[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2015]
What makes someone a Christian? What must we “do” to be saved? Then, what must we “do” in order to prove that this is so? If we remember that summaries are just that, we may give a summary answer in this way: Jesus said, “You must be born again,” [John 3:3 ff] and “If you love me, keep my commandments,” [John 14:15] and “Love one another as I have loved you,” [John 13:34, et al]. All summaries can be expanded, but the point is clear: the Christian life does not spring from ourselves but from the grace of God in Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us [1 John 2:1-3 and 4:10] and whom we then love in return. This is the context for all Christian obedience. There are commandments to direct and correct our way, but these are of no saving value for us. Rather, they point out to us how far short we still fall of God’s holiness and how essential it is to depend on Jesus’ obedience in our place even as we grow.
In Mark 7:1-23 Jesus had opportunity to expose this wrong thinking. It began simply enough: Jesus was accused of teaching his disciples to be irreligious by eating with unwashed hands. This was not a matter of public health but of great religious symbolism. The rules which had been built up over many centuries were not being followed! In the Pharisees’ minds, Jesus and his disciples were despising the true worship of God in everyday life. It is therefore easy to see why the Pharisees were so upset, but Jesus’ reaction shows that it was they who were mistaken and not his disciples.
God had required washing and sprinkling with water in the Old Testament when the people were to be specially reminded of his grace and the need for holy living. They had to wash before meeting him at Mt Sinai when he gave the 10 Commandments. Aaron and the priests were washed as part of their ordination, and many offerings were first washed with water. Similarly, both people and things were washed when leprosy and other skin diseases were healed. Because God appointed washing to be a reminder of God’s cleansing grace it was natural that over time, people thought it a good idea to do it more often and in more places. Perhaps it was innocent enough in some ways but it was a practice that God had not asked for, and whenever we add to God’s requirements [however well-intentioned] we start out on the road to moralism, religious pride, hypocrisy and idolatry, and the grace of God is pushed aside.
There is another danger. When the heart is focused on keeping rules as rules and not as a response to God or his grace, it is necessarily focused on one’s self and is blinded to true holiness. Jesus showed how true this is when he pointed out that those who were concerned for clean hands were simultaneously wickedly twisting their man-made rules for personal profit and ignoring the 5th Commandment [see Mk 7:9-13].
It is sometimes frustrating that it all seems so vague! We want precision and clarity! We want rules to keep and measure our progress! But while precision and clarity can be helpful, the great danger is that Christianity becomes little more than keeping a set of rules, and nothing of the heart. It happens—and more than we might like to admit.
It is easy to be critical of Pharisees, but let us all ask whether Jesus would say similar things to us here in the 21st century. Helpful religious habits may be good, but can become a burden or source of guilt when we forget what the habit is to assist and it becomes a law in itself. It is no sin to break a tradition! Sometimes there might be a fine line between what is helpful and what is not, but if we love Christ for love’s sake, and not duty, we shall be safe.