The scene depicted in Mark chapter 7 below is a very familiar scene throughout the gospels of the New Testament. We find Jesus and a small cadre of apprentice-ministers moving about the seaside towns and villages near Galilee, occasionally stopping for food and rest. As is often the case, they are quickly happened upon by Pharisees and religious lawyers. Some sort of question arises. And with that, comes a particular air of condescension and no real appetite for making peace. It is an ancient rivalry: the advance of righteousness against the ruthless ritual of the religious spirit!
“Now the Pharisees and certain experts in the law who had come from Jerusalem were now gathered around him. For they had witnessed some of Jesus’ disciples eating their bread with unwashed hands. (Pharisees and religious Jews do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing, holding fast to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.) And they hold fast to many other traditions.” (see Mk 7:1-4)
“And He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’ You, having no regard for (are indifferent toward) the commands of God, you hold fast to the traditions of men. You neatly reject (or set aside) the commandment of God in order to set up your own tradition. You even nullify (or render powerless) the word of God by your tradition that you continue to hand down. And you do many such things.” (see Mk 7:6-13)
In this example from Mark, Jesus and his disciples are pretentiously questioned and inevitably accused as threatening to ceremonial tradition—that is, sharing the evening meal without having performed their ritual washing. The occasion is isolating. The religious proprietor is pacing around like a schoolyard monitor squashing even a hint of dissent. Though not altogether surprising, Jesus counters most effective by referring his opposition to a most formidable arbitrator in the prophet Isaiah—“these people… their hearts are far from me”. Suddenly, the most pious expressions of worship are waning thin. Their case is quickly sunk.
Now to be clear, Jesus is not dismissing either the place or practicality of washing before eating, beit ritual washing or any other. Rather, he is dismissing the destructive notion that our finest religious efforts (as in adhering to the traditions of the elders) secure any righteousness with God. They do not! To comply with what is considered good Christian conduct is no doubt honorable and charitable. It may even be practical and beneficial. But it does not establish the righteousness of God in the hearts of man. Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness in God; and we must surrender fully to him. “For God made Christ, who himself never did sin, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Cor 5:21).
But aside from all of this, Jesus is dismissing the unrepentant arrogance that so undershoots the purpose and power of God’s word to advance, heal, and ultimately liberate. This is what Christ is up against; the religious spirit! It’s what the whole church of God in every age is up against. And sadly, in some corners of the camp, the enemy has already infiltrated. It’s hard to admit. But some of us are bound up in tangles of routine legalism. Some of us are defensive over traditional forms being tweaked. Some of us are overtly critical of a restless generation simply evading our practiced piety. And some have long since shored up on an island of bitterness, anchored fast by fear and doubt.
The religious spirit is a spirit of justification and self-righteousness. At its core, it is incredibly arrogant and carelessly unrepentant. In a word, it is the product of a hard-heart. No matter the mood, the motive, the behavior, or the consequence, the religious spirit consistently and confidently justifies it’s presence. And nowhere is its presence more apparent and agitating than in the path of God’s advancing kingdom. Wherever the kingdom of heaven drives a stake, wherever the authority of Christ takes new territory, sure to follow is the religious spirit, cleverly disguised in virtuous defense and righteous accusation. Even the benefit of peering in on the Scribe and Pharisee of early Christianity has done nothing to spare the church of today from the same routine rituals of self-justification and self-righteousness, of literally nullifying the rescue of God by the power of the stiff-necked will.
In three different ways in the passage above Jesus warns that the instruction of God, the direction, the command, the word of God has place. And that that place must not be misplaced. The word of God is the seed to all life itself. To render it something less, something that must be first altered or split or in some way form-fitted to our own whims and will is every bit as fatal as if the seed was never allowed soil to begin. All of the sun in the world can do nothing. Righteousness is a miracle of God from first to last, and that miracle comes to life in the repentant heart.