Mark 7:5-8

GOD’S LAWS AND MEN’S RULES

Mk. 7:5-8

So the Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, “Why do your disciples not conduct themselves as the tradition of the elders prescribes, but eat bread with hands that are unclean?” He said to them, “Isaiah did well when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it stands written, `This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. This so-called reverence of men is an empty thing, for they teach as doctrine human rules and regulations.` While you hold fast the tradition of men you abandon the command of God.”

The scribes and Pharisees saw that the disciples of Jesus did not observe the niceties of the tradition and the code of the oral law in regard to the washing of hands before and during meals, and they asked why. Jesus began by quoting to them a passage from Isa.29:13. There Isaiah accused the people of his day of honouring God with their lips while their hearts were really far away. In principle Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of two things.

(i) He accused them of hypocrisy. The word hupokrites (GSN5273) has an interesting and revealing history. It begins by meaning simply one who answers; it goes on to mean one who answers in a set dialogue or a set conversation, that is to say an actor; and finally it means, not simply an actor on the stage, but one whose whole life is a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all. Anyone to whom religion is a legal thing, anyone to whom religion means carrying out certain external rules and regulations, anyone to whom religion is entirely connected with the observation of a certain ritual and the keeping of a certain number of tabus is in the end bound to be, in this sense, a hypocrite. The reason is this–he believes that he is a good man if he carries out the correct acts and practices, no matter what his heart and his thoughts are like.

To take the case of the legalistic Jew in the time of Jesus, he might hate his fellow man with all his heart, he might be full of envy and jealousy and concealed bitterness and pride; that did not matter so long as he carried out the correct handwashings and observed the correct laws about cleanness and uncleanness. Legalism takes account of a man’s outward actions; but it takes no account at all of his inward feelings. He may well be meticulously serving God in outward things, and bluntly disobeying God in inward things–and that is hypocrisy.

The devout Mohammedan must pray to God a certain number of times each day. To do so he carries his prayer mat; wherever he is, he will unroll the mat, fall upon his knees, say his prayers and then go on. There is a story of a Mohammedan who was pursuing a man with upraised knife to murder him. Just then the call to prayer rang out. Immediately he stopped, spread out his prayer mat, knelt, said his prayer as fast as he could; then rose and continued his murderous pursuit. The prayer was simply a form and a ritual, an outward observance, merely the correct interlude in the career of murder.

There is no greater religious peril than that of identifying religion with outward observance. There is no commoner religious mistake than to identify goodness with certain so-called religious acts. Church-going, bible-reading, careful financial giving, even time-tabled prayer do not make a man a good man. The fundamental question is, how is a man’s heart towards God and towards his fellow-men? And if in his heart there are enmity, bitterness, grudges, pride, not all the outward religious observances in the world will make him anything other than a hypocrite.

(ii) The second accusation that Jesus implicitly levelled against these legalists was that they substituted the efforts of human ingenuity for the laws of God. For their guidance for life they did not depend on listening to God; they depended on listening to the clever arguments and debates, the fine-spun niceties, the ingenious interpretations of the legal experts. Cleverness never can be the basis of true religion. True religion can never be the product of man’s mind. It must always come, not from a man’s ingenious discoveries, but from the simple listening to and accepting the voice of God.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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