Mark Lesson 7
1. Hand washing was not a ritual prescribed by the Old Testament for all Israelites. Only the priests were required to wash their hands (and feet) prior to offering sacrifices (Exodus 30:19; 40:31). The practice for all Israel was an invention of scribal tradition. It is difficult to know how widespread this practice was. Mark’s statement that the Pharisees and “all Jews” may be a hyperbole rather than a literal assessment of its practice (there is a similar statement in a book called the Letter of Aristeas, written somewhere between 250 BC and 100AD). The view that all Israelites were part of the priesthood of God (Exodus 19:6) led many Jewish leaders/ teachers to demand all follow this practice. One later rabbinical tradition would maintain that those opposing hand washing were to be put under the ban (devoted to destruction by God : Mishnah ’ eduyoth 5:6; see an example of the use of this term in Joshua 6:17, 21). A whole section of the Mishnah, the codified form of Jewish oral tradition (circa 200 AD), devotes a whole section to the washing of hands. Not being a regulation in the Law certainly demonstrates the nature of the problem: the enforcement of scribal traditions in place of teaching the true nature of the Law. What offended the Pharisees was the rejection of their authority by Jesus’ refusal to concede to their manmade rules. In the tractate Aboth 1:1 (a book in the Mishnah) the oral traditions of the Jewish teachers was traced through the elders and to Joshua and Moses. They claimed their oral laws were secondary to the written Laws, but their actions demonstrated just the opposite. They viewed their oral traditions as equally as authoritative and demanded others conform to them. Jesus would not and thus challenged their whole way of thinking. He threatened their power and position within the community. The Pharisees were the peoples’ people, they were the ones most respected among the Jewish people as leaders and teachers. Their beginnings rested in a desire to put a fence around the Law and help their fellow Israelites adapt it to the changing culture. Jesus showed these Pharisees and scribes (ones from Jerusalem, perhaps of a higher standing than those in Galilee) that their intentions had become corrupted and their view of the Law rested in a conviction that the real authority was in it rather than the Lawgiver. They hid behind the rules and became lost in their arguments about its meaning and lost sight of the Law’s real priorities. This will become evident in their rule concerning the principle of Corban. The “traditions of the elders” are the oral traditions of these Jewish leaders, not the written Law. The traditions are their interpretations.
2. Jesus responded to their request by quoting Isaiah 29:13. In Isaiah 29, the prophet condemned the people of Israel for worshiping him by continuing to offer sacrifices and keeping special days, but failing to approach him with the proper attitude (the fear that moves one to enter into his presence with a sense of awe and humility; see also Isaiah 1:11-15). This fear should have been exhibited in a life consistent with their worship, but it was not. They were idolatrous, abusing the poor and needy and indulging in perverse sexual practices (Isaiah 1:16-17; 21-23; 5:8-23; etc). Jesus used this passage to equate the practices of the Pharisees and the scribes with the unfaithful Israel in Isaiah. There are some differences in Jesus’ quote and the Hebrew of Isaiah. The obvious is at the end, where Jesus made it applicable to those who teach the doctrines of men as authoritative. Those who attempt to obligate others to follow their customs and practices in order to be accepted by them and God reflect an attitude that God rejects as worthy of worshiping him. We must take special care in how we present our opinions and understand the result of holding others accountable to our own manmade traditions.
3. Honoring one’s parents in the Law was not restricted to obeying them as children. It is obvious here that honoring parents extended to even adult children. Older children were expected to bury their parents when they died and this act was held as a primary example of honoring parents in the inter-testamental book Tobit 4:3 (see also Matthew 8:21) . The Pharisees and scribes failed to see the significance of this Law in their promoting the rule they called Corban (see background). Some would devote their goods or money to the temple in order to keep others (parents or other relatives) from having accessing to it. The fact that they made a vow allowed the Pharisees to justify this act by the OT Law condemning the breaking of vows, thus the parents would have no rights to the goods/ money (see Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 21-23. They held the Law governing vows to be greater than the Law concerning honoring one’s parents. They used one Law to break another. But Jesus showed them that their understanding of the Law’s intention was wrong. No vow could be of greater value than honoring one’s parents (note the reminder of the death penalty here). The OT Law was based on a heart filled with love for both God and neighbors and a desire to obey God do good to others. God demanded that all his followers accept the Law as a way of life, not a simply a list of burdensome rules (see Isaiah 43:22-24). The Laws function was to show Israel how to love, making that its primary purpose. The Pharisees and scribes manipulated the Law to express their priorities rather than the Lord’s.
4. Jesus’ discussion of the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees moved to a more private setting and with only his disciples. The Jewish leaders held that ritual defilement and uncleanness came from failure to perform ritual practices and ceremonial washings. True defilement to Jesus was deeper than a failure to perform religious rites. But Jesus drops a bomb on the disciples. Not only does Jesus refuse to accept the Jewish leader’s views, but the OT Law regarding food would be reversed. No longer would foods be considered unclean in the new kingdom. Nothing that a man swallowed physically could make him spiritually unclean. The fact that the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ statement is of no surprise. The OT Law did indicate that what went into someone’s mouth could defile a person (Leviticus 11:8; 41-43 etc.). Jesus, in one statement, made these specific Laws null and void. But imagine 1500 years of teaching among Israel that certain foods did make one unclean. It would be very difficult for the Jews simply to cast these beliefs to the side. The issue of food would plague the church for a long time (see Acts 10:9-16; 11:2-10; 15: 20; 1 Corinthians 8-10; Galatians 2:12 etc.). The nature of defilement was redefined, not inconsistently with the OT view, but reestablishing its intention by refocusing on the nature of true defilement: a bad heart. The Laws regarding food had accomplished their purpose and the new kingdom had no more room for them.
5. Ritual defilement came from perverse living. It stemmed from a heart that was not devoted God. The “heart” was not the seat of emotion that we make it. It was the center of one’s personality. It was considered the seat of spiritual and intellectual reasoning. Defilement was to be based on moral terms, not ceremonial practices. The list of sins is significant. Listed among them are both acts and attitudes, Sexual sins (fornication, adultery and lewdness) are evident. Evil thoughts illustrates the nature of defilement in the heart of the wicked. These are more along the line of evil plans/ machinations. Envy is literally “evil eye” and likely to mean “stingy” (see Deuteronomy 15:9). Slander can be against either one’s fellow man or God (blasphemy in that case). All of these acts/ thoughts grow from within a man. They reveal his true nature, the condition of his heart.
6. The plight of the Pharisees and the scribes could easily become ours if we are not careful. It is unlikely that they intended to become what they became (see Background). They only intended to protect the Law and help their fellow Israelites to understand it in light of the changing culture. Remember: nearly 1500 years had passed since it was written. They became a significant sect among Israel by the first century and the favored among the masses according to Josephus. But their opinions and traditions became equal to Law and those who rejected them were regarded as defiled. Jesus challenged their standing among the people and threatened to take away their authority. In accepting him, they would have to reject their traditions and lose their place in Israelite society. Jesus was a threat to their way of life and their view of truth. We must be careful not emulate them. They allowed the development of traditions to take precedent over the intention of the Law. They failed to see the Lawgiver because they were too busy finding relevance in their keeping of the Law. Traditions are not all bad and some are essential to the Christian life (see 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6), but those that stem from personal opinions cannot be forced on others. Thus, similar issues are:
a. A struggle to contemporize many of the OT Laws for a changing culture. How many different opinions have arisen because of Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians women to wear a veil or about how long a man’s hair can be (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)?
b. A small group of teachers became the “authority” in biblical interpretation. It is crucial today not become a follower of any certain teacher, lest your and my view becomes more centered on their conclusions rather than my attempt to encounter God’s will in scripture. No one should consider themselves or be considered the final authority in interpreting scripture.
c. Traditional beliefs/ opinions became more important than actual Laws: look today at the anger that has risen when patterns of worship are broken in some churches, such as singing during the Lord’s Supper, or those who condemn others for not belonging to the right political party. There are many traditions/ opinions that people possess that they force scripture to agree with their view when in reality it does not.
d. The Pharisees could be either a progressive or traditional church today, they were certainly willing to break/ bend the Law as they saw fit. Many were so narrow minded about their beliefs they became haughty and arrogant. They seemed to lack the most essential element in discovering the truth in God’s word: humility. It matters little how much Greek, Hebrew, Biblical history or literary background you and I are familiar with. Without humility and a willingness to be broken, our search for God’s will within scripture will fail.
e. Many Pharisees attempted to adjust God’s Law to fit their practice instead of allowing the Law to dictate their practice. This principle is very difficult for anyone to avoid. We all approach scripture with biases and assumptions. We must allow scripture to change us rather than change it to fit our belief system. It goes back to letter d above: we must approach scripture with as sense of humility and awe, recognizing that to seek God’s will in it is no small thing. We should never casually read the Bible. It demands change and we must humble ourselves every time we encounter God within it.
f. They seemed to reject Jesus over more than simple religious issues. Jesus’ demands challenged their whole way of life. They would have to admit that many of their teachings were wrong to the masses and they did not seem to want to give up their positions of honor by conceding to this new teacher, Jesus. They were too proud to submit to the new kingdom and too stubborn to admit they wrong.
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