Jesus challenges religious traditions (Mk 7:1-13)

Today we begin a new sermon series taken from the middle of Mark’s Gospel. Over the next month we will be looking at encounters Jesus had with different groups and individuals, and the challenges he issued to their attitudes and ambitions, to their passions and priorities in life.

So over the next few weeks we’ll see how Jesus challenges our attitudes to things like our money, social status and possessions. We’ll also see how he challenges spiritual complacency and empty religiosity. We start today, however, by looking at Jesus’ words to some Jewish leaders in Mark chapter 7.

Hygiene, holiness – or hypocrisy?!

We’ve all been doing a lot of handwashing over the last 18 months, haven’t we. Gallons of sanitiser and oceans of soap have been consumed to keep our hands clean and reduce the spread of COVID-19. My zeal has subsided since, but in March 2020 my hands were made sore by the frequency of my handwashing at church and at college!

In today’s passage Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees who had travelled all the way from Jerusalem to question him. They were jealous of his popularity, offended by his teaching and wanted to catch him out.

In verse 2 we’re told that they saw some of Jesus’ Jewish disciples eating food with unwashed hands, and were scandalised by it. As Mark explains in the verses that follow, these Pharisees were accustomed to washing their hands before they ate and were shocked to see some of Jesus’ followers not following suit.

They themselves always washed their hands before eating. But not for reasons for hygiene, but holiness. On returning from the marketplace these Pharisees would always ceremonially wash their hands. It was their tradition to ritually cleanse themselves, in case they had come into contact with sinful Gentiles. They sanitised their hands (and cooking utensils) to try and purify themselves in God’s sight, to try and visibly distance themselves from the behaviour of unbelieving, pagan Gentiles.

With this in mind, you can understand why they asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

Jesus’ reply to their question is striking. He says the Pharisees are not being holy, or even hygienic – instead, he accuses them of being hypocritical! Look again at verses 6 and 7, where Jesus says: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” You see, the trouble with the Pharisee’s handwashing was that it was an empty gesture. Ostensibly it was something that put these religious zealots right with God, but the reality was very different – it did nothing to improve their relationship with the Lord. Their handwashing rituals were man-made rules not divine commands.

The Pharisee’s problem, says Jesus, was not unclean hands but unclean hearts. Jesus’ could see that these Jersualem theologians were outwardly very pious, but had little love for God in their hearts. Jesus could perceive that their visible acts of worship and service to God were insincere and for show. Their devotion to God was only skin deep, and had not penetrated deep into their hearts and minds.

The challenge for us is, I hope, rather obvious. As Jesus looks into our hearts, does he see real love for the Lord, and loyalty to him above all else? We may all look very pious by attending church here on Sundays, saying the liturgy, singing hymns (and even by wearing a dog collar!) But is there enough evidence in the rest of our lives that we truly love, serve and worship the Lord?
• Do we take time each day for private prayer?
• Do we regularly read our Bibles in our homes?
• And are our daily life choices guided by that deceptively simple principle, “What would Jesus do?”

If your answer to any of those questions is negative, please don’t despair. None of us yet loves the Lord as much as we ought. This process of self-examination should lead to despair, but prayer. The way to deepen our relationship with the Lord is not via dramatic outward expressions of religiosity (that was the Pharisee’s mstake) – but via prayer. Pray that God’s Holy Spirit will get to work in our hearts – softening them, renewing them, filling them with ever greater love for the Lord. The Holy Spirit is God’s heart surgeon extraordinaire!

Disobedience to divine commands!

The Tour de France finishes later today, on the Champs Elysee in central Paris. But arguably the most demanding stage in the Tour de France took place in Provence 10 days ago. The riders had to climb the 6,000ft high mountain Mont Ventoux. And not once, but twice! Having endured the pain of one ascent to the summit, they had to ride down the hill and do it all over again – a double punishment!

The Pharisees in our reading today also received a double rebuke at the hands of Jesus. After first accusing them of hypocrisy, he then proceeds to accuse them of disobedience to God as well! They’ve “let go of the commands of God” and followed their own traditions instead. They’ve “nullified the word of God” by following man-made rules instead of his.

The example of this disobedience to God that Jesus gives is the tradition known as “Corban”. Corban was the process whereby someone could irreversibly pledge some money to the upkeep of the Temple. Not in itself a bad thing, but this system was being used by some to get out of their obligation to provide for their elderly parents. And by supporting this tradition, the Pharisees were disobeying the command of God for people to honour their father and mother. In short, man-made religious rules were being used to bypass the commands of God and neglect the needs of elderly parents.

Thankfully the tradition of Corban is not one we have today. But we should ask ourselves if any of our most treasured church traditions are contrary to God’s will and potentially harmful to other people?
• For example, are our ‘traditional’ patterns of worship alienating people who might otherwise come to church?
• Are our established liturgical and musical preferences preventing people from younger generations or different backgrounds from feeling welcome and included in our fellowship?
• Do we have an instinctive love of tradition and resistance to change that is getting in the way of our God-given obligation to make disciples from every age and every walk of life?

In the light of today’s passage, let’s be prepared to examine ourselves and make sure we never put our personal preferences and traditions ahead of our God-given mission to grow his church. Let’s make God’s commands love our neighbour and share the Gospel always be our chief concern.


As I finish, Jesus has challenged us today to examine our hearts and our attitudes to tradition. In light of what we’re heard, let’s pray that God’s Spirit will fill our hearts with sincere love for the Lord. And let’s pray that we will put God’s words before any man-made tradition, ritual or rule!

Phil Weston