies, or to the Word of God? When Jesus himself was being harassed here as to what he believed then what did he do? See here! He went to the Scriptures: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you” (v.6) he said, and he quoted to them from Isaiah chapter 29 and the 13th verse. He didn’t perform a miracle to confound these Jerusalemites, or call for fire from heaven to fall upon them. He didn’t overwhelm them with his own oratorical brilliance, he quoted to them the commands of God – which words they had let go.
Without the answers to those four great questions which the commands of God alone provide man is caught up in wilderness from which there is no escape, and in which there is no hope. Man simply reaches out in the midst of a cosmic joke and tries the best he can. That is why he takes alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, crack, heroin etc. to dull his despair. If you read the writings of the famous supremos of the 20th century, Sartre, Camus, Kafka and the other existentialists you see the utter desperation that gripped them. They had no answers. They had turned to man and man had no understanding of those questions. There is a ‘composer’ called John Cage who has even drawn notes out of a hat and strung them together. He believes that life has come out of chance and so man’s creativity ought to be periods of utter silence or music of totally random selection. That is life. A little known fact about John Cage is that he is very fond of forest mushrooms, but he knows that there are poisonous mushrooms as well as edible ones. He is very careful in his forest mushroom foraging not to use random selection. He ignores his chance philosophy there, because that could kill him. He reads books, looks at photographs, and asks other inhabitants of the forest which mushrooms are edible mushroms. He runs tests to see if these mushrooms are nourishing and tasty or not. John Cage has to be utterly inconsistent, because no one can exist for long with the philosophy that the very meaning of life is chance, or capriciousness.
If in other life-and-death areas of life we are sure that chance is not in control, that there are some substances that can nourish while others kill, shouldn’t we all be more diligent in finding answers to the four great questions – Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Why am I in the state I’m in? What must I do to be saved? In the book of Isaiah and in all the commands of God the answers are to be found. Don’t hurry to find the answers, but hurry up! Begin by reading, say, Paul’s letter to the Romans. Sukesh Pabari, a former Hindu who is working in Kenya teaching pastors alongside Keith Underhill, told me how he was delivered from those traditions of men, by reading the epistle to the Romans. That letter will last for ever. As L. B. Cake wrote,
‘Last eve I stood before a blacksmith’s door
And heard the anvil ring its vesper chime;
Then, looking in, I saw upon the floor
Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
“How many anvils have you had,?” said I,
“To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
“Just one,” he answered; then with twinkling eye,
“The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
And so the Bible, anvil of God’s Word,
For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
And though the noise of Paine, Voltaire, was heard,
The anvil is unworn, the hammers gone.’ (L.B.Cake).
Let me ask you, what is controlling you even in your Christian profession? by what standard, and by what norm or rule do you live? Are you still going your own way? Are you making your own decisions? Are you serving self, or are you controlled by the words of Christ? If I held a great conviction or prejudice, and my parents had held it before me, and my culture holds to it now, and all my peers are gripped by it, and then I discover that it has no foundation in the word of God, would I let it go? Just because the Lord said it was wrong? All I am asking is how do I stand in relation to the Lord’s word. Isn’t it a constant peril that my Christian thinking is merely the rearrangement of my own prejudices? Are we reluctant to contemplate the possibility that God’s word is saying to us that some things I believe are wrong, and some of my behaviour has to change? Are we being controlled by the Bible? Supposing we knew today that the word of God taught such and such a thing, are our minds really open to correction? Is your life one of submission to God’s word, however that word may contradict your traditions and your background, or however it may contradict your revolt against your background and traditions? So the first thing Jesus asked the Jerusalem men to consider was that their religion was not from God, but in fact derived from men.
2. THEIR RELIGION WAS WITH THEIR LIPS NOT FROM THEIR HEARTS.
“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (v.6). So, first, it was a religion based on the wrong authority, that of man, and not God. It was also a superficial external religion, in words and not from the heart. Isn’t everyone here aware of the possibility of a mere verbal religion, one in which men are strangers to heart religion? True religion must involve the heart, the very centre of our being. The first condition for religion pleasing to God is that we call upon him with our hearts rather than just our lips. God loves truth, not lies. Think of a seducer who whispers his never dying love into the ears of a woman while his heart is full of other plans. The charmer is using his lips to have her, not love her. Prayer that is on our lips but not from our hearts is a waste of time. Without the heart religion has no substance; it is a pathetic, impotent, dead lie. There is no greater sin, no sin that makes God more angry, than honouring him with our lips while our hearts are far from him. That sin dishonours his name and it is punishable by death.
In front of me today could well be a woman who hesitated for a long time before coming to church this morning. She would have preferred to stay at home and read the paper, but she figured it would get boring and there was someone she wanted to see, so she decided reluctantly to come here. Then she joined the rest of the congregation in singing that she was gripped by a strong desire to enter the Lord’s house. She sings with her lips,
“How pleased and blessed was I
To hear the people cry
Come let us seek our God today.
Yes, with a cheerful zeal
We haste to Zion’s hill
And there our vows and honours pay.” (Isaac Watts 1674-1748).
She is speaking a lie. She is honouring God with her lips while her hearts if far from him. There could also be a man here whose heart is full of constant bitterness towards another Christian, but listen to his prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.” That’s a lie! I also see a man complaining about his income and that the church members don’t support him in his work. He’ll have to give up that job soon unless some of the church officers start buying more from his shop. Now listen to his prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s a lie. What does that prayer teach us? We are not to trust in man but in the living God who will supply all our needs from his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Another person is putting in the collection a pound coin which sum of money he has been putting into the offertory box without thought or sacrifice or any dedication for ten years, and then that man stands up and sings,
“Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.”
I am saying that there are many useless, ill-considered, purely formal prayers pervaded by lies and deceit. We sing so many hymns without ever stopping to think just what prayers they contain. I had a letter from old friends, Lars and Elizabeth this week. Lars said how they were sitting down to eat and he had already taken a sample before Liz said to him, “Aren’t we going to pray?” “Sure, I just forgot,” he said. He put his fork down, closed his eyes and said a few words, then ‘Amen’ and picked up his fork again. Then his wife looked to him and she said, “Did you mean that?” Ouch! He wrote to me, “I was nailed, real good, by the truth of her question. To whom was I praying? It was all too hasty” It brought back to him a sweet memory of fifty years earlier when he was with his grandfather in a little cafe in Norway, and the waitress brought them a delicacy that his Grandpa had ordered of buttermilk sprinkled with crunched up cracker and brown sugar. The cafe was full of workmen, but his grandfather bowed his head, taking all the time in the world, and with no sense of obligation or self-consciousness, just gratitude to the God who had filled his every need for 80 years, thanked the Lord for that simple food. There was a sense of presence; a short moment of communion which his little grandson Lars has never forgotten. How different from his own peremptory grace at that table with Liz, and how different from these people of whom the Lord spoke here: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
So often do you hear people complaining, “Why pray? God doesn’t hear our prayers,” but the problem is this, that they are not real prayers, from the heart. They are simply for things they want, that will make them happier – they think. They are words on our lips. There is nothing for God to hear. We are still sinful enough to try to pin the blame on God for unanswered prayer, but the Lord rightly points the finger at us. The fault lies not with the Inspirer and Hearer of prayer; he challenges us. It is not that God must become a better hearer and giver, but that we must learn to approach him properly. God is waiting until we pray from the heart. Our prayers are not deep enough. They are not ascending to heaven from our hearts. Such prayers reach the ears of God. So their religion was derived from men not from God, and their religion was with their lips and not from their hearts.
3. THEIR RELIGION WAS THE HYPOCRITE’S RELIGION.
Jesus replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites” (v.6). “You hypocrites,” Jesus said to them. But I thought we were not supposed to judge other people. The most quoted text in the Bible is, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Yet here Christ looks them in the eye, these religious leaders from Jerusalem, and he calls them a bunch of hypocrites. When we are urged by Jesus not to judge we are being told not to judge other people self-righteously, or censoriously, or harshly. That is what Christ condemns. We are to evaluate them while at the same time evaluating ourselves also. The word ‘hypocrite’ was used in the Greek theatre of a man playing a part on the stage. An actor would wear various masks according to the role he was impersonating. The word ‘hypocrite’ was taken and applied to someone who was acting a role, pretending to be sincere, or religious, or outraged, or sympathetic. His whole life was an act. Christ was facing a religion which centred on doing things in the right way at the right time, and never doing other things which were taboo. As long as they kept this up all was well. They said all the right pious things, but their hearts had no intention at all of discovering what God desired.
“You hypocrites,” Christ said to them because they were setting aside God’s word and zealously observing their own traditions. The Lord proceeded to illustrate this (because all abstractions are better known through examples). “I will show you what I mean,” Christ was saying: “Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his 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.'” (vv. 10-13). All of us know that the fifth commandment is to honour our parents, and also that Paul takes that command and at the end of his letter to the Ephesians he nails that law to the hearts of the New Testament church. Some of our mothers and fathers may be senile, or drunkards, or in prison, or separated from one another, or violently anti-Christian, or common working class while we have advanced in life. For some reason they are now a total embarrassment to us. How can we get away with rejecting them when they are an absolute nuisance to us? There is no son or daughter who does not enjoy honouring a gentle elderly person who lives an hour away, who is no trouble at all, and who is going to leave us a sizable inheritance. But the awkward parents . . .
The traditions of the elders devised a way to achieve this ignoble end. Corban, from the Hebrew word for ‘offering’ or ‘gift’, was a rabbinical custom derived from the Old Testament practice of devoting certain things to the Lord. An object became Corban if you had as it were ‘laid it on the altar’ and given it over to the Lord. Something was set aside and devoted to God. The money we put in our offering boxes is Corban. Think of the promises some of us have made to give 500 pounds to the church for the repair of the old windows. That means that that amount of money, though for the time being it is still in our bank account, is dedicated to God. We have declared it Corban and we will not use that for, say, a holiday in Tenby. That money is now sacred to God. During the days of the Lord Jesus there was no state aid for the elderly. They had to be cared for by their children when they became too feeble to look after themselves. They lived with them, or they were regularly given money to buy some creature comforts.
So the concept of Corban was being abused in this way: when a father or mother in distress came to a Pharisee and asked for some support then the son would reply, “I am sorry, but I am unable to help you because all the money I have is Corban. It is dedicated to the Lord and I dare not touch it. I have withdrawn that money for any other use,” though he was still in charge of it. You understand, a man went through the formal religious oath of dedicating something to God, not that he actually gave it to the synagogue of the Phrases and so became a poor man. The transfer was on a piece of paper witnessed by a scribe, and it was done to prevent someone else getting any benefit from it. So the vow became a Pharisaic excuse to avoid obeying the command of God, “Honour your father and your mother.” The traditions of the elders prohibited a man from taking out that money, canceling Corban and using it for his old mother. It fined him fifty shekels if he did that, and his wife thirty shekels. Their religion, in other words, had become a cloak covering greedy callous hearts.
So Jesus really lays it on these Jerusalem teachers of the law: “YOU no longer let him do anything for his 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” (vv. 12&13). They were putting steel into the natural affection and consciences of their followers saying, “Stand up against your parents. Don’t be swayed by mere pity.” “You hypocrites,” said Christ to the Jerusalem leaders. That is courageous preaching, in the same godly tradition as John the Baptist addressing Herod and his wife about their ‘marriage.’ Serious proclamation of the Bible lies at the heart of the church’s calling. Christ showed the people the comprehensive perversion at the heart of their religion. Wasn’t he kind to do that? Don’t we want to find those things out now and repent rather than arrive at the throne of judgment and be charged with such sins? Let me sit under ministry which will not rearrange my own prejudices and always tell me that my traditions and beliefs are right, but sit and hear those men that will bring the word of God to bear on my life Sunday by Sunday. Where are we hypocrites? Let me at times squirm under the preached word, and let me grow angry in the sermon, and let me repent and hunger for obedient daily living under the powerful word of God.
A couple of weeks ago a stranger came in and began to wriggle under the preaching as she sat next to one of our members. “Are you all right?” our member asked the visitor. “I am angry,” she said. So at the end of the service our church member turned to her Christian friend sitting on the other side of her and whispered, “Pray for this person next to me. She is angry.” So, after a while she turned to the visitor who had not yet walked out, and she said to her, “How are you feeling now? Are you still angry?” The woman looked puzzled. “Angry?” she said. “No. Not ‘angry’, hungry!” Well, there is a cup of tea and more for hungry folk, but for those made angry by the word of God there is something much better, the living God to address. He was angry with his Son when he became our substitute that he might not be angry with us if we will but repent and ask for his forgiveness.
The fruit of man-made religion is always hypocrisy and lip worship. The answer to the weakness of the churches is not ecumenical cooperation, sacrificing morality and truth for the sake of an appearance of unity. Rather, we have to expand our grasp of truth as far as the word of the Lord has revealed it to us, and live as consistently a godly life as the Lord of the word demands of us. That is the way ahead into the 21st century for the professing churches. That word ‘vision’ frequently trips off the lips of some people – “my vision for a caring church . . .” etc. This passage, I say, is the Son of God’s vision for a caring church, one in which man made traditions, and lip service and hypocrisy are dealt with in a courageous and costly way, and the word of God is central.
5th October 2003 GEOFF THOMAS