They Worship Me In Vain
Ordinary 22 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Mark 7: 1 — 8; 14 — 15; and 21 — 23
Our reading for meditation comprises selected verses from Mark 7: 1 — 23 which deal with the common theme of “cleanness” (as distinct from “cleanliness)”. It is easy for us to discount the text as of rather low relevance to Christians. However it does contain very significant points of interest for Christians which have become somewhat buried in recent times. We do not know exactly when the incident occurred.
In St. Mark’s Gospel, this reading serves to introduce the extension of our Lord’s ministry to the Gentiles in vv. 24 — 30 (the Syro-Phoenician woman), in vv. 31 — 37 (the deaf and dumb man in Decapolis) and, in fact, in vv. 8 — 10 (the feeding of the 4000).
Some Reflections On the Text
Verses 1 — 4
Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had
come from Jerusalem gathered around him,
they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals
with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
(For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat
without carefully washing their hands, keeping the
tradition of the elders.
And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat
without purifying themselves. And there are many other
things that they have traditionally observed, the
purification of cups and jugs and kettles (and beds).)
The text refers to washing. The real purpose is ritual purification. In the minds of some modern readers, this practice can bring a slight reaction of contempt for such a pre-occupation. As with so many customs arising in traditions different from our own, it is important to understand their purpose before we pass comment. Bratcher and Nida (UBS) inform us that this purification is described in various ways, e.g. “to become really clean”, “to become not mixed“, in the sense of contaminated, “to take away pollution“. Even for Christians, these would be important in certain circumstances.
So we can see that the custom originated from a very practical need to keep the Jewish Faith from becoming watered down by lax practice and a lowering of standards. These customs were “the traditions of the elders” and formed a great mass of oral tradition handed down to help the faithful live up to the requirements of God’s Law (first 5 Books of Moses). In our Lord’s time this collection of religious rules and regulations was still in oral form and was not written until about A.D. 200 when the Mishnah was compiled.
It is interesting to note that the regulations devised by the Pharisees arose out of the custom of priests at the Temple undergoing ritual purification before performing their appointed service. The Pharisees, originally, were thereby encouraging the people at large to purify themselves likewise, to God’s honour. (Lane, Stock, OSB). As Jesus noted, in time the real purpose behind these good intentions became clouded and lost to the ordinary people.
Thus the tradition of the elders started out as a well-intentioned guide for believers. Because it was not in a fixed format, many burdensome demands came to be incorporated and handed down as essential religious practice. The problem arose as time went on, that it was not the original focus on God’s Law that was passed down, but a diverted focus on lesser things which did not, in later times, help the people to carry out essential religious practice. These therefore became a stumbling block to the ordinary devout Jew who couldn’t cope with the ever-increasing volume.
Verses 5 — 8
So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do
your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but
instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you
hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with
their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human
The senior authorities asked Jesus to explain why His disciples did not obey the “tradition of the elders”. The answer given by Him is worthy of our closest attention. The first thing we notice is our Lord’s bluntness: He calls His challengers “hypocrites” and then quotes the Prophet Isaiah to them. St. Mark takes it from the Greek Septuagint Old Testament (which differs significantly from the Hebrew text ― UBS):
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts
are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching
as doctrines human precepts.”
To make his point even clearer (or more forceful) He added that they had become more concerned about the man-made rules than God’s own Commandments: His Torah.
We need to be clear that Jesus was not opposed to Judaism’s practice of interpreting the Law of Moses with standard explanations and regulations guiding the devout in their practical daily religious life. This is the rightful duty and responsibility of religious leaders in any tradition. They would be failing if they did not do this. What our Lord is objecting to in this passage is something which history constantly shows us, sooner or later takes place in all religious traditions: the authorities forgot the original reason for the regulations; forgot that their purpose was to help people remain close to God in their ordinary daily life.
Instead self-interest took over, and the Pharisees, in this case, became obsessed with outdoing one-another in the less important matters while paying little attention to true Biblical principles. In fact, they even used their “traditions” to get around having to obey the law.
Verses 9 — 13 record how Jesus reveals to them just how bad this irreligious practice had become, and how He was, in fact, exposing their abuse of authority to increase their power and, sometimes, to make personal profit from doing so.
Verses 14 and 15
Jesus seemed to take a break and then later call the people around Him again, returning to the above topic and adding further light upon it:
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me,
all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
Unfortunately this passage is often wrongly used and interpreted. It does not give licence for eating and drinking anything and everything or clobbering people who live according to strict religious dietary codes. Jesus was not here abrogating the religious laws about food.
The whole of the written Torah, Law, was to find its fulfilment in Him and thus be transformed. Our Lord does, however, indicate that the accumulated oral commentary on the Torah was simply not binding on those who became His disciples. It was not abrogated since it was never enacted. It just had no force in Law.
Nor did He ever wish to undermine the importance of spiritual purity. He did, however, loudly denounce those who in fact cared little for inward purity but pretended to value it by performing some external ceremony. That was contemptuous and He called it so.
Essentially, Jesus was here explaining that while a food may be ritually unclean, it is not the state of the food that brings about inner defilement: it is the wrong attitude towards obeying God.
Verses 21 — 23
Having gone aside from the crowds to explain some of this to His closer disciples, Jesus then poured forth what He had been waiting to say to His opponents; an expansion of verse 15:
From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts,
unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy,
blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
It is unfortunate that so many popular commentaries take a somewhat shallow view of this passage and misguide their readers by failing to point out the real message of Jesus. This passage is not about tradition versus the Torah, or Commandments, or human tradition opposed to the Word of God, or grace displacing the Law. Those who are obsessed with demonstrating this, display a prejudice equally as unhelpful as the attitude of the Pharisees. Christians today must look more carefully at our Lord’s teaching and not perpetuate shallow, convenient interpretations. We conclude by looking at two key ideas in our Lord’s teaching in this text.
First, focussing on what makes us spiritually unclean. If we were to take Jesus absolutely literally, we might find ourselves believing that you cannot offend God or harm your spiritual integrity by anything you consume. If this were so, we might soon find ourselves in trouble. Then there are the examples from Scripture of food, good in itself, but not recommended! For example, Adam took the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3: 6) and it sent all creation in a new direction. St Paul declared, “drunkards shall not possess the kingdom of God.” Using the logic of Jesus, it was not the fruit Adam ate that caused the trouble, but his disobedient heart. Excessive wine is bad; but the evil is in the lack of constraint in the consumer, not in the wine.
The issue is, we cannot pass the blame to the external object and call it unclean. The blame rests within us. In effect Jesus was saying to the religious authorities,
“Yes, there are religious laws to be fulfilled by the members of our Faith, and practical guidelines from the Elders on how to carry them out in daily life can help them. But you have become preoccupied with the secondary regulations and seem to have forgotten what they were meant to uphold. You have become so intent on these lesser rules that you care little about your own inner spiritual purity before God. You take great care to be seen carrying out obligatory customs you have devised, but do not care about a whole range of evil thoughts and attitudes, your actions display. That is sheer hypocrisy.”
Secondly, we should not confuse the place of tradition in the Church with our Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees and their “traditions of men.” In 2 Thessalonians 2: 15, St. Paul states in plain language,
“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions
that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a
letter of ours.”
Our word “tradition” comes to us via Latin, which means, “what has been passed on,” and refers specifically to what has been communicated in teaching. Jesus, in our text, is not complaining about tradition as such, that the elders have passed on guidelines for the practice of the Faith. His complaint is what they passed on. The true tradition or teaching had become supplanted by man-made rules. True religion had been hijacked!
Let us remember that much of Christianity today can be shown to be mocked by those who peddle non-Christian beliefs and practices. Corruption can occur in the least likely places.
The warning is relevant to all Christian groups. Some constantly point the finger at other Christians for their seemingly burdensome customs and traditions, only to overlook the fact that they have themselves become imprisoned in their own; yet they cannot see it.
Our Lord was well aware of the natural tendency of people to adopt all the stereotypes of religion in order to give the appearance of being part of the “in group”. As long as we are aware of that and reflect from time to time on this passage, we should be able to help one another avoid falling into the same habit. Let us pray for one another, that we will keep our focus on Jesus and what He has passed on.
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Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and
They Worship Me In Vain
Ordinary 22 Year B St. Mark 7: 1 — 8; 14 — 15; and 21 — 23
1. As non-Christian culture emerges more strongly around us (in countries which were largely Christian) we will need to put things in place: rules, customs, reminders, etc. to help us prevent being assimilated into the prevailing culture and its atheistic mindset. The ancient Jews were commanded by God to do this. They went further ― with the best of intentions ― and added more and more features to differentiate themselves from others. The problem they met, in doing so, was what others, including Christians, have experienced: you can become obsessed with being different and focussing principally on that instead of the original purpose for the rules.
As a religion, Christians have tended to criticise Judaism heavily in this whole matter, largely as a result of misinterpreting the Gospel passages where it appears. In truth, however, we have slipped into similar practices ― all very human ― but let’s take care not to be ‘one-eyed’ about it.
2. Our Lord, in typical rabbinic style, declares to His disciples words to the effect: it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that pollutes, harms, destroys ― it’s what comes out of a person’s mouth that matters. He even extended the thought to include everything unbecoming of His followers which originated within themselves.
Of course the way Jesus presented it, we are all guilty to some extent. It is therefore inappropriate for us to condemn others, and their motives, whilst we, ourselves, fail to meet His standards.
3. Jesus was fairly down-to-earth when it came to the enjoyment of good food and wine etc. If there is a problem with this, it rests with the person who eats or drinks too much ― not with the things enjoyed. In other words we need to take responsibility for being mature and sensible and not “pass-the-buck” by condemning the gifts of God instead of confessing our weaknesses.
Mark 7: 1 to 8; 14 to 15; 21 to 23.
Ordinary 22 Year B
1 1 Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had
2 they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals
3 (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat
4 And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat
5 So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do
6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you
7 In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human
8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human
14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me,
15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
21 From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts,
22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy,
23 All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised