Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, September 5, 2021

Text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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Dear Friends in Christ, In the early 1930’s a husband-and-wife team of historians named Will and Ariel Durant took up the rather ambitious project of writing a history of the world. Forty years later the end result was a monumental eleven-volume set of books entitled, “The Story of Civilization.” Each of the volumes had their own separate title corresponding to a period of time, many of which used the same formula: “The Age of…” (Faith, Reason, Napoleon, etc.).

If we had to hang a similar title on the last thirty years or so, what would it be? Some will point to the explosion of cable TV and social media and internet and other forms of digital communication and say we are living in the age of information.

Others are more cynical. They point to the proliferation of ways available for people of any political leaning or social standing to promote a particular point of view or float an idea (regardless of its relationship to truth) and have suggested it would be more accurate to say we are living in the age of misinformation.

Interesting observation. But misinformation is nothing new, and the practice of spreading it has been around since the beginning of time. The first perpetrator on record was Satan in the Garden of Eden. When he created an untruthful impression about God in the minds of Adam and Eve, they fell for it. As a result, sin entered the world. And the world has been plagued with misinformation about God and spiritual matters ever since.

We’re going to see that in our text for today. This morning we will confront two huge pieces of misinformation about the Christian faith, both of which remain to this very day.

But here is the good news. Jesus is going to clear things up and set the record straight. If we wanted to give a title to this text, we might call it:

JESUS SHEDS LIGHT ON SOME CLOUDY THINKING

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 “unclean,” that is, unwashed. Added to this is a note of explanation on the Jewish idea of uncleanness: (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.)

Two groups of people are mentioned. First, “the Pharisees” (we’ll get to them in a minute). Then, “some of the teachers of the law.” These were the experts in the writings of the Old Testament (which was the Bible of their day and often referred to simply as “the Law.”) Today we might call them Bible scholars. Many of them were also Pharisees.

And who are they? A word or two of background will be helpful to fully understand our text.

In the Hebrew language at the root of the name “Pharisee” is the verb “separate.” That’s a helpful description because that’s exactly what they were: separatists. As a formal group they came into existence approximately 150 years before the birth of Christ at a time when the Jews as a nation were drifting away from their faith and culture. The Pharisees “separated” themselves from this general trend in order to stay close and live by the Word of God as given in the Old Testament. So, they had a noble and admirable beginning.

However, over the years a shift in thinking took place that was in full bloom at Jesus’ time. They viewed the Bible not as God’s plan of salvation for sinful man which he would carry out in the Messiah who was to come, but more as a book of rules and regulations to be followed so a person could earn their way to heaven. In other words, they saw the Bible not as the record of what God would do for the world in sending Jesus to save us from the damning consequences of our sin, but as a manual on what they had to do for God if they wanted to get to heaven.

In addition to misinterpreting the Bible this way, the Pharisees also added to it what they called “oral law” – or as mentioned in our text, “the tradition of the elders.” These traditions were man-made rules about things not spoken of in the Bible. Through the years literally hundreds of these rules (613 to be exact) developed and regulated every aspect of Jewish life. Sadly, in the course of time keeping these traditions became more important than the Word of God on which they were supposedly based.

The particular tradition mentioned in our text had to with ceremonially (that is, doing it a certain prescribed way) washing hands before eating. We’re also told such washing was practiced after “coming from the marketplace” (in case they would accidentally defile themselves by brushing up against a Gentile or non-practicing Jew), as well as the way they washed their dishes.

At any rate, the Pharisees saw some of Jesus’ disciples eating with “unclean” hands – which presented them with a golden opportunity to accuse, or the very least, publicly discredit Jesus. 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 ‘unclean’ hands?”

Jesus had an answer for them. A rather sharp one at that. Quoting Old Testament Isaiah, who by divine inspiration had made the same observation about the people of his day: 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 but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

Jesus hit the nail on the head. He calls them out on their cloudy and misinformed thinking. They were more interested in living according to their traditions than in living and carrying out the Word of God. Their tradition – given by men – had become more important than the Bible – given by God. And no matter how religious or pious they appeared in carrying out these various traditions, they were dead wrong.

Jesus now uses this encounter over uncleanness as a springboard to speak the truth on the subject: Again, Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’

The Pharisees had reasoned that unwashed hands made the food dirty, and that dirty food in turn made a person spiritually unclean because it wasn’t eaten according to their rules. They were saying that uncleanness came from the outside in.

Jesus says just the opposite. True uncleanness (spiritual uncleanness) comes from the inside and goes out, because everyone has a sinful nature. He then goes on to give a listing of examples in the final words of our text: For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ”

The point: True defilement comes from an impure heart, not from breaking some external, man-made rule. A right relationship with God is not interrupted by unclean hands or food, but by sin. Sin is the matter that must be addressed when it comes to being in a right relationship with God.

And how sin is addressed is where the Pharisees went way off the rails. They bought into two deadly pieces of spiritual misinformation that remain to this day: the way to heaven and the true nature of man.

The Pharisees thought they were above sin. They thought sin could be counterbalanced by keeping rules and regulations and heaven would be awarded them – in fact, if God was truly fair, he couldn’t keep them out. So, they saw no need for a Savior. In fact in their smug self-righteousness, they labeled others as sinners but bristled at the suggestions that the term might apply to them. Remember the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector (“God, I thank you…”)?

They believed salvation could be earned. Do enough of the right things, compare yourselves to enough evil people and spiritual lowlifes, and you can perform your own way into heaven.

That’s precisely the kind of Pharisee thinking (and we have to watch this in ourselves, because there’s a little Pharisee in all of us) that Jesus condemned. Jesus doesn’t use these terms, but it’s kind of like putting a bowtie or lipstick on a pig. It may slightly change the appearance, but it doesn’t change its nature; it will always head for the mud.

The fact of the matter is that we are sinners. The world and certain strains of the church do not like to say that out loud. It’s too negative; not good for our self-esteem and self-image.

But it is true. That list of vices Jesus said emanate and radiate from a sinful heart? – mankind in general and we in particular check all the boxes. Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t paying attention to the news. And anyone who thinks they can counterbalance their sin with good deeds is just dead wrong, because, as James tells us, “Whoever breaks the law at just one point is guilty of breaking it all.”

When it comes to getting to heaven and true nature of man, we don’t need to be better. We need to be changed. We need to be redeemed.

And, thanks be to God, we are. And thanks be to God, we know how. What we could not do – live sinlessly as our Heavenly Father asks of his creatures – Jesus did for us. What we deserve – condemnation for our sin – Jesus absorbed in our place by his death on the cross.

Though we are sinners, we are forgiven. Though we are sinners, we are saved. Heaven does not have to be obtained by us. It has been attained for us by Jesus. And he says it is the free gift of those who trust in him as Savior; meaning we can be certain of where we will spend our forever!

This doesn’t mean we won’t still struggle and grapple with our sinful nature. This doesn’t mean we will somehow reach a point in our spiritual life that we are above temptation. We still deal with the effects of who and what we are by nature.

But we have been given a new nature. Paul says whoever is in Christ is a “new creation.” And although we contend with our sinful nature, it is not our dominant nature. Now we are led by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. And living for Jesus out of love for what he has done for us becomes our goal and purpose in life.

That’s the kind of information we need. That’s the information Jesus provides us today when he shed light on some cloudy thinking. And we bask in the glory and warmth of that Gospel light now and forever. God be praised. Amen.