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LSB Proper 16B Sermon – Mark 7:1-13

August 31, 2015

August 23, 2015 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.”

The confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees might seem a little arcane in our day. You heard about the point of conflict, as Mark describes it: “Now when the Pharisees gathered to [Jesus], with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of His disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed…. And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” What was the issue at hand? Some of the followers of Jesus weren’t keeping certain rituals that had been instituted by the Pharisees as a way of maintaining and signifying holiness.

The matter of holiness receives a lot of stress in the Scriptures. When that term “holiness” is used, we often think about being without blemish or sin. This though makes the term synonymous with being perfect or righteous. That isn’t a bad way of thinking. But it isn’t completely what the term signifies in the Scriptures. Holiness is more about belonging to the LORD, being set apart and different than what is common, what doesn’t belong to Him. That is why Israel was called a holy nation—they were a people who belonged to the LORD. That is why the Temple was called holy—it was a building that belonged to the LORD. That is why the Sabbath was called holy—it was a day that belonged to the LORD and His work.

When the Pharisees confront Jesus about His disciples not conducting the ritual washing, they accuse them of being unholy. Remember the question they ask: “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” “Defiled” means to be common, to be the opposite of holy. The Pharisees are charging Jesus’ disciples with not being holy. And that is really saying that Jesus was not teaching them to maintain their holiness—in essence that Jesus was teaching them to be pagan or like the Gentiles. That is a serious accusation, indeed!

But Jesus’ response shows that this accusation of unholiness is not rooted in something that belonged to the LORD or came from Him: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Jesus points out that the standard of holiness is not designed by man. No, it is established by the LORD. So when the Pharisees were calling His disciples “defiled,” they weren’t doing so by applying the divine statements that came from the LORD. Instead, they were taking a human rule and saying that it was the touchstone for determining whether something is holy or not.

Now that concept shouldn’t be too hard to grasp. It really should makes sense to all: the Holy One determines what is holy. In fact, you have come to know that quite well. When the LORD speaks about what is good or what is evil, the matter is settled. So it is with the Ten Commandments or the other statements of Law that the LORD declares. It is true when the LORD establishes the order of things in the world. You heard a reference to that in the Epistle Reading when the order established for marriage was described. At the heart of that discussion was the statement quoted by Paul: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” That was part of the divine establishment of marriage: that divine order determines what is holy in this matter, not the traditions of men.

Jesus points out the fault of having traditions of men supersede what the LORD has declared. He does so by talking about the Corban tradition that the Pharisees and scribes had instituted: “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” Jesus notes that the Corban tradition led people to set things apart for the LORD. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing to do! But when that Corban designation was invoked by people, they no longer were allowed to use the earthly things that the LORD had allowed them to own to carry out His commandments to honor and care for parents. And that poses a major problem.

This discussion about holiness actually is important for our day. Recall again what the Epistle Reading mentioned about Jesus’ work: “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Jesus has made you holy. It has been done through His atoning death and resurrection. His work was applied to you in Holy Baptism, as you received “the washing of water with the word.” That was no human tradition, but a divine act that set you apart. Jesus instituted that act which took you from being common and defiled to being set apart and holy.

You are holy. You belong to the LORD. But holiness isn’t maintained by following human traditions. Nor is it maintained by simply executing outward acts, not even those which the LORD instituted. The LORD pointed that out through Isaiah’s message to Israel which Jesus quoted to the Pharisees: “This people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men….” What is needed is having hearts that belong to the LORD and fully trust in Him.

Jesus’ teaching that you heard in the Gospel Reading should keep the Church today from two different errors, two different sins. The first error is modern modern hypocrisy—being people who just do outward acts of piety without having trust in Jesus. The second error is modern Pharisaism—developing human traditions and declaring they are the standard by which righteousness is determined.

Hypocrisy is hazardous. There are actions that the LORD has instituted for His people to do. You are called to gather together to be hearers of the Scriptures, to participate in the Sacraments. That’s part of being one of Jesus’ disciples. The LORD works through them in His people and bestows His good gifts of life and salvation. The acts have His divine promises attached to them. But the acts do not benefit those who simply go through the externals. They aren’t items to check off the list, marking when you have completed them. What the LORD promises helps only those who trust what He says. That trust is part of having your heart near to Him, not far away from Him. This modern hypocrisy must be avoided.

Pharisaism is pernicious. It happens when the Church starts to institute practices and saying that they define “true Christianity.” That can be something like this: “A true Christian goes on frequent mission trips. A true Christian doesn’t smoke, drink, or wear fancy clothes or jewelry. A true Christian wouldn’t permit their children to attend public schools or colleges. A true Christian would only worship in this way.” Some of these ideas have a partial root in concepts of the LORD’s Law. But notice that they aren’t actually the provisions found in the LORD’s commandments. No matter if the Church would declare failure to keep them a sin, they go beyond what the LORD established as His standard of righteousness. Even worse, they can become criteria that fellow Christians use to compare each other, much like the Pharisees were doing to Jesus’ disciples. This modern Pharisaism must be avoided.

The LORD desires to have people set apart for Himself. That has been accomplished through Jesus’ work—the sanctifying that took place as He gave Himself up for the Church. You belong to that group, as you have been washed with water and the word. The LORD continues to maintain that holiness in you, as you receive His forgiveness, life, and salvation through hearing and trusting the Gospel that proclaims Jesus’ redemptive work. That is what takes place as you hear the preaching about Jesus and believe that it was done for you and as you trust Jesus’ words of promise in the Sacraments.

The LORD also establishes a holy ethos for His people. That includes what you do in your daily lives. You are not free to do anything that you please. No, the LORD’s Law governs all aspects of your life. The LORD has established a morality. That is what you are called and led to follow. His Law is exhaustive and gives more than enough to do. You need not invent your own piety. And no one should dare to come up with their own traditions and say that it is what the LORD has instituted.

Remember that holiness is about being connected to the LORD. You have been redeemed and purchased by Him, so that you are His people—that makes you holy. The LORD’s work has made that so, not your actions. What the LORD establishes in His Law is connected to Him—that makes those commandments holy. Human traditions don’t have this connection. But when you follow the LORD’s  commandments, you are carrying out the holy life. Both of these are what the LORD desires for you. Let that be what is found among us here at Calvary, so that we place our trust in the LORD’s redemptive work that is done for us—having our hearts close to Him—and be governed by His commandments—having them alone be the standard that we follow.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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