Ah, legalism.

We’ve faced this issue before as we’ve worked our way through Mark. We’re facing it today, as we reach chapter 7. And we’ll face it again if we keep going as we have. It’s the sinister old enemy of Jesus; it’s the brainchild of the devil. Oddly enough, it’s perpetuated by the most well-meaning people.

Jesus has been working miracles left and right, proving that he is more than a man. Mark has been threading subtle hints of deity into his account of Jesus’ life. Now, Jesus is about to remind the religious leaders who oppose him that they have no right to claim divine authority, as he has done.

The Pharisees of Galilee have once again called up some teachers of the law from Jerusalem. They’re calling in the big guns to take down Jesus. They soon find a reason to criticize him—he doesn’t seem to care that his disciples never wash their hands before they eat! Now, the religious leaders aren’t concerned about their hygiene, bad as it is. Ceremonial washing is very important to the Pharisees because it’s one of the ways in which the Jews can set themselves apart from the corrupt and godless Gentiles. In the law of Moses, given by God at Sinai, washing was commanded for the priests to ceremonially cleanse themselves from defilement. The Pharisees, zealous to preserve the identity of God’s people, have decided to beef up God’s law a little by adding a few safeguards to it. If everybody washes their hands all the time, then there’s no danger of being defiled. The Pharisees’ motives seem to be pretty good—they want to keep God’s people from being corrupted by the immoral influences of the surrounding culture.

Jesus, however, isn’t a fan. He calls them “hypocrites.” He says that there are two things wrong with people inventing their own moral laws which they expect others to follow. First, when people invent their own rules, they replace God’s law with their own. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 to make his point:

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.

The Pharisees think they’re worshiping God. They think they’re protecting his law by buttressing it with their own. But what they’re really doing is replacing his law with “the commandments of men.” They’re trying to worship God in a way which he has not authorized. In fact, their respect for tradition has mutated into idolatry. By insisting on following man-made moral rules, they have set up man in God’s place.

And that leads Jesus to the second reason why it’s wrong for people to invent their own moral laws. He offers this caustic remark: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He’s telling the Pharisees that not only are they replacing God’s law with their own, they’re also rejecting God’s law outright! Not only are they exalting human tradition, but they’re also trying to dethrone or “de-God” God. Jesus backs his statement with this evidence: the Pharisees allow grown children to ignore their parents’ needs by declaring their own possessions to be Corban, devoted to God. So then they can refuse to provide for their parents, which violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The man-made law nullifies God’s law. Nor is this an isolated incident; Jesus says to them, “Many such things you do.” He could rattle off a whole list of other examples if they’d ask him. Somehow, I have the feeling that they aren’t in the mood to hear more.

As I’ve considered what Jesus said, I’m shocked at how hard he comes down on the Pharisees. He absolutely rips into them. He calls them hypocrites; he beats them over the head with scripture; he pierces them with sarcasm; he accuses them of rejecting God. Jesus loathes what they are teaching—how they are undermining the moral authority of God himself. He spares them no mercy.

So be very afraid. Inside of you and me there is a little legalist, always scheming, always inventing new laws to make us look more righteous and usurp God’s authority. And these laws always seem to be invented for good reasons. The inner legalist might provoke a fundamentalist Christian to declare that drinking alcohol is a sin, or to castigate young women because hemlines of their skirts are above the knee. The inner legalist might provoke a progressive young believer to declare that anyone who doesn’t recycle is immoral or (ironically) to ridicule Christians who won’t drink alcohol. Legalism and the worship of human tradition is a problem for young and old, men and women, believer and unbeliever, across all human traditions and cultures. Deep down, all of us possess a sinful impulse to dethrone God and take his place.

Because Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, he will not stand idly by as people try to destroy it. He is not impressed with your kingdom. He is not impressed with your rules. And he has the authority to put an end to your insurrection. So let’s abandon our attempt to be lawmakers and instead submit with joy to the only one who can save our rebel hearts.

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