Sep 2, 2018

“Vain Worship” 9-2-18

Mark 7:1-8, 21-23
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2018

In Matthew and Mark, the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water is followed by an argument between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees about the tradition of the elders.  This tradition served as a guide to keeping the law.  It aimed at removing ambiguity so that one would not cross the line, as it were, in grey areas and end up transgressing.  Ostensibly then, the tradition was well-intentioned.  Jesus, of course, saw it very differently, describing it as a burden that the teachers of the law placed on the backs of the people, without lifting a finger to help. 

Mark chapter 7 is not the first time Jesus and his disciples have come up against the tradition of the elders.  When Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, the teachers of the law protested that this was Sabbath breaking.  When Jesus’ disciples shelled grain in their hands and ate it while walking through the fields on the Sabbath, the Pharisees objected that this too was a violation of the Sabbath law.  All of these objections would have arisen from the traditions of the elders.  What is the line between restful activity and work?  Are there permissible exceptions to resting on the Sabbath?  The tradition of the elders spelled it all out in detail.

In Mark chapter 7, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who have been observing the behavior of Jesus disciples, ask Jesus why some of his disciples ate with unclean—that is unwashed—hands, thereby disregarding the tradition of the elders.  Jesus replies with a stinging criticism of the tradition, calling it vain worship.  In the portion we skipped over, Jesus goes on to accuse them of using the tradition to circumvent the law to their own advantage.   He then returns to the issue of defilement and shows how the tradition obscured the real human situation and the true function of the law.

I’m mindful that in a few moments the elders and I will go out during the offering and wash our hands before breaking the communion bread.  We don’t want to needlessly pass on any germs to you as we share the elements.  The scribes and Pharisees, I suspect, would have approved of our handwashing, but for reasons of ritual, as opposed to microbial, cleanness.   The word for unclean is the Greek word koinos.  Now koinos just means common. The New Testament and the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, are written in a dialect of Greek called the koine. It’s called the koine because everyone spoke it.  It takes on the connotation of “unclean” in 2nd temple Judaism because when you go out into the world and touch things with your hands, you indirectly touch, if not everyone, a good swath of the general public.  Let's say you pick up a tomato in the marketplace and squeeze it.  You have no way of knowing who else may have touched that tomato.  Perhaps someone who touched a dead body touched that tomato.  Perhaps a housewife who touched some unclean food earlier in the day touched that tomato.  In this way, you came into contact with something that defiles.   So, a ritual washing of your hands was always sound practice, in the eyes of the elders. 

Now, in Leviticus, one does not find this logic of indirect, unwitting defilement by extension pursued with rigor.  Leviticus does not say that if you touch a dead body, and then touch a doorknob, that someone else who comes by and touches the doorknob is defiled.  But uncleanness is about stuff, and you can see how the logic could kick in.

Now why was this issue of uncleanness so important and why did Jesus respond in the way he did?  Why does he call the tradition of the elders “vain worship?”  Well, on one level, a ritual handwashing in itself was a religious observance of sorts.  Meal times are worship times.  Many Christians today have the custom of prayer and scripture reading before or after a meal.  It may not be a full-blown church service, but it has long been called family worship.  Jesus’ reference to vain worship would certainly apply to a ritual handwashing before eating.  However, Jesus intent is much broader.   A person who was unclean could not approach the altar of the Lord to offer sacrifices and participate in the great worship festivals of the people.  Thus, to be unclean was a serious matter.  Even though it was only consequential on those specific occasions, those occasions set the bar, as it were, for the Pharisees.  One should always live in a condition of readiness to draw near to God in the sanctuary.

Jesus’ concern was that these human traditions had completely distorted the nature of worship.  His citing of Isaiah 29:13 makes this abundantly clear.  He offers an abbreviated quote from a textual form that is closer to what we find in the Greek OT than in the form preserved in our Bibles.  In our Bibles, Isa. 29:13 begins, “Because this people draw near with their mouths, and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me...”  Jesus does not quote the "drawing near phrase,” but Isaiah 29:13 is clearly about drawing near to the Lord.  It is about worship, structured by the word of God.  The people know how to do it.  They are well-schooled in the practices of worship.  But, their hearts are not in it. Their hearts are far from God.  In the text of Isaiah that Jesus quotes, this is expressly judged to be vain or empty or pointless worship.

It is vain worship because it is a human invention, a system taught by men, rather than by God.  Only God can provide and reveal the way to draw near to him.  It is vain worship because it becomes a human achievement rather than a gift of God.  The NRSV captures this in its translation of Isaiah 29:13: “Their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” 

Jesus’ most searing criticism of the tradition of the elders focused on the distortion of the human situation.  The practical effect of the tradition, whatever the elders might protest to the contrary, was to locate the most pressing obstacles to godliness out in the world, and often in created things.  Jesus shows that this turned truth on its head.  The most persistent, ineradicable source of uncleanness and defilement is in our own hearts.  Here is where the rot starts.  Here is corruption that ritual handwashing could not touch.  Here is where baptism and new birth by the Spirit is the only hope.

Psalm 24, which asks about the character of acceptable worshipers, describes them this way: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” These are not “ritually” clean hands, but guilt-free hands, a manifestation of what is inside.  The sin-offerings of Old Testament worship were God’s gracious provision for those who longed to have clean hands and a pure heart, but were convicted by the law that they fell short.  Vain worship pushes this grace into the background and suggests, however subtly, that there is something other than the mediation of Christ can bring us into fellowship with God. 

Isaiah said, “This people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  The writer to the Hebrews says, “Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith.”  Where are we to draw near?  Here, to the table of the Lord.    Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906