Read This Page in My Language
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
What makes a person good or bad? I remember sitting on the other side of a thick windowpane talking to a man on the phone who was soon going to be deported. I knew this man quite well. He was a husband, a father—he was a Christian. But he had some past issues that continued to follow him, and he now understood the bitter truth that behavior has consequences. What he a good person or a bad person?
I also remember having a conversation with the mayor in the town that I lived? Was a he a good person? Because many people in the town thought he was bad.
Or I think about some of my closest friends while growing up who did not believe in Jesus. Were they good people? They didn’t go to church, but I played with them every day after school and on weekends.
We live in a society that is quickly becoming divided into two groups: those who are good and those who are bad. But if you ask either group, both will point the finger at the other and say that they are the bad ones. It might be easy for us to point our fingers at groups such as the Taliban and say, “They are bad”. But what about the clergy? How many people of our country would point their fingers at the clergy and say, “They also are bad”?
If there was ever a group that tried to be good it was the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were somewhat akin to the Orthodox Jews of today, who unlike the majority of their Jewish brothers and sisters, take the laws of Moses seriously. And because of that, the Pharisees thought they were good.
Now a person could argue that it is good to keep the laws of Moses. We certainly want to keep the Ten Commandments, don’t we? And the Pharisees were also keen on keeping the traditions of their elders. We hear about one such tradition in verses 3 and 4, namely, the washing of hands and other eating utensils before eating. What’s wrong with that?
On the other hand, the Pharisees looked down on Jesus and his disciples because they were eating bread with hands that they hadn’t washed, at least not ceremonially. We might say, “Well, a person ought to wash their hands before they eat.” But it wasn’t hygiene that the Pharisees were concerned with. It was ceremony. The disciples weren’t eating with “dirty” hands. It’s that they didn’t go through with the human tradition of ceremonially cleansing their hands from the “dirty” gentiles and other rank and file people they may have come into contact with during the day.
So, the Pharisees also had a standard of good and bad. And they were placing Jesus and his disciples into the latter category. Which brings up the age-old question: who defines what is “good”? Do the republicans of our day and age? Or do the democrats? Do the citizens? Or do the clergy?
Jesus clears up this seemingly unresolvable issue quite cleverly, and he does so, by taking the Pharisees back to Scripture and to God. He says in verses 6-8: “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites as it is written. This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands. Abandoning the command of God you hold on to human tradition.”
Now, there is quite a lot to unpack here.
Jesus takes the Pharisees back to the prophet Isaiah, but he does so in a negative way. He says that the Pharisees were the modern-day hypocrites that God spoke against in Isaiah’s day. In what way? Well, outwardly they talked a good talk, but inwardly their hearts were all wrong. They claimed to be God-fearing men, but inwardly they cared far more about what they themselves said than what God had said.
So, the Pharisees weren’t “good”. That is what Jesus is saying. Moreover, the Pharisees had no right to define the term “good”. Only God has the right to determine what is good, and he does so in his Word. And what Jesus is saying by quoting the prophet Isaiah is that lip service doesn’t cut it. Rather, what God looks at is the inner motivation of the heart.
Now, what exactly is the heart? The heart is the way the Jews talked about the inner-self. It is the seat of one’s emotions, desires, and convictions. We still talk this way today. When we talk about love we reference the heart. We’re not talking about the organ; we’re talking about the inner “you”. Essentially, we’re talking about the soul. Unbelievers don’t agree we have a soul. But your soul is what makes you uniquely you. And your soul is the human part of you that relates to God.
The Pharisees acted like they honored God’s Word. They wore special clothing. They practiced special rituals. They followed the symbolism and tradition of their elders. But the tell-tale sign that their love for God was more outward than inward was the fact that when it came to something God said that they didn’t like, they made up something that they did like and then substituted it in place of what God had said. That’s the meaning of verses 7 and 8: “They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands. Abandoning the command of God, you hold on to human tradition.”
Many “Christians” are like this today. They say: “I don’t need to get married to live like I’m married. All that matters is that I love the person.” That’s not what God says. God says if you want to enjoy the fruits of marriage, you need to get married first.
Or, people say, “I worship God in my own way.” But God says in the Bible, “I determine what constitutes true worship. You can say all you want, ‘I am a good Christian. I put God first. I follow the rules and I am a good person.’ But [says God] I determine what is good. I am the one who gives the correct meaning to every term.”
You see, when the young ruler referred to Jesus as “Good teacher” (Luke 18:18). Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? There is only one who is good”, meaning God. Jesus is God. The man didn’t realize that yet. But the point here is that since God is the only one who is good, he is the only one who can define what “good” means. Hence the question, “What makes a person good or bad?”
Well, this is where Martin Luther got it right. He realized that only God was truly good. Luther had tried to be good. But he was honest enough to admit that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t become good enough in God’s eyes. I mean, he could become good enough in the eyes of society but not in the eyes of God.
Then God opened Luther’s eyes to the central teaching of the Bible: since only God is good, goodness is something that only God can give. In other words, God graciously gives his own goodness to an individual. Isaiah 43:25, “He forgives us our sins, and he remembers our sins no more”. And if God does not remember our sins because they are so thoroughly forgiven, he looks at us and says, “You are good.”
Ah, but you say, “But I’m not good”, and that is true. You by yourself are not good. But Jesus is. And the point of the cross is that he takes your bad and in exchange he gives you his good. In Ezekiel God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you … I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statues and carefully observe my ordinances” (36:26-27).
Now if someone gives you something, how do you receive it? You take it. That’s what faith is. Faith is taking what God offers in his promises and saying, “Now it’s mine. Now this is me. My heart was one way, but now it is another way. It is aligned with the way of Jesus.” And that’s what Jesus does. He changes the heart, because it is the heart that determines whether a person is good or bad.
Jesus explains this to his disciples in verses 20-23: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”
So, God needs to change the heart. And the good news of the Bible is that he does. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you …” Whose heart does he give us? The heart of Jesus.
Why are some people able to forgive even when the person in question doesn’t deserve it? It’s the heart of Jesus. Why are some people willing to reach out to the “sinners” of society even when those “sinners” have disrespected the traditions of our elders and our culture? It is the love of Jesus. Why is it that some people, despite being guilty of evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, greed, envy, slander and the like—why is it that some people feel convicted in their conscience and cry out to God for mercy? It is the heart of Jesus.
The Prayer of the Day says it well: it is God’s never-failing mercy that changes us and preserves us. Listen again to what we prayed earlier: “O Lord, Jesus Christ, preserve the congregation of believers with your never-failing mercy. Help us avoid whatever is harmful or wicked, and guide us in the way that leads to our salvation.”
“Help us avoid whatever is harmful or wicked.” Help us avoid what comes from our heart, and may your heart of forgiving love, O God, guide us in all we do.
You see, when we treat each other according to the way God has treated us, (e.g., he does not treat us as our sins deserve), then we are obeying his primary command which is love. And when you love someone with the love of God—not a self-serving love (that comes from the sinful heart), but with a love that does not treat others as their sins deserve—then people will say you are good. Then God considers you as good because it is the goodness of Jesus that is being lived through you. Again, only he is good. What a shame then it would be to reject him like the Pharisees. Because then all you have is yourself …
All God pleasing obedience must begin in the heart. That is the point of this text. May God continue to change our hearts with his own most gracious heart, so that he and his words become everything to us, and we truly obey him from the heart. Amen.