Week of November 6

Clearing the Fog of Tradition

Read: Job 22; Mark 7-8
“And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’”
Mark 7:14-15, ESV


Spiritual health teaches me that serious followers of Christ pay careful attention to their hearts. The Pharisees were “heart sick,” and Christ’s lessons on spiritual wellness only served to anger them. Have you ever been angered by a truth that a pastor preached? Or a Bible teacher taught? If so, then you know how emotion-laden this challenge was for the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7. Jesus is God and knows exactly what is needed to hear and heed His will. He does not hesitate to point out that their “malady” would not be healed with a topical cure, but required internal soul medicine instead.
Jesus is gathering a new community, and it is necessary to strip away the old to prepare for the new. If we read thoughtfully today’s passages, we will see that simple principles of spiritual health were recognizable in Job’s era, were codified into the Mosaic Law, were binding in Jesus’ day, and Christians are obliged to honor them today. Even though we may feel no need for a moral examination today, we need to schedule an appointment with the Great Physician.

Understanding the Bible Context

Zeroing in on the moral controversy
We must see what moral error Jesus was challenging, or we will not be able to apply the passage to our own lives. He engages the Pharisees not on the fine points of the Old Testament law but upon their traditions that had grown up around it. I once saw a lovely home that had become overgrown with shrubs and vines. The vegetation overwhelmed the house and hindered its proper use. Mark explains that the Pharisaic traditions about washing hands and utensils a certain way before dining were like vines that were choking the life out of people (7:3-4).
Their “tradition” was the scribal interpretation of the written Mosaic law. This tradition “was later (ca. A.D. 220) collected and reduced to writing in the Mishna” (NAC). This conflict was not about hygiene but ritual purity (NAC). These requirements originally were obligations for priests, but it appears by this time that the Pharisees had begun to place them on the backs of all of the people too (Exodus 30:17-21; 40:12; Mark 7:3). Without oversimplifying the point, sometimes we take good things and begin to use them in a wrong way. So, you are thinking, how on earth does this help me with my Christian life today? Great question!
Hitting the moral nail squarely on the head!
We learn some lessons quickly while others take much time. Issues like this teaching moment in Mark would come to the forefront as the Early Church was being established and countless numbers of Gentiles (i.e., unholy, and unclean) were receiving Christ. Mark has included three narratives on Gentile ministry in chapter 7. These were significant because it would later become imperative not to hinder the pure Gospel advance (cf. Acts 15:1-11).
You will recall our recent readings in the Book of Acts where Peter had been summoned to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10). He had a vision where the Lord let down from heaven all sorts of “four-footed animals and crawling creatures” to eat. He refused to eat because he had never consumed what was unholy or unclean (Acts 10:10-16). God told him not to consider unholy what he had cleansed. Enter Cornelius, the Gentile!

So, what was the problem? The problem was that he dined and enjoyed fellowship with that man and his family who became brothers and sisters in Christ, BUT later withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles based on their being considered unclean by strict Jews (Galatians 2:11-14).
The moral point for our lives
I must state that we too often take the writings and comments of a respected Christian leader and begin to be influenced more by them than the Scriptures they are meant to illuminate! We claim to be “Calvinists” or “Armenians”—or insert the name of your favorite teacher/writer. Jesus calls us to our senses and reminds us that we are to look to the innermost parts of our hearts when considering moral cleanliness and holiness.

Applying the Passage to Our Lives

I will introduce another metaphor here, which is fog. Sometimes our sincere traditions obscure the message that we should be conveying to others. I recall preaching at a church that had multiple services in the morning. One early service required a coat and tie, the following service was open collar and dress slacks, and the final service was jeans and T-shirts! I had a Mark 7 moment when I was shedding my coat and tie for the second service. I thought, “Hey, Larry, if you remove your tie, will your message be more meaningful to folks?” I responded silently, “Nah!”
God confirmed my innermost thoughts when a recently widowed and severely grieving woman stepped to my side amid the loud contemporary music and machine-generated fog for a word of comfort. She did not care in the least whether I was observing church tradition on proper worship attire. She was searching for Christ in the dense fog of her sorrow. Thankfully, Christ made clear the soul need that we both had that day.
Take a moment to ponder Job’s “friend” Eliphaz, who lays before the poor sufferer some universally recognized outward symptoms of serious soul sickness. Notice that oppressing the helpless, denying water to the thirsty, not giving bread to the hungry, and neglecting the widow and the orphan are constant moral obligations throughout the Scriptures! (22:6-9; cf. Isaiah 61; Luke 4:13; James 1:27). These sins demonstrate that a lack of “justice” has been a core moral concept from time immemorial, but true justice is a key ingredient in what we will term righteous living. In Ashlock speak, “Jesus says to fill the empty cups of people, not just wash and hand them back to use.” There is more to being “spiritually healthy” (right and just; Matthew 5:6) than merely adhering to our own moral traditions and inclinations (cf. Mark 7:3-4).

Reflecting Upon and Discussing the Passage

1. All of us have “traditions” that whisper loudly in our ears when we encounter those who have yet to receive Christ. Write down some of yours! Ask the Lord to help you to distinguish between tradition and Scripture. Ask the Spirit to disable your hurtful traditions and to enable an effective witness.
2. Churches too often become weighed down with traditions that served originally as steps to deeper fellowship with a Holy God, but have now become ropes that bind and hurt those who are open to receiving Christ. Take time to do a bit of “Fall cleaning” and eliminate those beliefs that are more man-made than God-mandated. 

3. For Families: Share the truth of this passage with your children by playing a simple game with them. Think of 5-6 small commands and write them on slips of paper and place them in envelopes, one for each of your children. Then ask your children to stand by the door and wait to come into the room to give you a hug. Have another adult guard the door and give each child their envelope in turn and, one at a time, ask your children to follow the directions in the envelope before they can see you.

Your child may have to turn around five times, go to the kitchen and open the oven door, hop ten times, stand by the table and recite the names of your family members, or any number of other commands written there. When all of the instructions on the slips of paper have been performed, then the child may come and be welcomed and give you a hug.

When all of your children have had a chance to come to you, then gather them together and ask how they felt, having to do all of those other things before they could be with you? Share with them that this is the way we sometimes treat folks who want to know Jesus. We make them do things that don't really matter before they can come to Jesus and trust Him. Our job, says Mark in the Bible, is to clear the way for everyone to come straight to Jesus, who welcomes all people with open arms.

May your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock