Today God challenges us to consider our traditions in the light of His Word, the Bible. If something is in the Bible, Jesus taught that we should do it with a willing heart and encourage others to do the same. But we must not give heavenly authority to earthly teachings that God did not give us in the Bible.
The Text (Mark 7:1-13)
1 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. 2 Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.
5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”
6 He answered and 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.
7 And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men —the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”
9 He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’;and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, 13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
Jesus’ fame has now spread as far as the great city of Jerusalem, and He is drawing criticism from its religious leaders. The Pharisees in particular feel threatened by Jesus. After returning from exile in Babylon, many in the Jewish community had turned toward the Old Testament seeking salvation and hope. But in their efforts to obey the Law that God had given them in the Old Testament, the Pharisees had also created their own collection of unwritten traditions. These “traditions of the elders” were supposed to act like a “hedge” or barrier around the Law that would supposedly keep people from even coming close to breaking God’s commands. In today’s passage, for example, Mark mentions the traditions of ritual hand washing before meals that the Pharisees kept. The Old Testament had indeed given instructions for priests to do certain washing to avoid ceremonial defilement before doing sacrifices. But God had not given any commands for regular people to need to wash in any particular ways before all their everyday meals. The Pharisees though this would make them super holy and grew angry that Jesus and His disciples didn’t keep their tradition.
Jesus points out the error in their thinking and actions. They were exalting their own non-biblical traditions but missing the love and justice of the real Law of God. Jesus highlights a sad example of this when he mentions their neglect of their own parents. The Pharisees were teaching that a man could avoid caring for his own elderly parents by declaring that all of his property was already dedicated to God. They did not have social security and retirement packages back then; aging parents were often very dependent on their adult children to help provide for their basic needs like food and clothing. Imagine allowing your own parents to starve while still claiming that you loved God very much! Jesus rightly called such men out as hypocrites (spiritual pretenders).
Two important applications can definitely be drawn out of this passage. First, we must be careful not to let our own traditions and personal beliefs carry the same authority as God’s Word in our lives. The Bible is God’s revealed will for us, so we are right to encourage ourselves and other Christians to believe and obey the Bible. But we should not tell others that God wants them to do or not do things if God has not told us that in His Word. Secondly, we must recognize that simply obeying the letter of the Law is not good enough. God wants our hearts, not just our outward obedience. God has always wanted His people to embrace the spirit or intent of His commands so that we keep them joyfully. If we find ourselves hating God’s teachings and obeying them only because we feel like we have to, we need to humbly ask God to change our hardened hearts. We want to honor God with our words and deeds but also with our hearts.