Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Empty Ritualism

Mark 7:1-23

This is not a question of hygiene. Thank God. I wouldn’t know what to think of Jesus if he was cool with people not washing their hands, say after they go to the bathroom. Or you know, before they make my lunch. That’s not the issue here.

This is about the traditional acts of hand-washing that were done by strict Jews in the first century to remove the impurity of coming into contact with “unclean people,” such as when they came home from the marketplace or something like that. There was no Old Testament basis for these rituals. They had been established and built up by the teachings and traditions of rabbis over the centuries. And they were rather complex by the first century. There were rules about when you had to wash, how much water you had to use, how the water was applied to your hands, what kind of vessel you kept the water in, and so on.

The issue is that they cared more about these traditions than they did about genuine obedience to God. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29: “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. They teach their own rules as commands from God.” There is a form of religion, but it is divorced from genuine devotion to God.

I think we can also recall Isaiah 1 here. In Isaiah 1, God rails against the people of Israel for all the ways in which they are so careful to keep up all the religious rituals, but the whole time, they are ignoring the most important parts of God’s laws. They are failing to do the work of God. They are not keeping justice. They are not showing compassion to those in need.

The Scribes and Pharisees considered their traditions to be very spiritual things, things that brought a person closer to God. But they were also undercutting the plain commandments of God.

Jesus gives the Corban as an example. The word Corban meant “devoted to God.” And the rabbis contended that if a person declared something Corban, then it could never be used for any other purpose, however noble it might be. They argued that if a man said to his parents, even if he said it in anger, “Whatever help you might have received from me is Corban,” then he could never give them any help in their old age. Now the 5th Commandment was often seen as being the most important of the commandments related to human interactions. After all, it came first. But the religious leaders said that it was null and void in this case, all because of their tradition. And

Jesus says, “This is just one example.” There were others where the traditions built up over the centuries became more important than what God said plainly to do.

Jesus goes on, “It’s not what goes into your body that makes you unclean.” This was a radical statement. It undid much of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament and it broke down one of the biggest barriers between Jew and Gentile.

At one point, Jesus said “I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Now I’ll be honest and say I don’t understand what all the implications of that statement are. Bible scholars and theologians don’t agree what it means. But Jesus tells us plainly that it means this: The dietary laws of the Old Testament do not apply to us who live in the New Covenant.

“It’s not what goes into the stomach that makes a person unclean, but rather what comes out of the heart. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lust, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. These come from within, and they are what defile you before God.”

Let’s be honest with ourselves: We would rather pretend that we can come before God through rituals and external things than deal with the real issue. The real issue is that we are sinners. We do wrong things. We fail to do right things. We don’t obey God. But we’d rather pretend that rituals make us okay with God than deal with all those things.

We’re going to receive communion in a moment. Maybe that’s one of those rituals we think makes us okay with God. But before we imagine that, let’s remember that the Lord’s Supper begins with a prayer of confession for the wrong we have done and the right we have failed to do. And unless we pray that prayer with a sincere desire to stop sinning and start doing God’s will, then it’s just an empty ritual. And empty rituals cannot make us right with God. We must seek to be right with God in our hearts.

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