“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.” — Mark 7:7
Most parents require their children to wash their hands before mealtime. In many instances, this appears to create great hardship for the children, if their reluctance to obey is anything to go by. But basic hygiene demands that the ritual be fulfilled before food is handled. It’s a matter of hygiene—and nothing more.
In Jesus’ day, what had started out as basic hygiene had developed into something quite different. Simple hand washing before eating or after returning home from the market had developed into an elaborate ceremony with purported spiritual significance. Instead of simply eradicating unpleasant dirt when they followed “the usual Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating” (Mark 7:2), the religious Jews believed that they were ensuring a religious purity before God by their action. By their ablutions on returning home from market, they believed they were underlining their divinely-approved separation from the contaminating world.
As time went by, these “ancient traditions” (7:3) took on such importance that a person’s spiritual standing was evaluated by his adherence to the ritual—or lack thereof. In some instances, a person who failed to go through the ritual, for any reason whatever, would be regarded as ceremonially unclean and therefore be banned from worship.
This was what lay behind the question asked by the Jerusalem leaders when they traveled to confront Jesus: “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old customs? For they eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony” (7:5). Jesus replied with surprising vehemence. “You hypocrites! Isaiah was prophesying about you when he said, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings’” (7:6-7).
Jesus was exposing the age-old problem of religious ritual devoid of spiritual reality. The charge of hypocrisy was well-founded. In those days, a hypocrite was literally an actor who would convey an emotion by holding a mask over his face. Religious externalism does just that: it portrays on the outside that which may not be present on the inside. That was the problem—the Jerusalem religious leaders lacked a real spirituality. They were faking it!
Adherence to religious rituals such as baptism or communion is to be encouraged, provided that the external act represents an inner reality. But if the familiar act has degenerated into an empty symbol, that which claims to be a spiritual experience may be nothing more than a gross distortion. What outwardly purports to demonstrate a deep spirituality may be nothing more than a blatant lie. Religious ritual is intended to portray spiritual reality, not to become a substitute for it.
So here’s a healthy exercise. Check on the religious rituals in which you have participated in the past or in which you still participate, explore their hidden significance, and see if the significance is as real in your heart as the participation is part of your life.
For further study: Mark 7:1-13
Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.