Summary: If you want to keep your relationship with Christ fresh and vital, don't focus on tradition and clean hands; instead, focus on scripture and a clean heart.
Alan Kraft, in his book, Good News for Those Trying Harder, shares a story about a time when his wife borrowed his car and heard a CD he had loaded in the sound system. The song touched her. When she asked him about it, he was able to recite the lyrics, but had never thought much about their significance. So the next time he was in his car, he listened to the song, as though for the first time, and found himself weeping. He had heard the song dozens of times before, and was even familiar with the lyrics, but had never really heard the music. (Ken Moberg, “Book Review,” Forest Lakes District Update, September 2009)
Alan’s experience, I think, is not unlike the experience of many people, especially those of us who have been Christians for a while. If we’re not careful, we get to the point where we don’t hear the music of the Gospel anymore. Oh, we can recite the lyrics, but it’s message ceases to touch our hearts.
The question is: How can we keep that from happening to us? How can we keep the Christian life from becoming stale and lifeless in our own lives? Or if it has already happened, how can we learn to hear the music again? How can we recover the life and joy of our relationship with Christ again?
Mark 7:1-5 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” (NIV)
Now, for the Pharisees, washing hands was not a matter of personal hygiene; it was a matter of personal holiness. They had an elaborate washing ritual, which involved pouring an eggshell and a half of water over the finger-tips of the hand held upwards until the water ran down the wrists. The palm was then cleansed with the fist of the other. Then with the fingertips pointing down, they ran water over the wrist until it ran off at the fingertips. Then the whole procedure was repeated with the other hand.
Now, this was especially important after a trip to the marketplace, because there they might have touched something an “unclean” Gentile might have touched; or worse, they might have touched an “unclean” Gentile himself. You see, their hand-washing rituals were designed to exclude people as well as elevate themselves in their own eyes. It’s as if they were saying, “I’m better than all those ‘dirty’ people out there, and I must wash myself of them.”
That’s what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’ day, and sometimes we do the same thing today. Whenever we define our own spirituality in terms of what we do, what clothes we wear, what music we listen to, what services we attend, what money we give, what duties we perform, or any other outward ritual, we’re doing just what the Pharisees did here. We’re in essence saying, “I’m better than those ‘dirty’ people out there,” and we in essence exclude them from our fellowship.
Now, there is nothing wrong with most of the things we do in and of themselves. It’s only when we use those things to define who is spiritual and who is not that we get into trouble. When we focus on tradition and ritual to define personal holiness, we exclude others who don’t share our traditions, and it makes Jesus angry. Look at how he responds to the Pharisees.
Mark 7:6-8 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (NIV)
Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy. They are disobeying God’s commands even while they hang on to their own traditions.
It reminds me of the story of a priest who was returning to his rectory after dark one evening. He was attacked by a robber who pulled a gun on him and demanded, “Your money or your life!”