Summary: Pentecost 15: Legalistic approaches that are intended to honor God... don’t. This message contrasts legalistic vs. God-honoring worship.
A man was watching the news one night when it was reported that a car was going the wrong direction on the freeway. The man knew his wife was on that freeway and became very concerned so he called her on her cell phone. She answered and he said, “Dear, there’s one car going in the wrong direction on the freeway.” She exclaimed, “One car! There’s hundreds of them!” (illustration from SermonCentral.com, contributed by: Mark Sutherlin)
This facetious little story relates a principle that is not altogether uncommon. People, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, believe that they are absolutely correct. No question about it. Those other cars on the freeway are the ones that are wrong. It couldn’t possibly be me. And in the process, we lose our focus and our sense of why we do what we do. It is more critical that we are deemed right than whether we are right.
An ancient story tells of a man who fell ill. It just so happens that the place where he fell was exactly between two villages. This presented a problem. You see, the authorities tending to the situation decided that the village to which he was closest would take care of him. And therein lay the disagreement. One village maintained that the distance should be measured from the man’s navel; the other village argued that it should be calculated from the man’s mouth. As the two communities argued over the jurisdictional authority, the poor fellow died. (illustration adapted from SermonCentral.com, contributed by: Tim Zingale)
Do you suppose that the same kind of thing happens as people attempt to relate to God? Is it possible that our understanding of what is good and right and pleasing to the Lord can become myopic? Is it possible that like the woman driving the wrong way on the freeway, people seeking to honor God can actually be traveling the wrong way? Is it possible, that like the authorities of the two cities arguing about who was closest to the sick man, that people seeking to honor the Lord can be majoring in the minors while souls are dying?
The Gospel Lesson for today tells us that Jesus was trying to tell the religious authorities of his day exactly that. You see, about 500 years before Jesus was born, a group of people emerged. Their interest was in upholding the letter of the law. This would have been fine had truly honored what God asked them to do. You see, just as we heard in our Old Testament Lesson, God wanted his people to faithfully obey Him.
But what these people did was different. They insisted that the law be followed - but as they saw it. So they developed their own oral law. They developed exacting requirements and rules and rituals, and they demanded that everybody live by those requirements. Anybody who didn’t, they said, was not honoring God.
For example, the hand washing law became something like this: Before they ate, 1½ egg-shells of water had to be poured over the hands. But this couldn’t happen in just any manner. It had to be done just so. The hands were held with the finger-tips upwards. The 1½ egg-shells of water was then poured over them until it ran down the wrists. Each palm was then cleansed with the fist of the other. Then, the hands were held with the fingertips pointing downwards. Water was poured on them from the wrists downwards so that ran off at the fingertips. Now, mind you, this was not a matter of hygiene. It was a matter of ritual. It had to be done even if a person’s hands were spotless. You see, to them it was needed in order to please God. To fail to do it exactly this way was to sin. (from SermonCentral.com, adapted from a message contributed by: Tim Zingale)
So when the Pharisees and Scribes saw Jesus’ disciples not wash their hands before they sat down to eat, they went berserk. They even accused Jesus. Their accusation was, “You are not teaching your disciples to honor God like our ancestors did.” The implication was, “So You must not be from God either.”
Jesus told them, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites in Scripture: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is pointless, because their teachings are rules made by humans.’ ” (Mark 7:6-7)
Let’s put that in a modern context: You see, the Pharisees and Scribes were driving the wrong way freeway – and they thought that Jesus and the disciples were wrong. They were worried about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s while people around them perished. In short, they spent their time majoring in the minors and forcing other people to do the same. And the real tragedy is that they did this all in the name of serving the Living God. But it was a complete perversion of God’s law.