Over the last couple of weeks, my Social Media has been filled with photos of foreign cities as friends smile (through face masks) and enjoy being able to travel again. There have also been more conversations with people talking excitedly about booking holidays and travelling in the summer. As the pandemic seems to shift to a “post-covid” world, people look forward to returning to old rhythms of rest and exploration.
Personally, I cannot wait to get back to travelling and being able to explore new places; one of the things I love about travelling is experiencing new cultures and new ways of doing things. I love going off-road to places that are not normal to experience a culture untouched by tourism and conformity to outside influences – you could call it somewhere’s normal. One experience I love of new cultures is learning the unwritten norms and rules that shape social etiquette and behaviour there – normal. Rules that if not followed mean that we will offend someone at some point, and we might feel the stern look of judgment, but we might never know why. One example from personal travels was the first time I realised how cultures could be when I visited Dakar, Senegal. I learned quickly that it would be left to avoid using my left hand to eat or do things because doing so could be offensive to the wrong person! Why? because the left hand was considered unclean and historically would have been used for “unclean purposes”
The Unwritten Rules of Culture
Even in this Covid era, practices that were once foreign have become the norm and unwritten rules of conformity: hands when entering a shop, wearing a face mask when out and about, and social distancing. We have all felt the same as we dash into the shop to get milk, reach into our pocket and realise that we have no face mask and feel the glare of those around us! New rhythms and expectations soon become engrained into the normality of our day. No one tells us what to do in a certain situation, but we know that right now if we are going into a shop, we should probably put on a face mask. We know because we are all shaped by our cultures, we learn the assumed norms and almost without thought, we conform to what is expected of us because we don’t want any hassle.
There are expected behaviours and normal practices in every culture and context, no matter the location or time. Often those norms reflect the expectations and priorities of that place, the values of the culture. Many factors shaped the culture of Jesus day; the occupation and oppression of Rome, the agrarian nature of the economy, ethnic tensions, and many others. Yet, one thing that is clear when we read the Bible and about the time of Jesus was how deeply religious a world it was. Religion and religiosity was perhaps the most dominant factor that shaped their culture. Those society held in the highest regard were the most religious and good at being religious. Meaning that those who appeared to obey the law of God were those whom the culture valued, promoted and looked to. This deeply religious culture judged people and rated them off their religious practice and observance – how do you make sure you do not break the law? The law became a burden to those under it as they could never keep it and a source of pride and self-promotion to those who considered themselves able to keep it as they judged all around them by virtue of birth, office or outwardly morality. How might you make sure you keep the law of God? Well, by building more regulations around the law to help you define what keeping the law looks like. That is exactly what happened in the centuries after God gave the law to Moses; the religious leaders added interpretations and instructions to help people think about what it meant to live for God and to keep those instructions. The problem was that as time passed, instructions became canon on par with the written law of God summed up in the ten commandments and not only was people’s righteousness judged by the law of God but through the added burden of human traditions. The 613 Laws of the Pharisees became additional weight upon the lives of God’s people. Yet, no one seemed to catch on that God never gave the law as a framework for self-improvement, not an achievement but a tool through which to examine the heart and release that outside of God, there was no hope. The law of God was not meant to drive people from God but to drive them to him in response to their realised sinfulness and realisation that the human heart needed the help of God to live for God. The religious leaders moved from being those called by God to instruct people what it meant to live for him to the moral police who judged the righteousness of everyone else against their apparent own.
You are not a Very good Teacher (Context)
Here in Mark 7, The Pharisees and some of the law teachers have retreated from the safety of Jerusalem to come, see and experience this religious teacher that they have heard so much about. Jesus as a Rabbi was not exactly one of them. Still, they would have expected him to be like them in terms of his ethics, daily rhythms, practices: all of which they would have assumed would have aimed towards righteousness and conformed to the expected norms of the day, especially for someone who was a teacher of the law. They expected Jesus to conform to them, their teachings, way of life and standards of righteousness. What they learned is that Jesus did not conform to their ‘righteousness.’
The Pharisees are Startled by the Ethics of Jesus Disciples
You can imagine their disdain and distress as they come expecting a certain “type” in the image of Jesus, and their expectations are shattered as soon as they arrive to find Jesus disciples sitting “eating food with hands that are defiled, that is unwashed.” Some 2000 years before covid, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were not concerned with good hand sanitisation a la the spread of germs; nowhere they concerned about good manners. They were shocked because they expected the Students of a popular and somewhat respected Rabbi – no matter how maverick he was – to conform to their ideals of learning and ethics. Specifically, that Students of one teaching the ways of God would know and commit to their understanding of what discipleship looked like – keeping the regulations that have been passed down via the traditions of the elders for a generation; not biblical imperatives set by God for faithful living with Him, but human-shaped traditions that with time found equality with the word of God. In their eyes, Jesus was not a very good teacher; yet, by his rebuke, we see that they who claim to obey the law are the ones who know it the least; they are the ones who are very good!
No sooner do they arrive with Jesus and have their comforts disturbed by a violent scene of tradition-breaking do they question the authority of Jesus and the validity of his teaching by the practice of his disciples; as they grumbled: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” a rebuke towards Jesus that brought an even stronger rebuke of them from Jesus as he quoted from 29:13 of the prophet Isaiah, using the text to state that while the Pharisees and teachers of the law might have outward righteousness, their actions are empty and their hearts are far from God!1
These were men who were not used to being challenged; they considered themselves as the ultimate authority on matters of faith and in matters of righteousness; they would have expected Jesus to repent for the actions of his disciples; not to respond to them with greater authority by pointing out the shallowness of their actions and the emptiness of their hearts. There could be no greater retort at that moment that those who were meant to lead the spiritual/faithful life of Nation; were the least spiritual. If that was not bad enough, Jesus went further in making his point by highlighting how these people who were so strict about the law found ways to be flexible when it suited them and the desire of their hearts as he desired as he stated: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8 NIV) Highlighting their ‘good’ and flexible approach to the commandments handed down to them by Moses who told them to honour their Father and Mother, warning that to dishonour them was an act punishable by death. Yet, the Pharisees, in their shrewdness, had found a way to use resources that might have been used to honour parents from that need and law by deciding that if anything was declared Corban (literally devoting a possession to God). So if their parents needed a chair, and they had a chair to give to them but didn’t want to give them the chair and then declared that chair devoted as Corban then they would no longer be legally obliged under the Jewish law to give the chair to their parents. They used the same illusion of Worship of God to void their commitment under the word of God! It was the summary picture of the emptiness of their worship, righteousness and supposed faithful to God that the very traditions they had formed to remain faithful caused the people of God to be unfaithful to his commands and sin! This hypocritical-duality is the foundation of the verses we are considering today as Jesus continues his rebuke and teaching about righteousness and faithfulness to God look like and actually is – a matter of the heart.
Consider Yourself: Not the World (14)
Thus, building on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus turns to the wider crowd and tells them a simple truth: There is nothing in the outside world which can defy a person before God; there is no possession, no act that will cause a person to become unclean; that if we somehow avoid this thing or that act, then we will be okay before God. It is not that simple! Now we must be clear, Jesus is not teaching that acts do not cause-effect or harm; but that that which affects us before God is not the act in itself but the heart that motivates it. The thought, heart, and motivation lead us to act like the sinful element in something rather than the act.
Thus, to keep a chair from our parents by devoting it to God is a sin not because we kept a chair but because internally we were selfish and deception about our intentions and heart, motivations that display a heart that is far from God: Motivations that come out of us and are incarnated by how we act in the world. Thus, we must consider ourselves because what comes from us points to what our heart longs for and our lives belong to. For us today, it means if we are truly his disciples, then our hearts long for the things of the Kingdom, things that Glorify God, and our actions will display that longing. A lesson the disciples were still learning and struggling to comprehend at this very moment as they asked him to explain the parable.
Examine Your Heart (15-23)
The religious authorities of the day taught that contact with an item or type of person considered unclean could defile/ make unclean the person it came into contact with. Jesus taught something far more radical and counter to any notions of the world that this was far too simple and made righteousness a matter of effort and human desire rather than a gracious act of God. How did he do this? by using the example of the food: “You eat don’t you, and yet that which you eat goes into your stomach and out the other end and never touches your heart.” The heart is the emotional centre of our being, where our desires and dreams are formed; So if the food does not affect our heart, how can anything be external. Rather, it is internal that affects the external as Jesus concludes: “It is what comes from inside that defiles you.” (Mark 7:20 NLT). It is from our heart comes motivations that are contrary to the ethics of the Kingdom and things that glorify God: ” evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.” (Mark 7:21-23 NLT) Jesus listing thirteen worldly motivations that are found in every one of our hearts and will lead us to acts that prove our unrighteousness – not make us unrighteous – and that our hearts do not belong to God. Acts are fruits of a heart that belongs to the world; what the heart worship or long for we put into practice in our lives. Thus, we must consider what our actions and life fruits display about our hearts belonging as we ponder do they truly belong to God?
Conclusion: Produce a Better Fruit
Jesus rebuke is strong here for a reason because our fruitfulness is a matter of significance and consequence, that is, eternal significance and consequence: Our fruitfulness points to what our hearts worship and what our heart worships points to where our lives are heading. The simple truth is that as we live, we are all bearing fruit; Jesus here, through negative implication, calls us to consider what are the wrong fruits to come from our lives – especially if we claim to be followers of Yahweh – fruits of the world. Yet, one would come after him and teach those who continued to follow him about the good fruit that should come from the life of a Disciple of Christ, fruits of righteousness that are not produced by our effort or merit but through the Gracious presence of God the Holy Spirit. He who dwells in us when we come to faith and realise we cannot work our way towards our ultimate purpose of communion with God but must accept the Gracious gift of life that comes through the cross, and when we accept it, we receive the Spirit who produces fruits in us according to our walk, love and worship: not fruits of the flesh, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” 2 So today, let us consider ourselves and the fruit are lives are producing and mark sure it is not that of the flesh but the beautiful and world-altering fruit of the Spirit.