February 12, 2017
When Religion Gets in the Way
Last week’s passage was about how Jesus met opposition from those in his hometown of Nazareth. This morning we see more opposition – this time from the Pharisees and teachers of the law who disputed with Jesus about ritual hand washing. They had some strong words for Jesus, implying that Jesus could not be much of a teacher if he did not stress ceremonial laws of the day. Jesus in turn had some strong words for them, calling the Pharisees hypocrites. We might wonder today what the big issue was all about. Who cares whether their hands were washed in the correct manner?
As we move forward with chapter 7, just a quick recap on major themes in Mark’s gospel. Mark is all about service and discipleship. Jesus is a man of service. His ultimate act of service was on the cross, to give himself as a sacrifice for sin. In the cross we receive salvation. Because of the cross, we as believers learn to follow Jesus in sacrificial discipleship.
Week by week as we read through Mark’s gospel, we come to understand more who Jesus is. I don’t just mean getting his titles right as messiah, Son of God, Son of Man and the like. Jesus showed his identity as God’s son when he healed many people. He raised Jairus’ daughter from death. His identity comes from his work, teachings and healings, and led him to the cross. Jesus remained steadfast in faith and submission to God. Our identity as believers is tied up with Jesus’ identity. We strive to be like Jesus until Jesus returns again.
Mark wants us to know that Jesus came for all people, not just a certain group of insiders. He writes for those who are not Jewish in background. He takes the time to explain the background of ceremonial washing to those who may not be familiar with that practice. The religious practices of the Pharisees and teachers of the law differed from what Jesus knew to be God’s ways. Jesus knew what was important to God, what God values and what God wants for us. Jesus made a distinction between laws God established and ones that people elevate to holy status that aren’t as important as we think.
In our passage for today, Mark says that the Pharisees and religious leaders traveled from Jerusalem. From the verses immediately preceding today’s lesson, we know that Jesus was at Gennesaret on the Sea of Galilee. This is on the western edge of the sea, around eighty miles north of Jerusalem as the crow flies. So the Pharisees had to be pretty motivated to travel that far. This is the second confrontation Jesus had with the Pharisees from Jerusalem. Back in chapter 3 the Pharisees accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan, the prince of demons.
On numerous occasions, Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the Pharisees were different – on whether one should fast or not, how to observe the Sabbath, what should be considered work on the Sabbath, and on divorce. The Pharisees were all about making sure people performed according to the Law, even if their outcome was to show how the Pharisees were holy and the people were not.
So here comes this second delegation of religious leaders, ready to criticize Jesus. They accuse Jesus’ disciples of not living according to the tradition of the elders, and eating with unclean hands. The Pharisees knew these rules to be traditions rather than injunctions from scripture, yet they criticized the disciples for not obeying them. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus would not uphold their manmade traditions as being equal to God’s written word. Jesus leveled an accusation right back at them, saying, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Let’s talk for a moment about things that made Jesus mad. Certainly he got mad at the hard heartedness of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Mark’s gospel chapter 3 tells of a time when Jesus was in the synagogue. A man with a shriveled hand was there. People in opposition to Jesus were watching to find reasons to accuse Jesus of healing on the Sabbath. Jesus asked the man to stand up in front of everyone. Jesus asked the crowd which was lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or evil, or to save a life or kill? They remained silent.
Jesus was angry and deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts. Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, and as he did, his hand was restored. That day the Pharisees went out and began to plot how to kill Jesus. This is back in chapter 3, mind you.
In chapter 10, Jesus is angry when his disciples tried shooing away mothers and their children, as if Jesus had better things to do with his time than bless children. Jesus was distressed to think that the disciples were preventing Jesus from showing his love to all of God’s people.
Mark’s gospel chapter 11 records Jesus looking for fruit on a fig tree, but there was none. Jesus said to the fig tree that no one should ever eat fruit from it again. From there Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and drove out the money changers and those selling animals for sacrifices. What’s going on here? Jesus was upset at two things.
Jesus got mad at unfruitfulness – in this case it was a fig tree that was hoarding its resources and doing nothing to feed a hungry world. The barren fig tree was but an example or symbol of a greater lack of fruitfulness on the part of the Jews and particularly the religious leaders. Faith that was intended to bring fruit in the lives of God’s people had become empty and without any value in the time of Jesus. This unfruitfulness was due to the nature of their rule-laden religion, as well as the character of its religious leaders.
Trees that do not bear fruit should be cut down. Branches are pruned to foster greater fruitfulness. In spiritual terms, God has designed us to accomplish a measure of good in our lifetimes. To be fruitless is to take up space but accomplish nothing. The book of Revelation condemns a church for being merely lukewarm, like a tasteless cup of coffee that is neither hot nor cold. Jesus desires from us a level of spiritual intensity, doing worship and mission with warmth and passion. Jesus does not wish faith to be one that aimlessly spins around like a gerbil on its wheel, going nowhere and accomplishing nothing.
Jesus got mad at ungodly attitudes that paid more attention to rules and regulations rather than cultivating compassion for those in need. Jesus got upset with those who mocked true worship by using the temple as a place of commerce. Jesus had an absolute sense of God’s holiness, God who deserves our true worship. God is not glorified if God’s house of prayer is used for other purposes.
Jesus got angry when the Pharisees demanded of others what they themselves did not do. It’s called being a hypocrite – trying to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you have a log in your own. Get the log out first, Jesus says, then think you have the right to address the speck in someone else. Jesus called them hypocrites, because they honor God with their lips but not their hearts. Even worse, they make it impossible for others to worship God, because their teachings are only rules taught by men.
I titled this week’s message, “When Religion Gets in the Way,” because this scripture lesson reminds me we can let extraneous things keep us from giving praise to God in church. Some people get all hung up on the style of music or types of musical instruments used in church. If you like piano or organ with traditional music, that’s fine. But God’s word doesn’t change just because a church has a heavy drum beat and sings modern Christian music.
I don’t want to let doctrine keep me from worshiping God. The Roman Catholic Church holds to seven sacraments that they hold sacred. Most Protestant churches consider only baptism and communion to be sacraments instituted by Jesus. These are differences, to be sure, but no matter where we stand on the sacraments, we can still worship Christ our savior.
I don’t want certain manmade traditions to keep me from worship, or worse, that this human institution of the church should prevent others from growing in faith and commitment. How you dress is not important. Basing your faith on God’s word in the Bible is important. We in any Christian church can be tempted to elevate certain traditions or practices of doing things into being almost holy, no different from the time of Jesus. You’ve heard the seven last words, “We’ve never done it that way before.”
I hate to think that I wouldn’t recognize Jesus when he comes again, because I cherish ideas about what God wants that does not come from scripture. I don’t want God to tell me I got in his way, or I did more harm than good. I would not want God to say to me at the Judgment that I worshipped in vain because my heart wasn’t in it.
In all we do, let us to worship God in spirit and truth, worshipping from the heart as God wants, not to try to impress someone. In all we do here, as well as in what we do when we leave here, let us give praise to God, and serve and honor him with the whole of our being.