As Jesus encountered the religious activity of His day, He called a group of men to follow Him. These ‘disciples’ were learning from Him, were being directed by Him and had were forming a new relationship with God through Him. We speak of regeneration – the inner working of the Spirit of God who changes our hearts, which manifests itself in conversion – the outward evidence.
In Mark 7 the Pharisees and spiritual legal scholars observed Jesus by observing His followers. The ceremonially unwashed hands of these ordinary men triggered a question. “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
This question was as much an accusation of the Master, as it was of the disciples. If this new Rabbi wanted respect, if He ‘really’ was from God, wouldn’t He uphold traditions?
Jesus called them on the carpet. He went to the heart of the matter, the heart of ‘religious’ people who say the right things, but have a heart that is distant, who build their faith on an endless set of rules that are man-made. Some personalities are hard-wired for rules, others are not. Just recently I’ve watched the engagement with the military of three different young men. The spectrum of personality differences are amazing and their response to the ‘orders’ of each day quite diverse.
Jesus replied with a prophetic quote. Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before, had been God’s spokesman to his generation. God had issues to take up with His people then, just as Jesus did during His ministry.
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites…” Ouch! Hypocrites? These were religious leaders, teachers of the law, those who meticulously measured their lives and the lives of others in terms of religious rituals! True, but they were hypocritical in their living. They spoke the right words, externally they looked religiously pristine, but inwardly their hearts were on a different frequency. Their religion was simply a roster of rules, many of which were imposed by self-appointed religious authorities. Today, we’d be tempted to use the word ‘cult.’ Man-made rules, stringently followed, without any heart-relationship with God–isn’t that what a cult is?
Jesus uses a well known expression which permeated His life--“it is written…” Quoting Scripture, basing teachings on truth, rooting one’s life and doctrine inside the boundaries of God’s word – exactly what Christ-followers are called to do today!
“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.” And then to press the issue further, like a skilled lawyer, He pronounces the charge – “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
How easily this is done. How easy it is to ignore God’s word and will and to substitute rules for a heart relationship. Perhaps it seems easier to have a check-list of duties, and measure our lives and others by external behaviour alone. It’s not that externals don’t matter, but many times they don’t!
Didn’t Jesus elsewhere provide instruction about the core of all right relationships with God and others? Didn’t He simplify obedience with just TWO heart-searching commandments –
1) Love the LORD your God with ALL your heart and ALL your soul and ALL.… and
2) Love your neighbour as yourself.
A short list of instructions – but far more challenging to obey than man made rules – e.g. Ceremonial hand-washing! Lip service to God is not enough.