Things were beginning to escalate. Up to this point Jesus had been criticized locally for some of his teaching but now they were bringing out the big guns. The news of Jesus and his preaching was spreading throughout Palestine; remember last week I mentioned that the news had reached Herod in his palace and Herod thought Jesus was John the Baptist coming back from the dead.
And apparently the religious leaders in Jerusalem had gotten wind of the one some were calling the Messiah. And remember there was no television, no radio no internet. Social networking 2000 years ago simply meant that people were talking to one another. And the news of Jesus and his preaching had made its way to Jerusalem the spiritual capital of the region. And there was a lot to tell.
At one point before John was executed he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah and Jesus gave them this response. Matthew 11:4-5 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Well apparently they weren’t the only ones spreading the news because word had gotten back to the religious leaders in Jerusalem and now they had come to find out what all the excitement was for themselves. This could have a major impact on who they were and what they believed. For hundreds of years there had been talk of a Messiah, it was the hope of the Jewish religion and now there was talk that this carpenter’s son from Nazareth was the one.
Now when they found him I’m not sure if they felt disappointed or vindicated, because the one that people were touting as “The next big thing” wasn’t exactly what they were expecting. To start with they arrived at meal time and instead of being able to observe whether or not Jesus and his disciples followed all of the prescribed rituals for hand washing they didn’t wash their hands at all.
Now we have to understand this was not a health issue or a hygiene issue, the hand washing that is spoken of here is completely ceremonial and it was not rooted in Old Testament law but in tradition. Since the time of Moses the Jews had taken their direction from the Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch, which were the first five books of our Old Testament. But bit by bit the religious leaders began defining what those laws meant and adding to them.
The entire hand washing thing was a part of that. The principle was that you shouldn’t touch anything deemed unclean. And there was value in that. But the principle was added to and modified, the thought was that you might have touched someone who was unclean without knowing about it or accidently touched something that you shouldn’t have. And so an entire process was set up to take care of that. So you would hold your hands up and a small amount of water would be poured over them and allowed to run down to your wrists. Then you would take the fist of one hand and rub the palm of the other hand and then do the other hand. The problem now was that your clean hands had touched the water that had touched your dirty hands, so now you would hold your hands downward and another small amount of water would be poured over them and allowed to drip off. Those in the know tell us that this wasn’t just to be done before every meal but between every course of every meal. You gotta think that had to get old after a while.
But apparently some of Jesus disciples didn’t follow the tradition in exactly the prescribed manner. Mark 7:2 They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. A couple of things worth noting here. It wasn’t all of the disciples it was just some of them and it doesn’t say they didn’t wash their hands, wouldn’t want you to think they were complete slobs, it just says they didn’t follow the ritual. And the religious leaders were all over this like white on rice demanding to know why Jesus’ disciples weren’t following tradition. Sometimes you gotta figure that we aren’t hearing all the story or if we are we aren’t hearing the tone the words were spoken in.
Their question could have been one of mere curiosity. Mark 7:5 So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.” They might have simply been inquiring trying to understand better.
But we have to assume that there was something condemning in their tone because of Jesus’ response to them. Mark 7:6-7 Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’”
I wouldn’t think Jesus was have gone down that road if they question had been asked just because they were curious and wanted to learn more. But instead he refers to them as hypocrites and spends the next seventeen verses speaking about the dangers of focusing on being clean on the outside while ignoring what is happening on the inside.
It seems this is a common theme whenever Jesus comes into contact with these religious leaders. He refers to them as Hypocrites which of course is from the same root in Greek as the word for actor and literally means “one who wears a mask” and to a certain degree we all wear masks at various points in our lives, and you are thinking “Not me Denn I am always completely honest and above board.” Now you are not only a hypocrite but also a liar. We are required by society and necessity to wear masks from time to time. There are days that you aren’t on your game, you’re just a little off, not feeling the best and so you put on your good employee mask, or good spouse mask or good child or parent mask, and that’s fine. And if you don’t you might incredibly rude, you would probably just define it as outspoken and honest but rude is probably closer to the truth.
Have you ever had to deal with a bureaucrat or customer service rep who was not only a complete idiot but rude as well, seeming to relish in the little bit of power they have been granted in this life? Sure, but you don’t say “Excuse me sir, you are a complete idiot and rude as well.” No, you put on your smiley mask and carry on. There are times that we need to put on a mask, that’s reality, that’s life. But these men were defined by their masks their lives were a role they played they were experts on religious law and they could quote it verbatim but Jesus said that wasn’t evidenced in the way they lived. And that probably wasn’t unique to them, Charles Haddon Spurgeon once wrote “When you see a great deal of religion displayed in his shop window, you may depend on it, that he keeps a very small stock of it within.”
And Jesus didn’t take this lightly listen to what else he had to say to these people
Matthew 23:25 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! And Matthew 23:27 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. And again in Matthew 23:28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. And it wasn’t that the Pharisees were simply concerned with outward appearances, they were only concerned with outward appearances. And it actually went beyond that, they were only concerned with certain outward appearances. They could be cranky and rude and nasty but they felt as long as they kept the traditional rules they were alright.
They were much more concerned with doing what they perceived to be the right thing then actually doing the right thing. Jesus summed it up in the scripture that was read earlier Mark 7:8 “For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” And it can be so easy to fall into that trap. Because tradition can be summed up as what we do, but following God is who we are. And if it’s just a matter of washing your hands and not touching clean things and giving a certain amount of money and avoiding specific things and places then all we need is a list and not a relationship. And the Pharisees were very good at keeping the list and insisting that everyone else keep the same list they kept.
But the religious leaders weren’t fooling Jesus and it was very doubtful that they were fooling anyone else. At first glance they seemed to have it all together but once you were around them for a while it became painfully apparent they weren’t
Have you ever grabbed an apple that looked really good, taken a bite and got a nasty surprise, maybe it was bad inside or it was really sour, or too hard or too soft. It wasn’t what you thought it would be, or maybe you see this flower from a distance (corpse flower) and it looks really cool so you meander over for a better look, when you get closer you discover it is an Amorphophallus titanum and when you get within sniffing distance you realize why it’s called a “Corpse flower”.
Charles Horton Cooley an American sociologist from the late 1800’s wrote “If we divine a discrepancy between a man’s words and his character, the whole impression of him becomes broken and painful; he revolts the imagination by his lack of unity, and even the good in him is hardly accepted.”
So what was the lesson Jesus was teaching that day?
Being Clean On The Outside Is Not The Only Thing This is what Jesus was trying to get through. It’s not enough to just be clean on the outside. The Pharisee’s life was governed by a list of rules, you can do this but you can’t do that, but it was obsessed with externals to the detriment of internals.
And if that was only a problem with the Pharisee’s then it wouldn’t be an issue today and this would just be a history lesson. But for a lot of people their concept of Christianity is “thou shalt do this and thou shalt do that, but thou had better not do that over there.”
And so some folks decree that if you are a good person and a righteous person then you do this whole list of things and at the same time you don’t do this whole list of things. But there are problems with that type of thinking.
a) It limits What Being a Christ Follower Means. If we can narrow our relationship with God down to a set of rules or guidelines then any area of our life those rules don’t touch are outside the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Following Christ must affect every area of our lives and not just those covered by the rule book.
b) We Spend More Time Obeying The Rules Than Obeying God. And anytime we begin to serve anything, no matter how good and no matter how noble that thing might be then it is idolatry. Now we might as well set up our list of rules and regulations on an altar and bow down and worship them. At that point we will have become so engrossed in following the letter of the law that we completely forget the spirit of the law. The scary thing is that originally all those rules were put into place to point people toward God. But then they took on a life of their own and people became so caught up in the rules that they didn’t have time for God.
c) It Fools Us Into Thinking We Can Do It On Our Own. Listen up, you can’t do it yourself. If you could then Jesus didn’t have to come to earth, didn’t have to die on a cross didn’t have to rise from the dead. The Bible doesn’t tell us John 3:16 For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only rule book, so that everyone who follows those rules will not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. And that is why we are told in Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
d) It Becomes A Matter Of Pride. You know what I mean “Look at me, see how holy I am.” “I don’t smoke, cuss, cheat, drink or fool around. I read a hundred pages of the bible a day, give forty percent of my income to the church, pray five times a day and attend church six times a week. Sunday School, Morning Worship, Evening Worship, midweek service and then twice a week I just come and hang around the foyer to round things out.” But such self-centred spirituality leads to self-righteousness which in turn is just the opposite of holiness. That was what Jesus was talking about here. The Pharisees made an immediate judgement that Jesus and his disciple weren’t as good as they were. Why? Because they didn’t wash their hands the right way.
But here is where it gets difficult because Being Clean On The Outside may not be the only thing but it Is An Important Thing. You see Jesus wasn’t critical of the Pharisees because they kept the rules he was critical because it didn’t go any deeper than that. They were content with the outside appearance.
Remember when Jesus compared them to cups and bowls that were clean on the outside but filthy inside? Listen to Jesus’ instruction on how to fix that. Matthew 23:26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
You need to let God take care of cleansing the inside, and as a result you will want to clean up the outside. Sometimes people will tell you that “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Sure but it’s not the only thing that counts, what’s on the outside counts too and regardless of what people say we often judge a book by its cover. Really you have to; you don’t have time to read every book. And we do that every day in all kinds of situations, we choose which food we are going to eat based on how it looks, if you list your house for sale the agent should talk to you about curb appeal and staging your home for the best results. If you want top dollar out of your car you wash it and wax it and vacuum it out before you put it up for sale.
It would be shame if some people never got to see the inside of you as a Christ Follower because the outside turned them off.
And sometimes our behaviour does. If you call yourself a Christ follower than people expect you to follow Christ. And I hear it all the time when you talk about people’s behaviour, even if they don’t say it out loud they are thinking it. “Don’t judge me, Jesus wouldn’t judge me.” Sure he would, if your behaviour didn’t match your words. That’s exactly what Jesus was doing with the Pharisees when he called them hypocrites, and snakes and whitened tombs, he was judging them. It was Jesus who said Matthew 7:17-20 A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
So what are we to do?
Let God Do His Thing So We Can Do Our Thing. We can’t clean the inside, no matter how hard we try we just can’t do it. And if you’ve tried then you know the reality of that. Paul summed it up in Romans 7:18-20 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
I’ve told the story before about the old man who would stand up and testify in church that he was caught up in the web of sin yet again. Finally another old guy couldn’t take it anymore and he jumped up and yelled, “For crying out loud, kill the spider.” So how do we kill the spider?
Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Which seems to echo David’s words from Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.
It is God’s work, but it is your choice. You have to invite him to do the work in your heart. And when He cleans the inside you will want to display the new you by taking care of the outside.