The Clash Over the Law

Today's Bible reading: Mark 7:1-12

The conflict that the Gospels feature is Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees.  In contrast to the Sadducees - who were the noble priestly class attached to the temple - the Pharisees were basically a lay group - a non-priestly group - which claimed to have the full and correct interpretation of the law of God.  In their view, the Kingdom comes with the performance of human actions in obedience to the law.  For them, Jesus’ message that God’s rule over humanity is established through the free offer of forgiveness meant both a challenge to the holy law … and a challenge to their own authority as teachers.  Just a Jesus flips over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, Jesus flips over the tables of the status quo – and many did not appreciate that!  Again: revolution, not peace!

Just last week I mentioned that the Pharisees’ biggest concern was about observing all the rules of the law: especially regarding ritual cleanliness.  The “tradition of the elders,” which they passed on - and intensified to meet new circumstances - contained detailed rules on what could and could not be eaten … what could or could not be touched.  They accused Jesus and His disciples of not observing even the most basic of rules in this area.

Jesus answer was not a defense, but attack.  His accusers were the people condemned by Isaiah 29:13: those who made human rules about clean and unclean, but who failed to realize and live the truth that cleanness begins with a new heart.  They should be praying with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God … and renew a right spirit within me." 

Second, these man-made regulations had the fatal and sadly ironic result of actually helping people avoid having to keep the actual commandment itself.  For example, the commitment to honor one’s parents - the Fourth Commandment – could be neatly bypassed in a show of outward devotion by a son or daughter who dedicated something to God while leaving his or her parents in need.  But as Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan graphically shows us, service to God means service to others –  and this service cannot be regulated by laws.

Now to be clear here: Jesus did not do away with the distinction between clean and unclean.  But what He did do was teach a radical distinction … one that didn’t deal with food and other external things, but with the heart and what is internal.  The real uncleanness is the filth and sin found within the human heart.

Prayer: Lord, cleanse us each day from our sins.  We thank You that Jesus was made a fragrant, sacrificial offering for us.  Amen