A sermon on Mark 7:1-23 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 28 October 2018

Hypocrisy means play acting, performing a role. It’s what actors do in a play. They pretend to be someone else. They wear a mask. But it isn’t who they really are. Play acting is fine if that’s your job. If you’re an entertainer and you’re in a play, you are meant to perform your role. But play acting it is dangerous and unhealthy and deceitful to do in real life.

The opposite of hypocrisy is integrity. Integrity is about every part of life being part of one single whole. It’s about saying what we mean. It’s about doing what we promise. It’s about being the same on the outside as we are on the inside. So that our values and beliefs, inspire all our actions. So that our heart and our mind guide our hands and our feet. What we do and the choices we make.

In his gospel, God unmasks us as sinners. We aren’t the decent, God-pleasing folk we thought we were. We are rebels. At best our hearts are divided. We want to please God, but we also want to please ourselves. At worst we only want to please ourselves. So the gospel summons us to repent and to believe. To change. To admit our sin and rebellion. To cling to Christ in faith and hope. And to receive his Spirit of love and service.

God unmasks us in order to transform us. To change the way we think and believe so that we change our actions and decisions. God’s purpose is to change us from the inside out. To renew us on the inside in order to change who we are on the outside. Because there is no room in his church for play actors.

In Mark chapter 7 we witness a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about washing hands. And we see that scribes have come from Jerusalem. Scribes are men who know how to read and write. And in Jesus’ culture they devoted their life to reading and understanding God’s law, to preserving the traditions of their forefathers, and to applying them in an ever changing world. It’s an admirable goal. They wanted to please God.  They wanted to do what God wants. They wanted to help people to know what to do in confusing situations. They wanted to help them solve their ethical dilemmas.

For example, Jesus’ people, the Jews, didn’t eat pork or ham. God’s law in the Old Testament was very clear about that. A good Jew wouldn’t even consider it. But what a good Jew might do is to sell the grain from his farm to a merchant in the market who might sell the grain on to someone else who travelled a long way away and sold it to a pig farmer. The good Jew sells his produce in good faith and with a clear conscience, but in his pocket he’s got money that very possibly has come from some pig eating foreigner. A good Jew might never know where the money came from or who he’s been meeting in the market place. For all he knows, he has bits of pig under every single one of his fingernails. And the proceeds of his sale might go on to help some unholy, God defying foreigner. Or it might not. He has no idea. So what is a good Jew to do so that he can eat his dinner with a clean conscience before the holy God? How can he keep God’s holy law that is crystal clear in a world that is ever changing and confusing?

That’s the kind of problem a scribe is trained to solve. The scribe’s answer is that a good Jew must wash. Scrupulously and thoroughly. From the fingertips to the elbows. Every time he comes home and every time he sits down to eat. Otherwise there is no knowing what he is putting into his mouth. Otherwise there is no knowing how many of God’s holy laws he is breaking. He must wash. No excuses. No exceptions.

This is not about hygiene. I wash my hands about every five minutes. There are so many screens on our gadgets these days – phones, computers, ATMs, the self-checkout aisle in the supermarket – and people put their grubby fingers all over them. I just look at a screen or a door knob or a railing up a flight of stairs, I have to wash my hands. I feel like washing my hands right now.

But the compulsion to wash in Jesus’ day wasn’t about dirty fingers. It wasn’t about personal hygiene. It was about pleasing God. It was about keeping his law. It was about God’s chosen people being who God had set them apart to be. It was about being pure and holy and undefiled so that God would bless their nation and fulfil all his promises to Israel.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with unclean hands?” The Pharisees weren’t worried that the disciples would get sick. They were concerned that Jesus didn’t care that they were offending God and bringing a curse on the whole nation. Obviously, Jesus didn’t insist on his disciples’ doing as the scribes said they should. But as their teacher, the Pharisees held him responsible for his students’ behaviour.

Jesus said, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you. As it is written, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

In reply, Jesus accused them of hypocrisy, of play acting. He accused them of giving only lip service to God. Going through the motions of worship, saying the right things, doing the right things, without putting their hearts into it. They were washing their hands, making them pure, but their hearts were full of wickedness. An impurity, a filth, that no amount of soap and water could wash away.

We give lip service to God, when we dress up neat for church, but our lives are a mess of gossip and slander. We give lip service to God, when we can recite the Lord’s Prayer, but can’t forgive our brother. We give lip service to God, when we give to God only so that he will return the favour.

The only cure for lip service is the gospel. God’s good news that opens our eyes to see that our hearts are far from God, that sets before us the cross of Christ, whose blood is the only thing that can wash our hearts clean, that proclaims the hope of Christ’s resurrection, that we too can be raised up out of our dead works to a new and better life. By faith in that good news, we receive the Holy Spirit of God, who alone has the power to set us free. To renew our minds and to make us holy.

In the gospel we see that the God who gave his all for us is worth our all for him. Only then, when our hearts are right, because God in Christ has made them right, when our hearts are close to him, because God by his Spirit has brought us close, then and only then can we praise him as we should. Putting our lips where are hearts are. It’s not about washing our hands. It’s not about wearing our Sunday best. It’s not about putting on a good show of religion. It’s about being who we really are, God’s forgiven children. Made holy to be holy. Changed and made new from the inside out.

Jesus said, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions. Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother.” But you say that if a man says to his parents, “Whatever help you might have received from me is a gift devoted to God,” then you no longer let him do anything for his parents. And so your tradition nullifies the word of God.”

Jesus is talking about the 5th commandment. That’s a pretty big deal. Honour your father and your mother. To honour our parents is to give them more than just lip service, it is more than just to obey them when we are children and then send them a card on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. It includes using our resources to support them when they are too old to work. We care for those who cared for us.

But the scribes said that if a man vows to give his money to God’s temple, he can’t change his mind later if he has to use it to help his parents. They argued that since God is more important than any human beings, giving money to his temple is more important than giving it one’s parents. To make a promise to God and then go against it, in their opinion is breaking a holy vow. It is blasphemy.

Jesus argued, however, that supporting our parents is commanded by God, whereas donating money to the temple is purely voluntary. Half the people making those donations are probably only doing it to impress their friends and the other half are doing it because they think God needs is and expects it. But human reason and religious motivations don’t negate the clear command of God. Honour your father and your mother. And no sacrifice, no offering, no dedication, can make neglecting your parents right. Only if a parent has forfeited their right to our obedience can we overturn God’s law. A promise to make a donation that ends up hurting a man’s own parents, is not a promise that anyone should force another person to keep.

Jesus said to the crowd,  “Nothing outside a man can make him unclean. Rather it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.”

By “unclean”, Jesus doesn’t mean dirty or unhygienic. Jesus means defiled. Unholy. We defile ourselves when we bring upon ourselves a greater weight of judgment than before.

Later his disciples asked him what he meant. Jesus said, “Food can’t make anyone unclean. It doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach and through his intestines and then out again.”

Jesus’ point is that food can’t change who we really are for better or for worse. Yes, too much can be unhealthy, but it cannot affect your standing before God. Whether you eat pizza and chocolate or fast every second day, the food goes in and goes out leaving you behind, the same person you ever were before God. Improving your diet can shed a few kilos, but it can’t shed any sin from your life’s record. Neglecting the five food groups can shorten your life, but it can’t shorten your eternal life. Skinny – good, fat – bad, is the message of the world. I suppose it is drummed into us so that we make healthy choices and prolong our lives. But it isn’t the gospel that can save our lives.

Rather, Jesus said, it is what comes out of us that defiles us. That makes us unholy before the holy God. From within us, from our own hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. These are the things that offend our creator. These are the things that show who we really are. Our own choices, our own actions, the words of our own lips that define us, that set the course for our life’s destiny.

If as Paul says, “The wages of sin is death,” then Jesus is reminding us here that we dig our own graves, and no amount of play acting or lip service to God, no rule keeping or ritual observing, can dig us out, but rather digs us deeper. As the old hymn says,

“Not the labour of my hands can fulfill Thy law’s demands; Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; you must save, and you alone.”

It doesn’t matter how well you read the Bible or play the organ. It doesn’t matter how well you dress. It doesn’t matter how many rosters you are on or how much money you have raised for the community. It doesn’t matter how shiny your shoes are or how on top of things you can pretend to be for an hour on Sunday. Nothing that makes us feel better can make us actually better. Because nothing can hide or wash away our guilt before God but the blood of his own Son. No sacrifice can atone but the one Christ himself offered.

The only cure for hypocrisy is the gospel. Repent and believe the good news. Let its truth unmask who you really are and who you were really made to be. Cling to Christ in faith and hope. Receive the Spirit of God into your lives. For he is the only power in heaven or on earth that can change you from the inside out