Mark 7:5, 9 (ESV)
5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
The encounter here between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel is interesting. Mark points out to us in the first verses that the religious leaders had developed many rituals that were based, not on the word of God, but on their traditions. One such tradition had to do with a type of ceremonial washing before meals.
Many would here try to talk about the details of the washings. I’m not so concerned about how they washed or whether or not such washing was effective for health. What I find interesting is that the religious leaders found a practice to be helpful. However, instead of simply implementing that practice into their own lives as a helpful tool for personal use, they developed that practice into a rule to which they would hold others.
Later, in his response to the religious of his day, Jesus made it quite clear that these men were elevating the tradition of their elders above the word of God itself. And Jesus has no tolerance for such a thing. He does not affirm the practices that the scribes and Pharisees put in place. This is not because washing was not OK. Rather, the reason that Jesus was opposed to their practices was that they developed rules that God did not make, and then they acted against others who did not hold to their rules.
It would be wise for us to recognize that we are very likely to have the tendency of the Pharisees and scribes here. All of us, as we mature, will develop mental lists of things we consider to be right and things which we consider to be wrong. In many instances, these lists of ours will be directly influenced by the word of God and thus binding. For example adultery is always going to be wrong, because God’s word condemns it. Breaking the law—where that law is not in violation of the word of God—is always going to be wrong for us, because God’s word commands that we obey the laws of the land. Gathering with Believers for worship is always going to be a right thing for believers to do, because God’s word commands us not to forsake the practice of assembling together. Such rules are right because they are Scripture.
But, we will also develop rules and practices that are not required by God. For example, the Bible does not command multiple Sunday worship services. Should we then look down on those who come on Sunday morning to a service but who do not make a Sunday evening Bible study? The Bible forbids drunkenness. Should we then forbid the drinking of alcohol in any form? The Bible forbids adultery. Should we then not permit men to speak with women who are not their spouses?
How about a simple discussion of modesty? We all know that women (and men) should not dress in sexually provocative ways, ways that might cause lust in others. Does this then give us, as believers, the right to expect all other believers to agree with us on what is and is not modest? Unfortunately, this will not be possible. Clearly, God did not intend it to be possible, or he would have made a clear standard for hem lines and neck lines. It seems that God intends us to be wise, loving, and careful without developing a standard to which we hold others.
Of course, in that last paragraph, I am not saying that a family should not make standards that they follow as a household. A dad has every right to tell his children what they are allowed to wear. But, the dad will be in violation of biblical principle if he declares his standard to be the demand of God’s word if that demand is not actually present in the word of God.
As Larry Osborne declares, it is very easy for us to accidentally become Pharisees. We look at the rules God has given us, we find them to be less clear than we want, and we try to help God out. But we cannot help God here. God’s word is perfect. God’s standards are perfect. The freedoms God has given us are perfect. And we must not pretend that God’s law says something it does not say.
Instead, we need to be gracious and wise. Yes, we can determine what we will and will not do. Some Christians will decide never to drink alcohol. Some will decide that drinking in moderation is OK. Some Christian women will wear clothes that never expose their legs above the knees. Others will choose not to make skirt length a law while still being careful not to present themselves in a way that would lead someone to stumble. Some Christians will choose to live in the smallest homes they can handle in order to have more funds to give to missions. Other Christians will live in larger homes and use those as tools for the glory of God in showing hospitality. In all these cases, people will choose to honor God in obedience to his commands. At the same time, we need the wisdom not to make our solution to hard-to-define rules be that we develop a standard for ourselves and then demand that all good people everywhere agree with us.
Lord, I pray for wisdom here. I want to obey your commands. I also want to develop wise standards for myself and my family where your word is less clear. Help me to do so, but to also be gracious toward those whose standards do not match my own. Help me to be gracious, but never to accept sin as OK. God, only you and your Spirit living in me can give me what I need here. I trust you for the wisdom I will need.