8 February 2011

Mark 7:1-13

"This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (v. 6)


Earlier this week we read about heard Jesus comparing his approach to the religious law with that of the scribes and Pharisees. He declared that his intent was to fulfil the law not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). However here we see why the religious leaders were getting so angry with Jesus - he and his disciples were repeatedly breaking both religious tradition and the teaching of the Torah (the Jewish law outlined in the first five books of the Old Testament).

Traditions were probably passed down orally from rabbi to pupil but they had grown increasingly complex, often losing sight of the original law to which they were linked. In this case the requirement for hand washing was linked to the need for priests to wash their hands before eating holy food in the Temple. This was then extended to include washing prior to eating any food, and not just for priests but for all people.

From our 21st-century perspective we would rightly consider washing hands before eating to be a sensible and hygienic act. However that is not what was at issue in this exchange. It was the elaborate ritual that had been developed to which Jesus objected, and he was concerned that this was becoming more important than the law itself. Jesus' interpretation of the law may have been different to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and in some cases he didn't think they were strict enough, but he still believed the law of the Torah had an important role in determining how people should live their lives.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 and suggests that people are much better at talking about the insignificant details of their religious observance, but fail to see the bigger picture about what God really wants from them. How often do we do that within our own church life? It is far too easy to focus all our energy on our committees, traditions, rules and regulations, but spend far too little time listening directly to God and discerning how we should respond.

To Ponder

Many elements of our Christian belief come from tradition developed after the New Testament was written. How important is this compared with what we read in the Bible?

How often have church activities become more important to you than worship, prayer or Bible study? How might you redress the balance both for yourself and your church community?

Many in our Church object to change and want to preserve traditions. Are they always wrong? And what do you think?

Bible notes author

Dr Richard Vautrey

Richard Vautrey is a local preacher and church steward in Leeds, and a former Vice-President of the Methodist Conference. He works as a GP, is an elected member of the BMA Council and is chair of the BMA's GP committee.

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