"Coming Clean - Below the Surface"
October 15, 2006 Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Sin is S-I-N: Sneaky, Incremental, and Noxious. Sneaky - Satan the tempter is an expert at deception and makes sinning look attractive, though it ultimately is destructive. Incremental - once you've sinned a certain way, often you hanker to repeat the offense, except to a somewhat greater extent in order to feel the same 'kick'; thus the sinning has to increase in scale, addictively. And Noxious - hurtful, harmful, unwholesome; before God there is no such thing as an 'innocent' or less-sinful sin. It's all evil, no matter the magnitude, regardless of degree: "the wicked will not stand in the judgment" (Ps 1:5).
Sin comes in two grades, like salt: 'coarse' and 'refined'. The 'coarse' kind is all too obvious and easily makes headlines. A schoolhouse in Pennsylvania is razed because of the recent tragedy where a milk truck driver shot and killed some young Amish girls, interrupted by police before he could carry out evidently evil sexual intentions. A Toronto policeman is charged with possession of pornography following an investigation resulting from an incident of indecent exposure. A former teacher from British Columbia faces a dozen charges of sexual assault following wilderness outings with female teen students. Many of us could cite other cases we know of more locally involving baser instincts that developed into obviously shameful misconduct. What beasts we can be!
But sin also comes in a more 'refined' form. In Mark 7:21-23 Jesus lists a 'dirty dozen' varieties of evil, several of which are more overt in nature: sexual immorality (literally fornications - illicit sex outside marriage), adultery (inside marriage), lewdness (unbridled lust), theft, murder, slander. These are fairly outward sins. But He also mentions several varieties of wickedness that aren't so obvious: evil thoughts, greed, malice, deceit, envy, arrogance, and folly. Yet He doesn't distinguish these (some of which we would call 'white-collar crime') or separate them from the others as in any way less sinful. You can appear quite 'respectable' and not make any headlines but still be a notorious sinner in God's eyes, for He doesn't judge based on the outward appearance, but looks at the heart (1Sam 16:7). Coarse or refined, outward and enacted or inner and contemplated, sin is sin; Jesus lumps them all together saying, "All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean'." (7:23) Because the hearts of people are in a mess, the world can be in a mess.
We might not have thought to include "folly" in the list. "Arrogance" we can understand, for pride sets self on the throne and resists God's sovereignty. But folly? This is not the person who's mentally deficient, but foolish in the Biblical sense. As Psalm 14(1-3) states, "The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."" Folly then is ignoring and rejecting God, perhaps supposing you know better than God does. The Psalmist goes on to list some results of such foolishness: "They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."
Corrupt; vile. The truth about too many of our human actions...the truth about our fallen inner nature. Even those of us whose sins have not made headlines are convicted by conscience that we too have blown it. We need deliverance from sneaky, incremental, noxious sin - but deliverance from where?
To cut through the selfishness and perverseness of our wickedness, God has revealed to us the path of life through the light of His Word. Moses prophesied for God, "Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them." (Lev 18:5) Psalm 119 is a lengthy hymn extolling the excellence of God's law as a trustworthy guide for living; "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." (Ps 119:105)
The basis of Old Testament law is the Ten Commandments. The first four relate to honouring God; the last six, how to have regard for other people. In the latter six commandments we see echoes of many of the items in Jesus' 'dirty dozen' list: "You shall not murder.You shall not commit adultery [Jesus expands this to include fornication and lewdness].You shall not steal.You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor[Jesus warned against deceit and slander].You shall not covet[Jesus mentions greed and envy]..." (Ex 20:13-17)
The Ten Commandments were straightforward enough. But over the centuries the Jews codified all the regulations in the 5 books of the Torah, identifying 613 separate commandments - quite a checklist! The NIV Study Bible notes, "After the Babylonian captivity, the Jewish rabbis began to make meticulous rules and regulations governing the daily life of the people.These were interpretations and applications of the law of Moses, handed down from generation to generation.In Jesus' day this 'tradition of the elders' was in oral form.It was not until about AD200 that it was put into writing in the Mishnah."
It didn't stop there. From the 3rd century to 5th century, Jewish scholars developed commentary on the Mishnah, called the Gemara. Together with the Mishnah this is called the Talmud; there are both Palestinian and Babylonian versions. Are you starting to get a feeling for how interpretation was added to scripture, then commentary was added to the interpretation? Suddenly to be a 'religious' person you were expected to know a lot of writings and sayings derived by people outside the canon of Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture. These interpretations began to curtail and twist the original intent of the Biblical teaching. For example, before the disciples could eat, according to tradition they would have had to "have gone down to the side of the lake, washed their hands thoroughly, 'rubbing the fist of one hand in the hollow of the other, then placed the ten finger-tips together, holding the hands up, so that any surplus water might flow down to the elbow, and thence to the ground.'" David McKenna notes "Hand-washing had become so precisely defined that the amount of water, the posture of the hands, and even the direction of the flowing water were all strictly regulated." Sheesh!
As a result of these human additions, God's Torah which was meant to be helpful instruction became encased and buried in endless regulations which forgot or even manipulated the original intent. In vv9-13 Jesus shows how the "Corban" custom prevented (or exempted) a son from supporting his own parents as he ought. This was but a means of circumventing (getting around) the clear responsibility of children toward their parents as taught by the Law. The teachers of the law held that the Corban oath was binding, even when uttered rashly. How legalistic and self-serving!
Jesus cuts to the chase when criticized by the Inquisition team sent down from Jerusalem. Rather than defend the ridiculous hand-washing stipulations, He points the Pharisees and scribes back to the Word of God as the only important point of reference. Vv7-8, "'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." V9 accuses them of "setting aside" God's commands in order to keep their traditions. In v13 He says, "You nullify the word of God [literally, invalidate, cancel out, make of no effect God's word] by your tradition that you have handed down."
From Eden on down, God has revealed His will to people, teaching us what is good, showing us what we need to do to be in relationship with Him. Adam, Noah, Moses and the prophets all understood the significance of God's message. But from Eden on down we have been dismissing and rejecting God's word, thinking, "We know better". We have willingly fallen for the tempter's lie that eating the forbidden fruit will cause our eyes to be opened so that we will know good and evil just like God (Gen 3:5). But there is no human authority that can improve on the path God has shown, through the prophets, apostles, and most clearly through His Son. The papacy may have claimed infallibility, and in our own time we have seen church councils bowing to culture try to re-write Biblical prohibitions, but these have no authority like that of Scripture. All they do is nullify God's word, editing out what doesn't suit their taste.
As we saw Psalm 14(1) put it, "Only fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God.'" Consequently - "they are corrupt, their deeds are VILE..." That's a strong word; the dictionary defines "Vile" as "worthless, morally base, depraved, shameful..." The Hebrew root means "abominable, to be loathed, abhorred, detested." Exactly like the cesspool of wickedness Jesus says is found in hearts that make a person unclean. Uggh!
If God's commands are meant to show us the best way, but we've rejected that - if we've been sucked in by this fallen human tendency to put our authority over Scripture and re-interpret it to suit our own piddly standards - how can we be made clean and pure again?
Jesus identifies the chief problem of his critics in v6 to be hypocrisy; He actually says, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites..." The word originates from the Greek theatre, meaning to play a part: in other words, you're different underneath than you're letting on on the surface. The Lord protested through Isaiah, "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." "Their worship is a farce..."(NLT)
God sees right through hypocrisy; He's not tricked by appearance. He wants more than our lipservice; He's after the devotion of our hearts. "For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him." (2Ch 16:9a)
Hypocrites place emphasis on the externals; God's attention though is on the core of our being. John notes that Jesus "knew what was in a man" (Jn 2:25). Proverbs 20(27) says, "The lamp of the LORD searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being."
Jesus is very blunt in vv 21 on about the depraved condition of our human hearts. God has shown us in the truth of His word what He wants from us, what we're capable of as He created us. But as sinners we begin to see, compared to the standards in His word and fleshed-out in Jesus' perfection, how far short we've fallen in our motives and our behaviour. Human institutions are powerless to save or regenerate us. Paul was a faultless Pharisee, zealous to keep the Jewish law completely, yet he came up empty. He writes in Php 3(4-6) about the credits to his 'externals' he once could boast of: "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." Sounds like he had it all together, right?
But religiosity didn't satisfy Paul, and it certainly didn't impress God. Encountering Jesus one day, Paul discovered it wasn't about keeping endless rules, eating certain foods, or outward legalism. What God's interested in is living relationship, from the inside out. Vv7-10a: "But whatever was to my profit [all those Brownie badges] I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ...I want to know Christ..."
By the new covenant, God would write his laws on the hearts of those who believe in Him(Jer 31:33). This could only be accomplished by the death of our "old man" and a new start. And simultaneously the debt of the weight of our sin had to be dealt with; only a perfect sacrifice could offset our moral repugnance.
Interestingly, it's Jesus' putting His finger on the failure of the Jewish religious system - flat-out exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the law - it's His judgment of them that triggers the events leading to Jesus' own arrest, conviction, and death. The sacrificial death by which He would wrap up the era of law and bring in a new plan by which believers are crucified and raised to new life with Him. New life in His Holy Spirit, the only solution to re-make our fallen hearts. So here in Mark 7 we have a significant shifting of the tide: the old ways, cobbled together over the centuries by the rabbis, is shown to be hopelessly flawed. But at the very same time, the religious establishment is given the evidence it needs to begin pursuing Jesus to the once-for-all death that would release His benefits to believers who yield their foolishness and accept His Word.
David McKenna comments, "There is no turning back. Jesus has undercut the foundational premises upon which Pharisaical religion is built and cast its adherents into the ranks of sinners who reject the law of God. No response from the Pharisees is recorded by Mark. One can guess, however, that the 'truth squad' returned to Jerusalem in triumph, carrying with them the documentary evidence that Jesus defied the scribal tradition and the oral law. 'Death' is their unanimous recommendation...The heart has been made the centre for a defilement that no outward ritual can cleanse. Jesus has signed His death warrant, but at the same time, positioned Himself for the redemptive act which only He can fulfill."
Charles Wesley wrote the well-known hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, on May 21 1738 - his first birthday! (That is, the first anniversary of his conversion) One verse in it declares the cleansing power of Christ to wash us and make us acceptable to God, no matter how far we have fallen into sin:
"He breaks the power of canceled sin; / He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean; / His blood availed for me."
Maybe you're hearing this but have never actually committed your life to Jesus. Perhaps you've secretly thought the things you have done in your life have been too sinful, you're so ashamed you think you're unforgivable. Whatever your fault, there is room at the cross for you. Jesus didn't come to save righteous people; He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:21). I was talking with an older man at the hospital. After praying with him about his condition, I was about to leave him the usual pamphlet which has prayers suited to patients' needs on the inside. He protested a bit, saying he hadn't gone to church all his life, and it was probably too late to start now. I reminded him that Jesus welcomed the thief who was expiring on a cross, condemned because of murder or some other major crime. I assured him, "There's no sin too big for the cross to handle.God made it that way."
Or perhaps you've been a follower of Jesus for some time but some nagging sinful habit plagues you. Is there hope of being set free? What if you heard there was hope for a category of person who's practically enslaved to sin - would that encourage you?
Rachele Lamont is a Salvation Army captain whose passion is to help prostitutes find their lives once again. The statistics are that each year around 2500 women are sent to Canada as prostitutes from offshore, and another 2200 are brought in from the U.S. Captain Lamont says, "It's modern slavery: it's not just 1 or 2 people stuck in it, there are thousands." She started ministry to prostitutes in Kelowna BC; with several Christian friends, she brought them hot chocolate and food every Thursday night. She recalls, "The whole point is that we wanted to start building relationships and establish trust; the more we got to know them, the more we were able to talk about Jesus with them...It's like any other avenue of ministry. Unless you are willing to become involved with them personally, to befriend them, to walk with them, then nothing really happens."
She continued her outreach in Toronto then in Saskatchewan. She's well acquainted with the pain and hardship her clientele face. She says, "I guess part of the reason I work with prostitutes is that it breaks my heart. Is it so heart-wrenching to think about women who are beaten and raped and exposed to drugs. If they don't follow orders, it can be incredibly severe." The ministry is having an impact. Over time, Capt Lamont has seen numerous prostitutes accept Jesus, but that may be just the start of the process. She observes, "A lot of these girls come with such heavy baggage that when they accept Jesus there are huge issues to deal with." Some barriers faced by prostitutes wanting to leave the trade are pimps, addictions, lack of money and job skills. Rachele notes, "Some of these girls have changed, but that change has taken years and years. They've had to go through a lot of healing to get to that place."
Through faithful caring servants like Captain Lamont, aided by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is still washing the unclean and giving them access to a loving Heavenly Father. That holds true both for a prostitute on a street corner or the most religious hypocrite. Trust God's Word, draw near to Him in your heart with faith, and He will take away all your sin-burden and make you new again - from the inside out. Let's pray.