‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ (Mark 7:6-7)
This is a quote from Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13). Many years separated the time of the prophet Isaiah and the ministry of the Pharisees, but human nature hadn’t changed. There was still a tendency to take a perfectly good practice and make it a rule of righteousness.
The issue at hand (no pun intended) was the observation by the Pharisees that Jesus’ disciples were not washing their hands. Now, we all know it is a good idea to wash our hands before we eat. At least that’s what our mothers told us. And where would the multi-million dollar hand sanitizing business be without good hygiene?
However, there was more to the Pharisees’ criticism than just making sure Jesus’ disciples followed their mothers’ instructions. A holy man in the Jewish culture engaged in certain practices that set him apart from others. Originally, God had commanded purification rites to prepare priests as they offered sacrifices on behalf of His people. But by the time of Jesus, additional practices had been added, which made it very difficult for anyone to carry out a normal life and remain ceremonially clean.
Since Jesus was a spiritual teacher, and some people believed Him to be the Messiah, it only made sense (to the Pharisees) that He should do everything religious people to do. It also followed that His disciples would do the same.
I get where the Pharisees are coming from. Crude behavior is a bad reflection on one’s relationship with God. I am not saying it is a clear indicator there is something wrong with our faith, but if we love God, we are going to honor Him by showing others we know how to act in public. We don’t want to be so offensive people can’t get past our lack of self-discipline to see the Lord.
On the other hand, rules don’t define faith. But the heart does. This is why, when a small child, covered with banana pudding from head to toe reaches his hands toward us in his high chair, we pick him up. Oh, we might clean his hands with a rag first, but we still hold him, even though we know we are going to get some pudding on our clothes.
In the same way, God holds a lot of messy people who haven’t learned how to eat. He knows they will eventually. But what is most important to Him is that their hearts are right: that they love Him.
Rules have their place. And we should make sure we aren’t in the habit of reacting negatively when believers make rules, only to get upset when someone breaks our rules. It is just that every rule has a reason behind it, and unless we grasp the reason, the rule is pretty empty. In fact, without the reason, the rule is meaningless.
Maybe the disciples should have washed their hands, for everyone’s sake. But maybe they were in a hurry and were doing their best to grab some food before the next crowd arrived to hear Jesus. Of course, none of this matters when people are just looking for an excuse to condemn.
Dear God, help me grow in my practice without misplacing my heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.