Wash Your Hands
The structure of Mark is fascinating. One commentator explains that for Mark, “Placing stories together like bricks in a row with little if any editorial cement is not unusual in Mark.” The last time Mark mentioned the Pharisees were in Mark 3:6, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” A massive cliffhanger, and then Mark turns quickly to the sea of Galilee voyages. Mark has not mentioned the Pharisees in 168 verses. Then Mark mentions in the first verse of the seventh chapter, “now when the Pharisees gathered to him…” As the commentator said, there is little if any editorial cement. The Pharisees gathered around Jesus like the crowds (Mark 4:1, 5:21) and the disciples (Mark 6:30). The crowd did not understand the parables. The disciples did not understand the five loaves. One of the main themes of Mark has been those ‘inside and outside’ the people inside understand, and those outside do not understand. External appearances are not an excellent gauge of those who have faith and understanding. Chapter seven is a perfect example of this, the Pharisee’s center in one story and a Syrophoenician woman in another.
We hear of Pharisees, and we immediately think of negative thoughts. Today if you call someone a Pharisee, it is not a compliment. Calling your spouse a Pharisee is not something I would suggest anyone do. However, we would all love to live next to a Pharisee. You would want to know a Pharisee. You would want the Pharisee to be on the town council and hold influential positions in our community. They are the people everyone looks up to. They have everything together. We might not call people Pharisees; however, more often than not, we often are more like Pharisees than we know. We have the heart of Pharisees. And as we have been looking at that, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.
I. Good traditions don’t reveal a bad heart
The Pharisee’s come to Jesus again and ask a question about the practices of his disciples. They have done this before asking about fasting (Mark 2:18-22) and plucking grain on the sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), and healing on the sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). They see that some of Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before eating. Now those of us might remember our mothers telling us to wash our hands and come to the table. Our mothers were not asking us to do the same thing as the Pharisees were asking Jesus. The Pharisee’s question has nothing to do with hygiene. They are not concerned about bacteria that might be transmitted from their hands to their mouth. Mark explains to those not familiar with the traditions (again showing his writing mainly to a gentile audience). Mark explains that they washed their hands properly when they come from the marketplace (a gathering location of Jews and Gentiles). Not only do they wash their hands but cups, pots, copper vessels, and couches. Again, we hear of washing. We think of dust and dirt, but they feel clean and unclean, holy and unholy.
The clean and unclean distinction is something we have mentioned before; however, this does not come from the Law of God. The Law only requires cleaning of the Priests, and only before entering the tabernacle (Exod 30:19; 40:13; Lev 22:1–6). The only other instance of washing the hands is because of bodily discharge (Lev 15:11). Mark shows that the Pharisees are holding the traditions of men compared to the commandments of God. The Pharisees followed the traditions of men. The Old Testament law has 613 laws within it, and over time, questions came up about how you keep these laws. They begin to explain what it means to keep the sabbath and break the sabbath. However, they end up making their Law and neglecting God’s Law. When we write our laws, we can choose the things and focus on what we are good at. Jesus explains that the Pharisees neglect the weightier things of the Law (Matt 23:23). Man-made traditions do just that, highlight what we want to do and like to do. When it comes down to it is easier to wash your hands after going to the marketplace than it is to care for the widow and the orphan. Man-made traditions are centered around man, not God; therefore, they are not God-glorifying but man venerating. They reveal a pleasing appearance but do not address the bad heart.
II. Good words don’t fix a broken heart
The pharisee’s ask Jesus why the disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. They do turn to the Bible to explain why the disciples are breaking the law. They mention the fifth commandment, which is “Honor your father and your mother.” They explain that the disciples are not honoring the elders. The fifth commandment speaks of our biological parents, and those God has placed over us. The disciples are not honoring the elders. We will come back to this point later. Jesus responds and quotes Isaiah 29:13:
“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; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6–7).
Jesus calls the pharisee’s hypocrites. The Pharisees are actors who dress and play a part, but that is not truly themselves. The right words come out of their mouths, their lips say they honor God, yet the heart is far from God. The Pharisees talk the talk but do not walk the walk. The Pharisees looked the part, yet they were merely children playing dress-ups and pretend. They worship God but do so in vain. With no end or purpose, in futility, they worship God. Paul uses this word in Titus to explain ’empty talkers’ (Tit 1:10). They elevate the traditions of men above the commandants of God. Jesus said, “you leave the commandments of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
We need to pause here and see the reality of the situation. Jesus said they leave one for the other. However, the Pharisees thought they were holding on to both. They were protecting the commandments of God with the tradition of men. Yet, as they were following the traditions of men, they were leaving the commandments of God. They were telling people to keep the fifth commandment, but they forgot the first commandment. The worship of God is foundational to all the commandments. The first four of the ten commandments speak about our duty to God first. If we neglect these four commandments, what we end up with is moralism. Loving your neighbor is not the only commandment for Christians, and it is not the first. Because we cannot love our neighbor if we do not love God first. The last six commandments speak of how we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. They are essential, yet the pharisee’s worshiped God in vain. Heartless worship, beautiful worship externally but dead on the inside.
Before we move on, we do need to talk about traditions. Jesus several times speaks of traditions as a negative thing in this passage. I will rephrase my seminary professor that would say that ‘not all traditions are bad, but bad traditions are bad.’ The Reformation was started because of, you could say, bad traditions. Like the Pharisee’s it wasn’t about what Scripture said, but tradition as well. In the end, you cannot serve two masters. The tradition became the thing that helped the church interpret Scripture. This is what Jesus explains to the Pharisees, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9). In the end, they end up rejecting God’s commandment to establish their own. This is where the Reformers explained the principle Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains this principle,
“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”
The Scripture alone is sufficient for all that we need to know about God’s glory, our salvation, faith, and life. The Pharisees said it is not sufficient. We also need traditions. So, where do traditions fit within all of this? Simply tradition is not Scripture and should not take the place of Scripture. We should understand we celebrate traditions, but they are just that traditions. Traditions are fallible, finite, and therefore changeable. Each year we do the Sunday School picnic on the last Sunday of August. This is a tradition, yet it is not on the same level as Scripture. The elders could meet and change the day of the Sunday School picnic. Yet, the elders cannot change Scripture. We cannot say the Sunday School picnic is the third sacrament of the church. The elders can come and talk to you about what the Bible teaches, but we do not force the traditions of man on anyone. The Scriptures are the authority over this church in what we do in worship, structure, and all aspects of our church. Traditions cannot reveal or fix the heart.
III. God’s traditions/commands reveal a bad heart
The Pharisees rejected God’s word, and they twisted God’s word to uphold their traditions. Jesus brings up the fifth commandment, which the Pharisees used to explain that Jesus’ disciples should follow the tradition of the elders. The pharisee’s are hypocrites, they say they follow the tradition of the elders to uphold the fifth commandment, yet they break the fifth commandment with the traditions of the elders. Jesus explains the principle of corban. Corban means to make an offering or a gift to God. This was used as a loophole by the Pharisees. A person could make an oath offering his possessions to the temple when they die. Until that point, they can use it and make a profit from it. However, people would have aged parents, saying they cannot sell this property or possessions to care for them because it belongs to God. They explain that their hands are tied because they are faithful to their oath, but Jesus explains that they are not honoring their father and mother. They do not have to make an oath by Law, but the ten commandments require a man to honor their father and mother. So, they seek to make God’s word void because of their traditions. This is only one example. Jesus says at the end of verse 13, “and many such things you do.”
The perverse nature of the heart that the Pharisees are here explaining that Jesus’ disciples should wash their hands because that is honoring the elders. Yet, they make foolish oaths that they define forbids them from honoring their father and mother. However, this is not just the heart of men in the 1st century but throughout all centuries. Parents never need to sit their children down and teach them the word “mine.” It is easy to keep the traditions of man because sinful men write them. However, even if we were honest, we are all hypocrites. We all have a better idea of who we would like to be. Yet, we cannot even measure up to our imperfect ideas of who we are. Yet God’s word shows us how we fall short, how we cannot uphold every part of the Law, and if we said we did, we would be lying, therefore breaking the Law. Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
IV. God’s words fix a broken heart
The point of this is not to point the finger at the pharisee and explain that we have it right. The fact is that we are the same human heart as the Pharisees who fail to uphold the law, as we do. Robert Trail says, “If a man trusts to his righteousness, he rejects Christ’s. If he trusts to Christ’s righteousness, he rejects his own.” If we think we can just do better to earn salvation, we are just as blind as the Pharisees. If we were saved by hand washing and dishwashing, then anybody who lived through 2020 would be saved, and I would have one of the highest places in heaven because of the dishes I wash in our house. However, that is the point. We are hypocrites. We often think that we are better than other people because we go to church or a good church. We arrogantly stand above others’ thinking. I thank God I am not like… However, there is not enough hand sanitizer to cleanse us from the problem of the human heart. The sin of the Pharisees goes deeper than just not honoring their parents, but selfishness, greed, arrogance, pride, and many more. This is only one example. The freedom of the gospel is that we cannot clean our hands or our hearts. Only Christ can do that. We read about the Pharisees and say, “They need Jesus.” However, we need to read about the Pharisees and say, “I need Jesus.” No tradition can make us clean. Only Christ’s blood can do that.
As the famous hymn “Nothing but the Blood” says:
What can wash away my sin?
What can make me whole again?
For my cleansing, this I see:
for my pardon this my plea:
Nothing can for sin atone:
naught of good that I have done:
This is all my hope and peace:
this is all my righteousness:
Now by this I’ll overcome:
now by this I’ll reach my home:
The Law of God cannot save anybody because nobody can keep it perfectly. Thanks be to God that he has given us the Law to be able to show us of our wretchedness, but he has also given us his son that any might believe in him would have eternal life. Christ came to keep it on our behalf, to live the life that we should live. To die the death that we should die. His blood is the only hope we have. As the line repeats, “Nothing but the Blood.” Let us look to no other way for salvation. Let us seek no different path for righteousness. Let not look to the Law of man for redemption but the man who kept the Law, Jesus Christ.