Real Religion deals with the heart

Chatswood Baptist Church

Mark 7:1-23


What do you get agitated about?

Once upon a time I could look at a flyer using 5 different fonts and not really care. But after years of being married to someone who does a lot of graphic design, I want to scratch my eyeballs out when I look at ugly websites and flyers – you know, the ones that look like they’ve been put together by a 5 year old who just discovered the font drop down box and who is convinced that ‘more is more’! Painfully bad graphic design agitates me. I admit it! I care about it. I want the world to be free of it! And I’m not alone. I know lots of you shudder when you see a flyer with comic sans and papyrus mixed together.


What do you get agitated by? What concerns you?

Is it seeing people push in front of lines? Is it seeing people throw their rubbish on the ground and just keep walking? People eating with their mouth open? Talking loudly in libraries?

Maybe you’ve got bigger concerns than me and my fonts… You’re concerned and agitated by seeing people be wasteful with energy and material resources; billionaires protecting their wealth at the expense of billions of other individuals… the sad statistics on poverty and violence you read in the news…

Something of course we’re all likely to share a common concern for at the moment is proper hygiene and social distancing. We’ve all had our lives turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic – some terribly so – and it’s concerning when we see people not doing the right thing. Two months ago if you saw a big group of people having a picnic in the park, you’d think, “how nice to see people hanging out and having fun together.” Now if you saw it you’d think, “warning! warning! people touching! what are they doing?!”

My oldest son has really got into this. When we go out exercising, with the kids on their scooters or bikes and me jogging along, he is very conscious of keeping his distance from others. And every now and then he’ll yell out (loud enough for the person concerned to hear!), “Dad! That lady wasn’t worrying about being too close to me! Why didn’t that guy keep away?” I’m glad he’s onboard with being careful, but it can be a little awkward…


And with social distancing and hygiene concerns so paramount in our minds at the moment, you can’t help but be stuck by the very relevant concerns of the Pharisees in today’s passage. These guys observed some of Jesus’ disciples eating food with hands that were unclean – unwashed! And being such great citizens, they brought it to Jesus’ attention. What’s going on Jesus? Why are your disciples eating with unwashed hands? Don’t you know how dangerous that is?? These Pharisees would have fit very easily into the year 2020 (maybe with a haircut and a wardrobe change). Normally Pharisees are the bad guys in the gospels, but this passage makes it look like they were on to something…

But you’re probably not surprised to hear that this passage isn’t really about hygiene. No, as we take a closer look at the passage, we see that it confronts us with the question of what really matters before God. What is worthwhile religion? What is God concerned about in our lives and our religious practices?

And what we learn is that real religion, religion that matters to God and makes a difference, deals with your heart. Real worship means heartfelt obedience to God’s word rather than fixation with religious rituals or commitment to cultural ‘rules’. And so real religion deals with our sinful heart rather than covering over it with rituals and rules.

What we should get agitated by and be concerned about are matters of the heart – dealing with the sin that flows from our hearts and corrupts our lives and cultivating heartful obedience to God.


1 – Real Worship means heartfelt obedience to God’s word

So the first big idea, which we see from verses 1 to 13 in the passage, is that real worship means heartfelt obedience to God’s word, over and above human traditions or cultural values. Worship of God that actually means anything to God involves lives that are focused on honouring God by listening to him and obeying him. He’s not impressed by elaborate religious rituals or dogged commitment to customs and traditions that we’ve made up ourselves, even if they were meant to honour God in the first place.


The Complaint

A concern for cleanliness?

You see, what’s revealed by the Pharisees coming up to Jesus with their complaint about his disciples is not a concern for stopping the spread of infectious diseases – no, what’s revealed is their devotion to the traditions, teachings and customs of ‘the elders’ over and above the word of God itself.

On face value, as I was saying before, what the Pharisees are noting and asking about seems very reasonable. And the stuff Mark says about the Pharisees and the Jews generally washing hands and cups etc… before eating and coming back from the marketplace just makes them seem all the more reasonable! Why does Jesus go off at them? What have you got against handwashing Jesus?? At this point you’re cheering for the Pharisees!

But you need to understand what the Pharisees meant by ‘defiled hands’. They weren’t concerned about dirt or germs necessarily. It was about being ceremonially pure. You see these examples of cleansing rituals might make sense to us and seem very reasonable. But there were plenty more that don’t seem to have anything to do with hygiene.

For example, there are a few short sections of the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew (sections of Ezra and Daniel). And apparently by Jesus’ day, your hands were considered ‘unclean’ if you simply touched the pages of scripture that were written in Aramaic! The Holy Scriptures themselves were not holy enough for these guys! And as another example, apparently it was common for the Jews to wash their hands before they prayed to God. I don’t know what you do with your hands when you pray, but I’ve never seen the need to wash them before I pray…


The real concern: following the traditions of the elders 

But for the Pharisees, the handwashing is really just one example of a bigger issue. What they’re really worried about is that Jesus’ disciples are not ‘living according to the tradition of the elders’. You can see it in the way they phrase their question: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

The ‘tradition of the elders’ was the body of oral teaching passed down by respected teachers that sought to apply the Law of Moses to all aspects of everyday life. It described itself as a ‘fence around the Torah’ – intending to prevent you from breaking the actual Law of God by prescribing in infinite detail what you could and couldn’t do in all conceivable aspects of life. And for people like the Pharisees, adherence to the unwritten oral tradition was as important as adherence to the Torah (the Law of God) itself.


The critique

hypocritical religion: lip service to God

And that’s what Jesus has got a problem with. In fact, he can see that the Pharisees and others don’t just take the oral tradition as seriously as the Law – they take it more seriously. He can see that instead of helping people live obediently to God’s law, it has taken the place of God’s law. Jesus exposes the religion of the Pharisees as hypocritical and worthless, because it effectively abandoned the word of God for the sake of devotion to the teachings of man.

So in response to their agitated question, he gets a little agitated himself…

6   He replies to them, “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.

7           They worship me in vain;

                         their teachings are merely human rules.’

8    You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

He’s pretty blunt isn’t he? He takes Isaiah’s words of judgement on people who were offering God empty and shallow worship and says, “this is you!” Your obsession with the traditions of the elders is blinding you to what really matters. You say it’s all in the name of devotion to God, but it’s empty lip service and vain worship.

What God really wants (and has always wanted) is heartfelt obedience to his word. From the beginning of creation, what God has wanted and required is for us to trust him and so to obey his word. Even the sacrifices and rituals associated with worship for the nation of Israel were meant to be an expression of obedience and devotion to God. And if that ritualistic worship ever became detached from hearts and minds that sought to honour God through real obedience to his law in the context of their relationships and economics and social life… then God was quick to say how little he valued such worship.


The prophet Amos spoke these scathing words from God to the nation of Israel a little earlier than Isaiah gave his prophecy… 

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

                        your assemblies are a stench to me.

22         Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

                        I will not accept them.

            Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

                        I will have no regard for them.

23         Away with the noise of your songs!

                        I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24         But let justice roll on like a river,

                        righteousness like a never-failing stream!

(Amos 5:21-24)

When we think all that God wants from us are the religious practices, and so after doing them we go back to self-absorbed lifestyles that exploit others and ignore God’s commands for how we should actually live… well that’s just when God hates our religious practices the most! ‘Away with the noise of your songs! I despise your religious festivals!’

Have you ever sung praises to God with jealousy, greed, anger or resentment swimming around in your hearts and minds? Have you given a little donation to a charity or to the church, after spending the week squeezing money out of people ruthlessly to make yourself even more comfortable?

We’re all weak. We all offer worship as sinners seeking forgiveness for our failures. But if you’re trying to use worship and ‘Christian talk’ to cover over blatant disregard for what God says to you about how you should treat your family and your neighbours, or what you should and shouldn’t do to get money and about how you should spend your money, about how you do and don’t satisfy your sexual desires… then God is not impressed. In fact, he’s pretty annoyed about it.


Justifying rebellion with devotion to human tradition

Even worse is when we allow our commitment to our own traditions and religious ideas to justify ignoring what God actually commands us to do. Being distracted from God’s word is one thing – a very bad thing; developing traditions that actually contradict and overrule God’s word in our lives is even worse.

Jesus goes on from verse 9 to point out that this is just what the religious leaders have been doing…

“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10For 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.”

He discusses one example that illustrates how a whole lot of the oral tradition is actually nullifying – that is, bringing to nothing – God’s word in the lives of God’s people. The particular example is this practice of declaring things ‘Corban’, which means devoted to God. Someone might have property or wealth that would normally be used to support his parents in their old age, which was a very real and practical way of living out the commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’. But as part of the oral tradition of the elders, they developed a practice of dedicating goods to God, which meant they were considered ‘sacred’, and so withdrawn from ordinary use. Conveniently, this didn’t prevent the person from continuing to control and benefit from their property or wealth themselves for the rest of their life, it just prevented them from using it to benefit others. This perverse tradition actually forbade a person from using the proceeds of something declared Corban to help others, including their parents.

Thus, Jesus declares to the Pharisees, ‘you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’ And sadly, it’s not just the one bad apple in the barrel… he concludes, ‘And you do many things like that.’


Has a tool for serving God become ‘god’?

Sometimes, we start out doing something for a good reason, a good motivation. But then things get mixed up. We put the cart before the horse, or the tail wags the dog… or whatever metaphor works for you.

For example, most people know that money is really just a tool, a thing, that we use to secure other goods in our life. We work and invest and save to buy good and necessary things for ourselves, and to provide for family, to contribute to our community and to enjoy good things and experiences. But then the pursuit of money can become the goal. We forget that money is just a tool for these other goods in our life, and we focus on securing the money itself. And then worse, people can start sacrificing the good things in their life, family, relationships, community, even their own health, in the pursuit of more money. Money has become ‘god’ to them, and it ironically demands the sacrifice of the things it was meant to serve in the first place. People end up ‘setting aside’ or ‘nullifying’ the good things in their life so that they can hold onto and pursue wealth.

If that’s what ‘religion’ looks like in our life, then it’s worthless. If your commitment to observing rituals and maintaining certain ideals or practices is actually getting in the way of simply listening to what God says in his word and doing it, then your worship is in vain. If they’re an excuse to justify ignoring what God says, that’s even worse. As Jesus says, it’s hypocritical – it’s fake worship.

It could be religious traditions – like when the Catholic church was determined to keep mass and the Bible in Latin, rather than letting people hear the word of God and participate in worship in a language they actually understood; but what Jesus says here is relevant to any human traditions or ideals that are effectively causing us to reject the word of God in our lives. It’s just all the more ironic and hypocritical when these traditions have a religious packaging.

Maybe you’re committed to maintaining a certain public image as someone who does the right thing and says the right thing and associates with the right people, but your very commitment to this prevents you from relating to people that God wants you to in the way he wants you to. Are you seeking to love your neighbour as yourself, or just be a ‘good’ person according to cultural ideals? Have you substituted obedience to God’s word with simply filling your head with facts from studying theological books? Perhaps you’ve settled into repeating certain prayers or sayings in your mind regularly to help you feel better for just doing what you want most of the time. Or maybe you’re simply allowing cultural ideology to dictate what you do and don’t listen to from the Bible. Don’t steal, that’s fine. But you’ll get your sexual ethics from the world. And that’s ok, because we know better now.

At the end of the day, what God wants is for hearts that draw near to him. He wants us to listen to him, to trust him, to obey him from the heart. He doesn’t want to see dogged commitment to rituals and rules we’ve made up, thinking we’re pleasing him. And he certainly doesn’t want to see us justifying disobedience or ignorance of what he says because deep down we’re more committed to the ideas and practices of our culture – whether they’re religious or not. Real worship means heartfelt obedience to God’s word, not commitment to rituals, rules and ideas.


2 – Real Religion deals with our sinful hearts

And that’s why real religion deals with the heart, rather than worrying about rituals and rules that don’t really achieve anything. The second key point that Jesus goes on to make, when he goes on to address the issue the Pharisees have asked about, is that what matters is what is going on in your heart, not whether you’re ceremonially clean or whether you’ve performed the correct rituals. And the particular point he makes here is that if you’re worried about being defiled before God, it’s not ‘unclean’ food or hands that are your problem, it’s the sinful, evil thoughts and behaviours that flow from your heart that you really need to deal with. Real religion deals with our sinful hearts.


It’s what comes out of your heart that matters, not what goes in your stomach

So after having delivered his stinging critique to the Pharisees for their hypocritical religion, he turns to the crowd at large, and calls out: 

“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.”

Now, it’s a nice punchy, thought-provoking statement. But it is light on detail and explanation. And Jesus’ disciples are a little confused. You can imagine some of them looking sideways at each other and thinking, “Is Jesus saying what I think he’s saying? I mean, I agree – what comes out is a lot worse than what goes in… but, is that really relevant Jesus?? I think you need to run your public statements past us a little more often…”

So, after they leave the crowd and enter the house they’re staying in, his disciples ask about this saying or parable. And Jesus thinks they should have got the point…

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.”

He’s not comparing the state of your food before and after! He’s comparing what comes in and out of your stomach, with what comes in and out of your heart. It’s sin, not food, that’s the problem. And given what he’d already said about religious traditions that have nothing to do with heartfelt obedience, he thinks his point should have been obvious.


We need to deal with what’s in our hearts

The Pharisees think what’s wrong with the world is people disregarding the traditions of the elders – lack of careful religious observance. Jesus thinks what’s wrong with the world is the sin that comes from the darkness in our hearts. The evil thoughts and desires that lead to treating people as objects to be used or done away with; that lead to exploiting the world around us for our own gain, and hurting and belittling people and destroying families, relationships and communities. All these evils – this stuff that is really wrong with the world – it comes from inside, from in you – your heart and mind. That’s what defiles you. That’s what you need to deal with.

And we need to know that religious rituals, rules and customs… they’re not going to change a thing. They are powerless to deal with this darkness. They can’t deal with the guilt for all the things we’ve done to hurt others and they can’t change you – they can’t fix your heart so that love and righteous comes out instead.

We might not think we’re as ‘dull’ as the disciples. Of course that stuff is more important that what food you eat or whether you’ve remembered to carry out the right ritual washing before hand…I know that! And yet, we are pretty good at covering over what’s going on in our hearts. We’re pretty good at denying that there’s much darkness there to deal with at all… We’re pretty good at engaging in religious activities that don’t deal with our hearts and that distract us from looking too closely.

Are you concerned – are you agitated – to deal with what’s in your heart?


God offers us real religion in the gospel

Because real religion, religion that is worth something, deals with the sin in our hearts. It doesn’t look away, or cover over it… it deals with it. And that’s just what God offers us in Christ – in the good news of Jesus.

Real religion – faith in God’s good news – is not really ‘religion’ in the way most people think of it. It’s not stuff we do to impress God or ‘clean ourselves up’; it’s the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus and will do through his Spirit to deal with the sin in our hearts.

Christianity is first and foremost admitting our sin before God and throwing ourselves gratefully on his mercy and forgiveness in Christ. It’s accepting that only through Jesus’ death on our behalf, in our place, can our guilt be dealt with. Washing hands, singing songs, being a good person, even giving money to the poor… none of it will take the guilt away. Only the cross of Christ can deal with the guilt of our sinful hearts. But we need to be willing to look at the reality of our hearts – to see them how Jesus describes them here. If we deny there’s a problem, we can’t accept the solution.

And secondly, real religion means embracing what God is doing in our hearts now by his Spirit to deal with the sin that still lives there. What God wants from us is heartfelt obedience, and so he values us doing things that help us pursue heartfelt obedience. Religious rituals and practices that are just about covering over the cracks, putting on a good show and rearranging things on the surface are worthless to him. But rituals, practices, habits… whatever we can do that embraces the work of his Spirit in our hearts to learn to know, trust and obey his Word – that’s what he values. That’s worthwhile religion. That’s why the Apostle Paul is so concerned that churches gather to encourage and build each other up in their faith, rather than gather to ‘perform’ or impress God with their devotion and spiritual gifts. That’s why he urges Christians to be setting their minds on the truths of the gospel and working hard to put sin to death by the power of God’s Spirit. This is real religion.


Are you engaging in Real Religion?

So are you offering God real worship – heartfelt obedience to God? Or are you being distracted by religious rituals and rules? Worse, are you allowing human ideas and cultural customs to justify ignoring God’s word in your life?

And are you engaging in real religion? Are you dealing with the sin in your heart by throwing yourself on God’s mercy in Christ and embracing the work of his Spirit in your life? Or are you covering over the cracks with religious activity?

Let go of human traditions, and hold onto the word of God in Christ.