He answered them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.’”
“Wash your hands, Roger.” That phrase was part of a soap commercial when I was a kid. It was also a refrain that could be heard around my house, usually when I came home for dinner after playing with neighborhood friends where bodily cleanliness was not on my list of priorities.
Personal hygiene is a good thing and something we’ve tried to instill in our children. Traditions can also be a good thing, providing a sense of community, security, and identity among families and cultures, through shared experiences and familiar routines and practices.
It’s interesting, then, that in our selected passage, we find Jesus defending His disciples’ eating with unwashed hands (the issue at stake wasn’t hygiene but ritual cleanness) and attacking certain traditions. Why? What can we learn from Jesus’ teaching and His interactions with the Pharisees and scribes?
I’d like to suggest the following contrasts that will hopefully get to the heart of what Jesus is instructing. It will give us principles to live by today. In many ways, Jesus is juxtaposing the ways of religion with living by true righteousness.
Human Traditions vs. God’s Commands
Jesus seems to be particularly concerned about any tradition that undermines the Word of God and causes people to emphasize the wrong thing. He gave one example of a human tradition that allows people to disregard God’s command to honor father and mother. Also, an emphasis on ritual cleanliness (washing hands, pots, etc.) and dietary laws can obscure the greater need to have a heart that’s pure and clean.
Hypocrisy vs. Authenticity
Hypocrisy isn’t the failures of an honest believer struggling with temptation, but seeking repentance and transformation. Hypocrisy is pretending to be something you’re not. We become hypocrites when we: 1) pay more attention to appearance or reputation than to character, 2) carefully follow certain religious practices while allowing our hearts to remain far away from God, and 3) emphasize our virtues and others’ sins.
External Purity vs. Internal Righteousness
External conformity to certain rules and regulations can be difficult to acquire and learn, but once these become routine, they’re relatively simple to follow. If only true religion and righteousness were this easy. Ritual cleanness (washing hands, dishes, etc.) and dietary laws (foods that are allowed or prohibited) point to a greater reality—lives and hearts that are pure and clean.
The sad truth, however, is that I can be an outwardly observant religious person (attending church, staying away from “sinful” places, etc.) and yet my heart can be filled with hatred, covetousness, jealousy, lust, and self-centeredness.
Following Jesus is harder than religion because it requires following God’s commands whenever they conflict with human practices or traditions. It means being authentic rather than hypocritical. It involves the lifelong and daily hard work of developing a righteousness of the heart rather than mere outward appearance.
Following Jesus is also easier because once we surrender our lives completely to Him, we discover our true purpose and identity, and the power (through His Spirit) to live a life pleasing to God. We quit trying to live life in our own strength but learn to rest in Him.
“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
 Bruce B. Barton, Mark, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1994), 199.
- What beliefs or practices do you hold today that have more to do with traditions that have been passed on to you, rather than what the Bible teaches?
- If your spouse and kids were being honest, would they say you are the same person at home that you are at church? What about your co-worker evaluating your workplace conduct? How about friends at school?
- Jesus lists several things that defile a person that come from within the heart. Look at Mark 7:20-23 and ask the Lord to reveal to you which sins need to be confessed so that your heart can be changed. If you think none of these apply to you, reflect on whether you are being authentic or hypocritical.