July 16, 2018

Pentecost 8 - Mark 7:14-23

Cleanliness Matters
1. We are defiled from within
2. We are cleansed from the Lord

Mark 7:14-23 When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand: 15 "There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. 16 "If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!" 17 When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. 18 So He said to them, "Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 "because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?" 20 And He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. 21 "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 "thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. 23 "All these evil things come from within and defile a man."

What is your “second rule”? I’m speaking about food consumption here. How long, once something hits the floor or some other surface, until your food is contaminated? We all have different standards. For some, it’s a two-second rule, or three-second. For those with high functioning immune systems, maybe it’s a ten-second rule. For others, the only rule is that the food can’t touch anything.

Location makes a difference too. There’s a big difference between a freshly wiped kitchen table and a public restroom floor. There’s a big difference between the napkin resting on your lap and a living room rug. We could hardly make any surface 100% clean – everything has germs. But, location is still important. Since Lukas has started eating solid food, we’ve had to be quite careful in this regard – because he has no rules. He will eat just about anything off of any surface. Any when you’re taking a trip, locations change. Over the course of our trip Lukas took a liking to stuffing food items in his car seat for snacking on later. That’s pretty disgusting but not nearly as bad as crawling under the kitchen table at Gretchen’s parents, the very stomping place of everyone’s feet as well as the family dog, and cleaning up the remnants of supper – another favorite activity of our dear Lukas.

Now that our culture knows a lot about contamination and germs, cleanliness in eating habits matters. It’s strange in a way to hear what Jesus says in our text because we know for a fact that what you put into your body will affect it. Yet, Jesus is not talking about germs or food-related illnesses. He’s talking about spiritual defilement. That was the theme of this conversation because the Pharisees who were claiming that Jesus’ disciples were ceremonially unclean. There’s much to worry about when it comes to physical hygiene in your diet, but much more concerning your soul!

In the Old Testament God laid down very strict laws governing the dietary habits of His people. One of the central components to those laws was washing both themselves, and their food, with clean water. Logically, we understand the reason for this and God was thinking about this too. He wanted to preserve the health of His people. He issued these laws as safeguards against disease and illness. Yet, just like Jesus’ statement, there was more going on than just the physical. We know that no matter how much you wash something, you can’t make it perfectly clean. There’s always a certain amount of risk involved in eating because whatever it is could make you sick.

More importantly, God looks at how we treat our souls. The food requirements in the Old Testament were also reminders of cleanliness from sin. Forgiveness, too, is a washing; a washing, as Peter describes, that is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1Pe 3:21).” Peter was speaking specifically of baptism – one of the sin-cleansing tools that God has given us through His Word. Jesus, though He doesn’t mention baptism in our text, is looking at the same thing because He’s answering an accusation from the Pharisees about the same thing. How is my soul cleansed? The lesson is – not from something within me, but from something given by God.

Before Jesus could get to this point, He had to start at the beginning – by addressing what makes a person spiritually unclean in the first place. The Pharisees were bold enough to assert that not washing one’s hands before a meal would make them spiritually unclean, and they thought they were on solid footing with this theory because it went back to God’s laws in the Old Testament. There were two problems with their thinking however. First, they divorced God’s law from the intended purpose, namely to lead God’s people to Christ. And second, they added elements to God’s law that were never really there.    

Christ’s message in our text helps us see the intended purpose of those Old Testament laws. Logically, there was a need, but there was even more than that – for nothing that enters a person can defile them, as Jesus teaches. Much more dangerous is what comes out of the sinful heart, things in the list at the end of our text: evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 "thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.”

The Pharisees were ignoring these ailments of the heart and focusing only on externals. With the use of a modern colloquialism we could say they were making “mountains out of molehills.” While there certainly was value in washing one’s hands before a meal, as there is today, it makes no sense to focus only on that at the expense of recognizing sinful pride, wickedness, evil thoughts, and the like. But, this is the very tactic that is employed by people who seek to justify themselves. They can only succeed in the lesser externals of life, like hand washing rules, so that is what they focus on. The Pharisees knew that they weren’t perfect people. They were aware of the deep secrets of their own hearts, as all people are. They knew they suffered from the things mentioned by Jesus. But, they ignored it because they deemed that if they were good enough at following their own rules, none of their other problems would matter in the end. How wrong they were and how many people they led astray. As Jesus admonished them earlier in the chapter, they were leading others away from God by “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Mark 7:7).” By doing this, the Pharisees missed the entire purpose of the Old Testament law – to lead sinners to Christ. The Old Testament washing laws were meant first and foremost as symbols of the need that sinners have to be cleansed by Jesus. Anytime a person forgets or misplaces this greater spiritual purpose of the law, in place of the lesser physical purpose, they set themselves up for self-righteousness.

But, the Pharisees also had another problem, they added elements to God’s law that were never there. If you read the actual laws from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers about ceremonial washing, almost all references are directed at the priests. The priests, as God’s holy representatives, were required to wash regularly. There were times when God directed the people to wash themselves, but only in specific circumstances where they had done something else to become unclean in His eyes. The Pharisees stretched these very specific circumstances to include things like washing your hands before mealtime. What they did was a complete mishandling of God’s Word.

It’s easy to pinpoint these problems with the Pharisees. What we really need to recognize, however, is that it’s just as easy for us to treat God’s commands in these ways. It’s easy to make the law of God our own thing, by divorcing it from the greatest meaning of leading people to repentance in Christ. We, much like the Pharisees, will never fully understand God’s law if we don’t see it in its relationship to the work of our Savior. Many people today tempt us to cut corners on the more unpopular, or some might say less culturally relevant laws from God. If we walk down that path we might fit in better in our world, but the Word of God will become our own malleable tool. God’s direction for our lives is to follow and listen to the unchanging standard of His Word – whether that’s easy or hard. The Word is not ours to bend or change as we see fit – that attitude will only bring pain for our lives and hurt for others who use our Christians example and teaching as a model to follow.

The whole reason why we don’t have to treat God’s commands like this is because they are connected to Christ. All the commandments have found their completion in His work on the cross. Whatever requirement we come face to face with we know that Christ has redeemed us from the well-deserved curse that we bring upon ourselves. We don’t have to hide from the law. We don’t have to make it easier to digest to our society. We don’t have to shamefully curtail its full force and effect. Because we have Jesus. To do any of those former things to God’s holy Word is also to dishonor our Lord and Savior who obeyed the law, even to His own death, for us. 

Let us also be aware, too, of the second pit of the Pharisees – making the commands of God broader than they are. There’s really only one reason to do this – it’s about control. It’s easier to control people when you can bind them down with extra laws. It’s easier to keep them in line with your thinking. It’s easier to keep them from practicing their faith in a way that you might not. Control over one another gives a false sense of unity when really it debilitates a person’s trust in Jesus.  

How does this manifest itself in our lives? Well, key in on the same word that Jesus uses in His rebuke – tradition. In verse 9 He said, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. (Mar 7:9 NKJ). Tradition. It’s tradition that can make a person defiled in their heart without even knowing it. Tradition itself isn’t bad. Customs in the church and in our faith-lives have their proper place. But, when they become equal to or more important to God’s Word, tradition defiles the heart. Do you like worshipping on Sunday? Do you like to come with family and because of the fellowship of brothers and sisters in the faith? Do you like to dress up in respect to the Lord? Do you appreciate the rich heritage of our hymnody and liturgy? These are all excellent traditions – but still traditions. If they ever become the main reason we come to God’s house, or our primary identity as a Christian – you have a problem; making the traditions of men more important than the Word of God. It’s a trap of broadening your scope of God’s law in order to make yourself feel more confident in your faith or in limiting the faith of others to converge with your own opinions. Traditions can be tools that help people understand and learn God’s Word. If traditions end up blocking the Word, they should be jettisoned.

There are several factors that determine cleanliness in life – especially dietary cleanliness. What you’re comfortable with may be different from someone else. But, our diets are a lot like our souls – no matter how thorough or good we are, we can’t be perfect. There will always be contamination –both of germs and of sin. Help is not found in making new rules or in changing God’s rules. Help is found in Jesus – the only one who can offer complete 100% cleansing from sin. Anything that gets in the way of faith in Jesus can defile a person’s heart, even if it appears to be helpful on the surface. Likewise, with Jesus as our strengthen and support, nothing can defile us before God. No danger is too great, no sin devastating enough to destroy forgiveness in Christ for a repentant sinner. Thanks be to our great God and Savior, who came to us in our defiled condition, and washed our lives clean in His righteous blood. Amen.

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