Mark 7:1-13 – Unmasking Hypocrisy

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One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”

Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you. ’In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” (NLT)

As I read this Gospel text for today, I tried to imagine what emotions Jesus might have experienced when confronted about the lack of attention to tradition from his disciples concerning ritual hand washings – maybe frustration, anger, sadness, exasperation, disappointment, irritation, aggravation, or discouragement. Perhaps Christ felt all those emotions. Whatever Jesus was feeling at the time, I can easily see him taking a deep breath and exhaling a great big *sigh* over the religious leaders’ hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a disconnect between the values we espouse and our behavior. When there is incongruity between what we say is important and how we really live, this is being two-faced and duplicitous. The men who came to see Jesus were plain old insincere hacks who practiced religious quackery. And Jesus saw right through their fake pretension of righteousness.

First off, this narrative is not a dig on rituals themselves but on using ritual to leverage an appearance of religious superiority over others. This type of motivation for engaging ritual ignores the ethical and moral intention of those rituals.

Sometimes folks can get so doggone wrapped up in how faith is represented that they lose sight of the faith itself.

Hypocrisy has to do with our motives – not so much what we do but why we do it. Rituals are good. Why we do them or not, or how we go about doing them, gets at the heart of our objectives for engaging religious practices. Are they truly a worship offering to God, or are they merely mechanisms for keeping up appearances of holiness?

Hypocrisy is acting a part which is not truly us. It is to live from the false self through the attempt of providing an idealized perfect person to the public instead of embracing the true self and realizing our common humanity with one another in genuine devotion to God and service to others. Religious hypocrisy is particularly insidious because it uses what is sacred for selfish purposes. It damages the credibility of the religion, creates idolatry, and covers hate with a veneer of pretentious piety.

The hypocrite is one who is a bundle of disparate parts in massive need of integration to a whole and real self. The cost to facing this is vulnerably exposing oneself as flawed, imperfect, even ugly. Many persons have no willingness to be viewed by others as such, so they maintain their play-acting and continue to seek the attention and accolades as a model religious person.

We all must come to grips with the reality that God cares a whole lot about why we do what we do.

When the forms of faith become tools of oppression and crushing burdens upon others backs, then those forms have supplanted the faith itself. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and from the heart the hands and feet move. Whenever we care more about being and appearing right than getting it right and becoming better, then we have a heart problem. The heart of the issue is the heart itself. Clean up the heart, and everything else follows – not the other way around.

The probity of today’s Gospel lesson is that we might misinterpret what is important to God. We may be playing the hypocrite yet have the belief we are genuine. The capacity for our hearts to enlarge with love is in direct relation to an awareness of the hidden motives buried within those hearts. Evil intentions and motivations are what separate us from God – not our race, class, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, behavior, rituals, or anything else on the outside.

 

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“You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.” –Jesus (Matthew 7:3-5)

If we find ourselves being nit-picky of others, this is usually a clue that the unconscious self is trying to protect us from facing the pain of our own sins by projecting and focusing on another’s supposed missteps with tradition or ritual.

Fortunately, Jesus came to this earth full of grace and truth. Christ sometimes, maybe oftentimes, set aside niceness and decorum to go for the heart. In shining light on the motives behind the deeds of people, some repented and received the good news of the kingdom of God; and, others resisted to maintain their illusion of control and superiority. None could ride the fence with Jesus around. You either loved him or hated him.

The beauty of grace is that when we squarely and uncompromisingly face our sins and let go of things we consider so important, and turn to God with authenticity, we are welcome at his Table.

Most holy and merciful Father, we acknowledge and confess before you our sinful nature, prone to evil and slow to do good, and all our shortcomings, offenses, and malevolent motives. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Christ’s way of grace and truth, in wasting your gifts of compassion and justice, and in forgetting your love. O Lord have mercy on us. We are ashamed and sorry for all the ways we have displeased you. Teach us to hate our errors; cleanse us from our secret faults; and forgive us our sins; for the sake of your dear Son, our Lord. Most holy and loving God help us to live in your light and to walk in your ways according to the commandment of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in the enabling of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 12:33-37

            This is what Jesus said:  “Your words show what is in your hearts.  Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts.”  Our speech is the outward demonstration of what is really within the heart.  There really isn’t any room to believe that a constant stream of gossip, backbiting, slander, and negative comments is anything but coming from a heart of evil.  A person who speaks such words is not a loving, gracious, merciful person.  But the person who continually encourages, uplifts, and seeks to be positive reflects a deep heart of love for others.
 
            Therefore, simply altering our speech around certain persons is not the point and does no good.  That kind of behavior only breeds hypocrisy and is two-faced, a la the Pharisees.  Instead, the place to aim is the heart from where the speech arises.  And the only way to truly renovate a heart is to sub-contract the project to Jesus.
 
            The people we typically hang-out with the most are the people that most influence our attitudes and our speech.  So, if we spend copious amounts of time with Jesus it is inevitable that our hearts will become more like his and, thus, our words will be in alignment with the words and ways of Christ.  For, it is God who replaces a hard heart of stone with a soft heart of flesh.  Be rooted in Christ and the fruit of the tree will demonstrate it.
 

 

            Sovereign God, you hear every careless word spoken and see each harmful conversation as it takes place.  Our guilt is very great!  Forgive my egregious sin against you through the things I have said, and the things I have left unsaid.  Please let the benevolent and generous Christ rule my heart through the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Ezekiel 11:1-25

            Ezekiel is one of those Old Testament prophets that thoroughly uncovered the true state of the heart.  Through a series of visions given to Ezekiel for the Israelite exiles, one of the main messages of the prophet is that God would give them a new heart.  “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them.  I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them.  And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
 
            The human heart is fallen, often dark with evil shadows of pride and selfishness.  At best, the heart apart from God contains a miniscule vestige of its ancient Creator’s image; at worst, the heart is desperately wicked and on a highway to hell.  The issue, then, is whether the heart only needs to be modified, or whether we need a complete heart transplant.  The prophet makes it quite clear which option must be done.
 
            Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross so that we could be transformed into new people.  He did not come to tweek a few things in your life and improve it – he came to change and transform your heart.  If all we needed was a motivational speaker who would inspire our hearts to live better and reach our personal goals, then we would have not needed an incarnation, a crucifixion, a resurrection, and ascension.  Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior who replaces our hard stubborn hearts with a soft new heart of flesh.  We need transformation of life, not life modification.
 

 

            Awesome God, you have graciously and surgically removed my old heart bound for destruction and replaced it with a new heart oriented toward living and loving like the Lord Jesus.  May my heart always be inclined to the doing of your will, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Luke 6:43-45

            Jesus worked the crowds of people who followed him by letting them know what true religion is:  “For no good tree is known by its own fruit.  For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
 
            The greatest test of a person’s inward heart is their outward speech.  Our words betray what is truly in our hearts.  Superficial and surface conversations evidence a shallow relationship with Jesus.  Slander, gossip, and backbiting reflect a heart that is angry, bitter, and bigoted.  Conversely, a stream of encouraging and helpful words flow out of a heart close to Jesus.  Saying what people need to hear, rather than blurting-out what I want to say, comes from a heart which has been carefully tilled and cultivated in the soil of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.
 
            Thus, just trying to change our speech itself will not do.  Instead, we must examine the heart and urgently attend to its state.  A loose tongue can only change by altering how we deal with the heart.  So, it is vital and necessary to regularly fill our inner selves with the truth and grace of God’s Holy Word; to praise and worship Jesus from a heart of devotion; to allow God to judge another’s heart; and, to monitor our heart’s condition.  For the spiritual fruit of loving words can only come from a heart rooted in Christ’s love.
 

 

            Heavenly Father, the words of your Son Jesus always came from a heart firmly established in relationship with you.  As I spend time with you may your Holy Spirit transform my heart to be more like Christ so that you are glorified and others are encouraged.  Amen.