By What Authority?: Mark 7:1-23
In our Christian faith we need a court of appeal to which we can turn when we find ourselves in disagreement with one another. This passage tells of a conflict between two possible sources of authority. On the one hand there is the Word of God (vv. 8,9,13) and on the other hand there are the traditions of men (vv. 3,4,5,7,8,9,13) Traditions often start in a very innocuous or even in a beneficial way. A strong leader passes on to others some practice that has proved to be helpful. yet what begins as a piece of helpful advice becomes hardened into an inviolable rule. The traditions of men – human, optional, subordinate – begin to replace and become more precious than the commandments of God – divine, obligatory supreme. It is nearly always easier to spot other people’s traditions rather than one’s own, but we all have them – Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and especially evangelicals.
1. The traditions of men are useless to God vv.1-7
The traditions that Christ was complaining about were outward and ceremonial. About such things the Pharisees were scrupulous. Whether it was the rules of Anglican liturgy or the laws of evangelical ‘keenness’ they couldn’t be faulted. The test of acceptable worship is not just a matter of the heart and the lip being at one at a church service, but keeping the commandments of God throughout the rest of the week. That is what He requires. Or, to put it another way, most of our worship takes place away from church…at the office, out shopping. waiting at the school gates and at the kitchen sink.
2. The traditions of men are useless to others vv. 8-13.
The Jews had a practice whereby they could withdraw money that ought to have been spent on others by declaring it ‘corban’. This didn’t always mean they gave it for religious purposes, but it relieved them of their obligation to others. Similarly some have made their religious practices an excuse for not helping others. Youngsters have claimed extra time of their devotions or ‘quiet tines’ rather than helping with the washing-up. Or perhaps going to church has been an excuse for not going with the rest of the family to visit elderly grandparents. Or again, others have stayed in missionary service when they were need at home for elderly parents. Religious traditions must never replace the command of God to love and care for others.
3. The Traditions of men are useless to ourselves.
The running motif or melodic line of the passage has been that of cleanness and uncleanness (vv. 2-5, 25, 18-19, 20, 232). It is not outward dirt that defiles but inward depravity. It has been said that all heresy begins with the refusal to take sin seriously. G.K. Chesterton pointed out how extraordinary it was to dispute original sin, which you can see in the street and which is the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved by looking into our own hearts. No amount of religious rites, traditions and ceremonies, nor pious practices can cleanse us from what lies within.
Only one thing can do that. Only the Gospel, the Word He speaks to us (John 15:3) can enable us to sing “Ransomed healed restored, forgiven”. I fear there are going to be many angry people in Hell. They were doing many things for God, but they were not the things He was asking of us, namely that we should believe and obey the Gospel.
Jonathan Fletcher, the author of this exposition, is a minister in the leadership team at Emmanuel, Wimbledon