Gospel of Mark 7: 1-2, 5-8 (NIV)
1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean”, that is, unwashed.
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Though Jesus’ reply was prompted by the question asked by the Pharisees and teachers of the law it is just as relevant to us today.
We note first that, throughout the Gospels, Jesus affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). He regarded these as words from God, as the word of God. According to Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures are foundational to the way God’s chosen people should live.
Recall the Sermon on the Mount. He asserted, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5: 17).”
In Mark 7: 6-7, Jesus quoted the Prophet Isaiah (29: 13):
13 The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
He did so in the full realisation that those listening knew not only the verse he quoted but also the context in which it appears. The Pharisees and teachers of the law also knew the verse that followed (29: 14):
14 “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”
So when Jesus said to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7: 8), it was a sharp criticism of them (of “the wisdom of the wise”). It could be just as sharp a criticism of us today.
Whether knowingly or unconsciously, are we inclined to hold on to the traditions of men? This question refers not just to our communal worship. Consider the cultural norms of day-to-day living: the ways we are expected by society to “conform”, in our schools and universities, in board rooms and on construction sites and not least of all in our Federal and State Parliaments. These norms that shape attitudes, behaviour, speech and conduct may be procedural rules; they may also be set by “public expectations” or by external influences such as an insatiable press gallery.
But, “‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” (Isaiah 55: 8).
By both word and example, Jesus has required of us that we regularly read Scripture, that we immerse ourselves in God’s word and that we allow ourselves to be shaped by that word rather than by the prevailing culture. We are to exercise wisdom in rejecting in our world that which is not of God, that which represents the “traditions of men”, for to follow those ways is idolatry. We are to honour God not only with our mouths but also with our lives.