When Religion Gets in the Way of God

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[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 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)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] 

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 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.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”


  1. Explain missing verse and what it means — 16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
  2. Explain Pharisees Pharisees are the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. Their main distinguishing characteristic was a belief that God gave Moses the Torah. The Torah, or Written Law, set down a series of laws that were open to interpretation. The Pharisees believed that God also gave Moses the knowledge of what these laws meant and how they should be applied.
  3. Scribes had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents (contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like). Every village had at least one scribe.
  4. Here in the Gospel story for today, we find a story about Scribes and Pharisees, who were very good people.
    a. These were not evil men in the story for today.
    b. Sometimes in our superficial reading of the New Testament, we think the Scribes and Pharisees are bad people.
    c. These were good, upstanding people.  They were dedicated Jews.  And these good Scribes and Pharisees had their religious traditions.
    d. The Pharisees always said grace before and after every meal.
    e. The Pharisees always went to temple every Friday night.
    f. The Pharisees always gave ten per cent of their income to the Lord.
    g. The Pharisees always turned eastward in prayer three times a day.
    h. The Pharisees always washed their hands before meals as a sign of religious piety.
    i. These were good, religious traditions which were found in the Old Testament.
  5. One day this group of tradition-loving Pharisees came to Jesus, and said, “Jesus, do you see what is happening over there?
    a. Your disciples are starting to eat, and they didn’t wash their hands.
    b. Don’t you know that all good Jews like us wash our hands before dinner as a sign of piety to God?
    c.And your disciples aren’t doing that!  Jesus, what are you going to do about that?”
  6. And Jesus said to them, “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They leave the commandments of God but hold fast to the traditions of men.” 
  7. And Jesus said further, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandments of God in order to keep your traditions.
    a. In fact, you Pharisees are so loyal to your traditions in order to avoid doing the commandments of God for love and mercy.
    b. Your religion becomes a replacement for doing the work of God’s mercy in the world.”
  8. Mark takes only 16 chapters to tell the entire story of Jesus’ ministry, and yet he devotes at least half of chapter seven to describe a confrontation between the Pharisees, Scribes and Jesus.
  9. Out of all the stories Mark could have told about Jesus, why does he tell this one?
  10. It would appear as though the story we’ve heard this morning is here to help readers in the first century – as well as all of us in the 21st century – to consider the ways that Jesus understood the core responsibilities of those who would walk with God.
  11. We’re told of a confrontation between the disciples of Jesus and a group of Pharisees and Scribes.
    a. In this corner, we have the men and women to whom Jesus has dedicated the best and last years of his earthly life as he sought to equip and train them to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom and the Gospel message.
    b. In the other corner, there are the big guns – the theological heavyweights of the day, including at least a few who have been sent up to Galilee by the religious headquarters in Jerusalem.
  12. The apparent conflict is over a small detail of tradition: why don’t Jesus’ followers wash their hands the way that we’ve always been taught to wash our hands?
  13. I should point out here that nobody, including the Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, is implying that the disciples are eating with dirty hands.
    a. No, the bone of contention is that the followers of Jesus had not participated in the ceremonial cleansing that had become the practice of the day. Ceremonial Washington of hands involved a ritual not just soap and water.
    b. It’s not a concern about hygiene – rather, it’s a complaint about orthodoxy, authority, and tradition.
  14. The real question that is being asked from the Pharisees and Scribes is, “Jesus, why don’t you teach your followers to act like us? You are denying the traditions of our religion. Why don’t you tell them to live the way that we live?”
    a. The Pharisees and the Scribes are relying on their position of privilege, looking at the followers of Jesus as though they are some sort of backwater hicks – deplorables, if you will.
    b. They are dismissive of the disciples and of Jesus, and they couch their derision and criticism in an appeal to tradition and to the Bible.

  15. As you’ve heard this morning in the Scripture, Jesus responds by pointing out that a person can do all sorts of horrible things (like neglecting one’s parents, for instance) while claiming to be doing other, wonderful things (like paying for a new roof for the temple while getting a nice fat tax write-off at the same time, for instance).

  16. In the conversation that ensues, Jesus apparently dismisses large sections of the Hebrew Bible (such as the dietary regulations) while pointing to the reality that a key aspect and indeed responsibility of living in the Kingdom is seeking to grow more deeply in our concern for and attentiveness to the things that are of ultimate importance.

  17. The early Christian community heard the story of this argument and assumed that it meant that none of the Old Testament laws concerning keeping a kosher kitchen had any relevance in the new understanding of faith.
    a. We know that this is what they thought because the author of Mark, speaking for the community, says so right there in verse 19: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

  18. And for centuries, those who would follow Jesus have found this to be a very serviceable, helpful interpretation. It flows nicely from the text; it makes sense; and I get to eat all the bacon I want.

  19. But is that all that this text means?
    a. I would propose that such a reading is incomplete, and in fact suggest that in the seventh chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus engages the Pharisees, the Scribes, the disciples, the first Christians, and us in a discussion on the role and authority of scripture in our lives.

  20. Think about it: is the purpose of the Bible to control what you do?

  21. Or is the Bible more concerned with seeking to engage us as to what kind of people we should be?
    a. That is, helping us to realize the call to be generous, respectful, and loving?

  22. Those who saw themselves as Jesus’ opponents on that day were treating the Bible and the traditions of God’s people as a constitution of sorts. That is, a collection of sayings and laws that are given to us to help us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is permissible and what is not.
    a. In this view – which is at least as prevalent today as it was 2000 years ago, the Bible is an unchanging document designed to establish who’s in and who’s out. God said it. I believe it and that is it!

  23. Jesus brings to the discussion the notion that the purpose of Scripture is rather to point toward the heart of God.

  24. Jesus goes on to accuse the religious leaders of his day who were hiding behind a particular Bible verse or two in order to defend their own positions, preserve their own power, or get their own way.

  25. What Jesus is saying in today’s reading is that Scripture is a record of a people who are engaged by the presence of the Divine in such a way as
    a. to stimulate their own faith,
    b. to enhance their abilities to walk with Jesus more faithfully, and
    c. to respond to the world around them
    d. as if God is active in that world.

  26. As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God is enormously concerned for those who are not doing very well in life.
    a. You can see this in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the Magnificat, the parables, the laws of the Old Testament, and elsewhere.
    b. In observing the human race, God’s binoculars are always on the back of the pack.

  27. We please God when our concern is similarly focused.
    a. Who do you know that hurts, who is feeling the pain of loss?
    b. Who is at the back of the pack in your part of the world?
    c. Those people represent an opportunity for us to serve the interests of God.

  28. As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God is a gathering God.
    a. The force that brooded over the chaos and ordered it into the universe that we know is a gathering God–that which calls people from their individuality into relationships and relationships into families, families into clans, clans to tribes, tribes to communities and communities to nations, and nations into harmony.
    b. That force is from a gathering God, the one who manifests himself in the healing miracles of Jesus and the invitation that all be one as Jesus and the Father are one, is a gathering God.
    c. Those who would serve the interest of God will be busy reaching across the barriers of life and work to remove the barricades that separate people.
    d. I am troubled by the way that our society quickly dehumanizes a person with whom I disagree.

  29. As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God’s wish for all people is joy.
    a.The God who pronounced creation good at its beginnings is into joy. Jesus, who said that the purpose of his coming was to let us share the joy of God so that our own joy would be complete.
    b. Jesus who offers us peace that passes understanding is into joy.
    c. Those who would serve the interests of God can do so by giving expression to joy in their lives.
    d. Those who feel the embrace of such a joyful God have much to offer the hurting and disconnected of our world.

  30. Jesus and the Pharisees were arguing a very basic point. What do faithful people do to be faithful? What are the interests of God and how do we serve them?
    a. Ritual is important and so is the manner and the degree to which we are distinct from the world around us.
    b. But, Jesus is saying that engagement with the world is even more important.

  31. Each of us still has to figure out what that means in our own lives.

  32. Let us pray.

  33. Blessed Lord, you call us to represent you in the world without becoming the same as the world. We find it hard as our spiritual ancestors did before us. We need your guidance, Lord, and we thank you for giving it to us. Help us to be a people who can keep our balance among the many truths you have given us, that we might serve you faithfully, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.