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St Giles and St George

Mark:  Why the Gospel is good news

Week 6:  When religion gets in the way of God.  Mark 7:1-23

Sermon:  Sun 14th February 2016
Start by reading Mark 7:1-23:
You might like to try a creative reading of the text using the method detailed last week?
Mark 7:1-23:  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.
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?”  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.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!  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.”
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.  “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Opposition intensifies:
It should come as no surprise that the response to Jesus continuing ministry and his sending out of the 12 disciples as missionaries is one of increasing hostility from those who had at the same time the most to lose and the most to gain – the religious authorities. 
Writing for a primarily Gentile audience Mark explains in some detail a conversation about a particular Jewish religious ritual.  He explains the ritual as well as detailing the conversation that Jesus has with the religious leaders.
In holding this discussion Jesus is directly engaging with something of huge daily significance for his hearers.  Their lives were built around the ‘tradition of the elders’ a set of teachings and commentary that had grown up over the centuries around the Law. 
The things that Jesus discusses with the elders were the things that regulated the daily life of faith of every pious Jew.  It would be a mistake to think that the only Jews who cared for them were the teachers of the law and Pharisees, and that the everyday religious Jew couldn’t wait to be liberated from them.

As is the case in all cultures and faith communities, the Jews needed a structure to support daily faith, and this structure included the ceremonial washing laws.  For the majority, such laws would have been an important part of framing faith in the day to day, of finding a place of security within the tradition and community. 
This might give us pause to think:
The reality is that each and every one of us builds up structures in daily life to help support our faith conviction.  Some of these structures are good and positive and help us as disciples.  Others perhaps are not, and instead of helping us to structure our lives of faith, end up pushing out the very object of our faith – the Lord Jesus.
How would you describe the support structures of your faith?
What practices and routines give form to your Christian life?
The problem for the religious people that Jesus spoke to was that they “so easily slipped from honoring the Law (and so the God who gave it) to elevating the tradition (and so human ingenuity that produced it).
This is probably one of those times when very little degree of interpretation is required to apply Jesus words to ourselves in the 21st Century.  How easily do we slip from honouring the God who give himself to us in worship to elevating the spiritual practices and forms of worship that give expression to it? 
Whether corporately or individually, the answer might be ‘very easily’.    We begin to see one form or expression of worship as being inseparable from worship itself.  We elevate a particular practice, be it the quiet time, praying in tongues, or something else from its proper place as a support to faith and worship to being an object of faith and worship.
Is there an easy way to tell if this is happening?  Well, I guess a good place to start is to see whether the practice or form liberates and inspires our worship of Christ and faith in him?  Or whether, like the tradition of the elders, it becomes a prison beyond which we cannot move?
One commentator puts it like this:  “All Christians are challenged by this passage, for all of us are in danger of substituting the tradition for the spiritual content, and not least those who criticize others for being too tied to tradition!”
It’s not that we don’t need these structures and traditions, or even that they are bad in and of themselves – we know they are not.  Churches that start up and claim to have no structures and traditions quickly develop them (and often had them in the first place, just unacknowledged) .  We need them, but they must be held in proper perspective.
Proper perspective:
What is a good perspective in which to keep the structures and traditions that grow up and support our lives of faith?  It’s an important question for Christians of every generation and churchmanship to ask. 
From Mark we might want to say that keeping structures and traditions in proper perspective means:

Testing them against Gods word in Jesus revealed through the scriptures
Testing them against the highest demand of the kingdom – inner purity and outer righteousness of action
In light of these tests it is probable that the structures and traditions that sustain our life of faith must change and develop in the face of new circumstances. 
To talk through:
How might we practically go about reflecting on our own structures and traditions of faith, be they worship style, spiritual practices, interpretive frameworks to ensure proper perspective? 
Is this something you can do as a group or is it best for individuals to do this alone?  
Looking to see fruit:
One of the most tragic aspects of the whole narrative is Jesus’ critics failure to recognize his ministry of healing and liberation because they were too wrapped up in how he washed his hands.  The spiritual and physical healing and deliverance of many people in great need that accompanied Jesus ministry was neglected in the interests of the ‘right way to do things’. 
They failed to see Jesus’ obedience to the Father and instead only saw disobedience to the normal rituals of the day. 
As we encounter the whole range of people who make up our church in Ashtead, people from very different backgrounds and traditions, it’s so important that we continue to look not at the structures and traditions which they employ to support their life of faith but instead see a shared object of faith and worship – the Lord Jesus Christ.
Rivalries, criticism and disunity are fueled by a concentration on the traditions and practices of others – whether in worship, or lifestyle.  Unity and communion are built around an acknowledgment of shared spiritual integrity, obedience to Christ, and acknwledging that worship, even if different in form, is offered in Spirit and in Truth. 

Simon Butler, 30/11/2015

Article printed from at 12:14 on 26 January 2020