Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13)

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.

Jesus rejects his hometown (Mark 6:1–6)

Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to spend time with college students, challenging them and encouraging them to follow Jesus Christ with their whole heart and become an active part of a local church. It’s exciting to see students with a teachable spirit begin to grow and bear fruit for the Lord, often for the first time in their lives. One of the challenges, though, is when a growing freshman returns home for the first summer. There, she finds out that “you can’t go home again,” as the proverb says. The student discovers that she has been transformed over the last eight months, while her family and friends back home have stayed the same. Her hometown church, if she has one, is the same as it always was. Before leaving, she fit in well; this was her home. Now, she doesn’t fit in anymore, and she knows that this place can never again be her home.

When Jesus returns to his hometown after a spectacular ministry of preaching and performing miracles, he encounters a similar problem. His homecoming is a letdown for anyone who expects the townspeople to welcome him as their favorite son.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus arrives at his hometown (Nazareth, though Mark tellingly refuses to name it). On the Sabbath, he preaches at the local synagogue, a place that must have seemed familiar to him; this synagogue was basically the small-town church he grew up in. When he preaches, the people of his hometown gather to listen to the boy from their town who has “made it big.” Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus says to them (for that story, read Luke’s account). Whatever it is, the people are “astonished.” They mutter to one another, “Where did this man get these things?” It certainly wasn’t from them! His “wisdom” and “mighty works” are unfamiliar to them. He was one of them when he was growing up as a little boy, but now he has outgrown their traditional, legalistic Judaism.

This doesn’t sit well with the people of Jesus’ hometown. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The rest of Jesus’ family is still stuck in the old mindset, the old legalism of the Pharisees. Like the rest of the town, they think Jesus is out of his mind (Mark 3:21)! They still fit in, but Jesus doesn’t anymore. The truth is, he never did; it’s only now that the townspeople are realizing it. As far as they’re concerned, Jesus has betrayed the small-town values which make them who they are. In their minds, he has turned his back on them. They are deeply offended.

Jesus responds to their attitude with a proverb of sorts: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” The irony is obvious. Like the proverbial prophet, Jesus is popular wherever he goes, but when he returns to the people who should honor him the most, he is rejected. You’d think his hometown and his family would be proud of him. They should be shoe-ins for “insider” status. Instead, they are upset at him because, instead of preserving their tradition, he has been announcing that it will be swept away with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Over the last two chapters, Jesus has shut down a raging storm, driven an army of demons out of a man, healed a diseased and hopeless woman, and raised a little girl from the dead. He certainly isn’t lacking for power. Yet Mark writes that he can’t do any mighty work in his hometown, other than healing a handful of sick people. Instead, he marvels “because of their unbelief.” Mark has been recording how people have “marveled” or been “amazed” because of his miracles. Even the people of his hometown were “astonished” at his teaching. Now it is Jesus who marvels, because their unbelief is so irrational. It is a supernatural unbelief. Jesus knows that it would be pointless to perform a great miracle here; the people’s hearts are too hard. They will only harden their hearts further, in denial of the fact that he is greater than they think he is. They are too intent on clinging to their old way of life, the old kingdom that will soon pass away.

What’s really sad is that people haven’t changed too much in the last 2,000 years. Jesus still confronts us today, offering a new way of life, a new kingdom. But most people reject him because they don’t want to change. They’re comfortable with the way they’ve been living. And you know what the scary part is? The people who are the most resistant to Jesus, who have built up a supernatural resistance, are the ones sitting in church pews on Sunday morning. It’s people who think they have known Jesus their whole lives and are familiar with all the stories. But they’re stuck in a legalistic way of thinking, clinging to human tradition rather than the Word of God. It is no surprise that Jesus is doing no mighty work there. Please, if you’ve never considered this before, do it now. Are you and your church clinging to human tradition? Are you clinging to the mindset of the culture around you—whether the culture as it is now or the culture as it was fifty years ago? That kingdom will not last for long; it cannot be your home.

Jesus departs from his hometown, teaching among other villages in Galilee, where people will listen to him. His mission must go on; the good news of God’s kingdom must be preached. Nazareth is left behind.