February 11, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Transfiguration of the Lord
God’s Laws and Human Rules
A Southern Baptist pastor, Rev. David Dykes, writes this: “Growing up, I had exactly the same breakfast every morning: two fried eggs, bacon, grits, and toast. And the eggs were fried in the bacon grease. I still like to eat it the way I did growing up. I break up the bacon pieces and then I mix up the eggs and grits and bacon into a single pile that looks like a soupy mess. Do you know why I do that? Because my Daddy fixed his eggs and grits and bacon the same way; he mixed it all up together.
“Later in life, I asked by Dad why he mixed up his eggs and bacon and grits. He said he did it because his Daddy did it. And I asked, ‘Why did your Daddy do it that way?’ And my Dad said, ‘Because he didn’t have any teeth!’ So that’s why I still mix up my eggs, bacon, and grits, it’s a family tradition!”
Why do we do the things we do? Sometimes we do them because we’ve always done them the same way and we never questioned the reason. In our scripture passage today, we discover that Jesus tangles with some Jewish leaders who cherish tradition more than the Word of God.
The Jews were very meticulous about obeying the multitude of laws in the Old Testament. The kosher laws had to do with things that were clean and unclean. Some food was kosher, but certain foods weren’t kosher, and the Jews believed if they ate them, they would be defiled. I wouldn’t be a good Jew, because I like shrimp and pork. But you may be surprised to learn that grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts are considered kosher.
Originally, for a Jew, the law meant two things: it meant, first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and, second, the first five books of the Old Testament, which they called the Pentateuch. Now in the Book of Leviticus, we find a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions, but, in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles which individuals must interpret and apply for themselves.
However, in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, there came into being a class of legal experts whom we know as the “scribes.” They were not content with great moral principles. They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded and broken down until they had thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation in life. It was all these rules that comprised the tradition of the elders.
And so, the disciples were criticized because they didn’t follow the ceremonial hand washing ritual the Jews practiced. Jesus believed these thousands of little rules and regulations stood in the way of one’s relationship with God and other people. He was more interested in putting the needs of people first, in love, while still adhering to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch. For Jesus, it was all about the Laws of God and not the traditions of the elders. Would you pray with me?
To understand this passage of scripture, you need to know what Jesus was up against with the thousands of traditional laws set down by the scribes. For example, a woman after childbirth was unclean; a leper was unclean; anyone who touched a dead body was unclean. A Gentile was unclean, as well as, food touched by a Gentile. Any vessel touched by a Gentile was unclean. When a strict Jew returned from the market place he immersed his whole body in clean water to take away the taint he might have acquired being around Gentiles.
A hollow vessel made of pottery could be unclean inside but not outside. You see, it mattered what touched the inside of the pot. If it became unclean it must be broken, with no broken piece big enough to hold enough oil to anoint the little toe. Things made of metal could become unclean, except a door, a bolt, a lock, a hinge, and a gutter. Wood used in metal utensils could become unclean; but metal used in wood utensils could not. These are only a few of the thousands of regulations. Do you understand what Jesus was up against?
Please remember, the disciples’ hands were clean and hygienic for eating, but they were not ceremonially clean according to the sacred laws of the elders. William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, describes the hand washing ritual. “Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed. The hands had to be free of any coating of sand, mortar or gravel. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars that were not used for any other purpose. Nothing could fall in the jar or be 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 and a half eggshells full.
“While the hands were still wet, each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but the 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 the Pharisaic and scribal Jew, all of this was religion. But for Jesus, he saw all of these as rules taught by people but were not the commands of God. Jesus says, “you have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” It was precisely because Jesus had no use for all these regulations that the religious leaders considered him a bad man. The Pharisees and scribes saw religion as ritual, ceremonial, rules and regulations. Jesus saw religion as loving God and loving your fellow men and women.
Jesus uses this teaching moment to show the scribes and Pharisees their hypocrisy and to tell a story involving the fifth commandment. Jesus turns the Jew’s criticism into an opportunity to warn them that they have elevated the traditions of people above the Word of God. He points out a religious and legal “loophole” the Jews have created called Corban, meaning a gift which is specially dedicated to God. The Ten Commandments taught that we must honor our father and mother. That means as long as our parents are alive, we are to honor them and to take care of them.
But the Jewish legalists created this loophole by which a Jewish man could say, “I’m devoting all my assets to the Temple.” Our scripture says, “Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban.” The son would make a small down payment to the priests and then he would continue to live on his income. And if his elderly parents said, “Son, we need some financial help, he could say, “Sorry, mom and dad, all my money is devoted to the Temple.” And thus, he could keep his money and not feel guilty about breaking the fifth commandment. The law was put above relationships and the love of God and the love of others.
And Jesus said, “You do many things like that.” There were many cases in which the strict performance of the scribal law made it impossible to carry out the law of the Ten Commandments. Folks, nothing that prevents us helping another person can ever be a rule approved by God.
Jesus showed the religious leaders the irrelevance of their traditional laws. He showed them how rigid adherence to the traditional law can actually mean disobedience to the law of God. But then Jesus gives them one more zinger. Maybe the most startling. He declares that nothing that goes into a person can possibly cause defilement, for it is received only into the body, which rids itself of it in the normal, physical way. And besides, what God made was declared good.
In Leviticus 11, there is a long list of animals that are unclean and may not be used for food. But in one stroke, Jesus wipes out the laws for which Jews have suffered and died for many years in refusing unclean foods. In effect, Jesus was saying that things cannot be either unclean or clean in any real religious sense of the term. Only persons can be really defiled, and what defiles people are their own actions, which are the product of their own hearts. This was a shatteringly new doctrine.
“For from within, out of [people’s] hearts,” Jesus said, “come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a [person] unclean.” With one sweeping pronouncement, Jesus declares the whole thing irrelevant and that uncleanness has nothing to do with what people take into their bodies but everything to do with what comes out of their hearts.
Folks, these are the things that pollute us and make us unclean. It is things of the heart. It is things of our moral conscience. It is sin that stains the soul and makes it unacceptable to our Holy God. We’re born sinners. You can put a three-year old toddler on the floor with a bag of candy; let two or three other toddlers approach him, and he is going to say, “Mine!” and grab the candy away. And by the way, nobody must teach us to lie. We lie naturally. We must be taught to tell the truth.
The English playwright and comedian, Noel Coward, once played a practical joke. He sent an anonymous letter to ten of the most influential people in London. The letter said, “We all know what you have done. If you don’t want to be exposed, leave town.” Of course, it was a joke, but Noel Coward said all ten individuals moved within six months. You see, we are all sinners and in need of a Savior. It is the moral choices we make that make us clean or unclean.
Jesus pointed out a common problem. When people add traditions to the Law of God, they usually forget what is from God and what is from people. In our scripture today, hand-washing and food contain no moral significance. For Jesus, it is all about the heart and about our moral choices. For Jesus, it is all about putting the love of God and the love of other people above the traditions of humankind. After all, I guess it is so much easier to follow a ritual than to change one’s heart.