The Heart of the Matter
“I am a good person.”
Would you say that, in general, you are a good person? That, on average, you do mostly good. You donate to charity. You follow the law. At work, you’re considered a respectable colleague and worker. You are faithful to your partner, at least most of the time. You’re a good person. You do not have a criminal record.
If so, you’re in good company. Many people that we might associate with on a regular basis would say that in general they are not bad people. I think most of us here might even say that. They try hard to be good people. They work their job. Try to provide for their families. Try to be loving. Follow the law. Respect the government. They give to charity, and aid their friends who need their help. In general, a pretty good person.
In today’s story, we see another group of people that were considered good people in their society. They did not mess around with the wrong crowd. They dressed well and appropriately. They kept the law. And not only did they keep the law, but they kept God’s law. But not only did they keep God’s law, they also kept a set of traditions they had written up to prevent themselves from violating any law! They put the will of God and the standards of the community ahead of individual fulfillment. They were the good people of society. These people were called the Pharisees. Respected leaders in their towns, villages and in Jerusalem.
We’ve seen them before in the book of Mark. Last time I preached actually, they interacted with Jesus. And, in the chapter we’re reading today, these good people again go down to see this good teacher named Jesus. Chapter 7, verse 1: “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus…” Just to check up on Jesus. Just to see how He’s doing and what He’s teaching…
And it’s a good thing they did go, because when they get out to where Jesus is, they “saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” Can you believe that? They couldn’t! How dare the disciples eat with unwashed hands. And this is a big deal, because this is not just about washing hands, as in the sense in which we might have grown up, whereby our mother tells us to wash our hands before eating dinner. No… it’s goes deeper. And that’s why Mark gives a little explanation in verses three and four to explain what the issue is all about:
“3 The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.”
The traditions of the Pharisees made one good.
This washing of hands was one of those good traditions that the Pharisees held onto, because the law of God was written to make sure that people would live good, clean lives. So that they would be able to live holy unto Him. And the traditions of the Pharisees were an extra set of laws to hem the law of God in. To make sure that in no way, shape, or form would they by accident go against the law of God, and thus become unclean.
And so one of the things that they taught and would do was to wash their hands before eating every time they came from the marketplace. Because you never knew who or what you might have been in touch with in the bustling marketplace. So the Pharisees would not eat until they had washed their hands to make sure that nothing contaminated would enter their bodies and thus make them unclean. This washing was a ceremonial washing, and it was not just about being unhygenic, but it had to do with being ceremonially pure verse being ceremonially defiled. Everyone – not just the Pharisees – but the text specifies that all the Jews upheld this tradition. Everyone who regarded and respected the law of God washed their hands in order to remain clean before God. Upholding these traditions made you a good person.
Tradition is violated!
And yet then… low and behold… here come the Pharisees to Jesus, and what do they see? Jesus’ disciples – a Jewish teacher’s followers – were eating food with hands that were defiled, unwashed! How dare they – the followers of a teacher such as Jesus – ignore the traditions which every God-fearing Jew knew to follow! How dare they allow themselves to be defiled and unclean!
And as the good, responsible community members that they are the Pharisees address the issue and say to Jesus: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
The Mask of Good Deeds Exposed
To which Jesus turns around and looks at them, and says “Hypocrites!” “Hypocrites!” “Isaiah was right when he profesied about you hyprocrites!”
What was a hypocrite orginally? The term originally came from the theater. In the theaters during this time, they did not enjoy all the technology we have nowadays. So how the plays were performed is through using masks. The actors would hide behind huge masks, and from behind these large masks they would interpret the story. From this background, hypocrit became the word used to describe a person wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not.
Behind the mask.
Why does Jesus say this? How can Jesus call the Pharisees hypocrites? Aren’t they just being good, concerned citizens? Isn’t that what we see? Isn’t that what everyone else saw here?
For those of you who were here with us last time, do you remember how the text ended? Mark 3:6: “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Jesus knew why they were actually there. Not as concerned citizens. That’s what it appeared like on the outside. But the reality was his destruction.That’s what was on the inside.
More than just this incident!
But the problem goes much deeper than this one occurence! So Jesus goes on to explain his outburst: “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” The problem is not just this one moment. The problem is a deeper issue. Why are the Pharisees hypocrites? Because their “good” religious behavior is essentially just a mask over what is going on inside.
Revealing the mess behind the mask
Then Jesus goes on to elaborate. This point is too important to skim over. He wants the Pharisees to understand what He’s getting at. And so He gives an illustration to make the problem more vivid. “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he goes on:
“9 “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
According to the law of God, people were to honor their father and mother. This was so important that it was even written that anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death! Part of honoring your parents is providing for them. Yet, the Pharisees had written a law in their tradition by which an individual could designate their money to be Corban, that is dedicated to God. And since the money was now a gift to God, it could no longer be used for the parents.
At first glance, it would look very good and holy right? “Oh, I gave this money to God. I am sorry. I just had it on my heart that I needed to gift this to God. Therefore I cannot give it to you anymore, mom and dad.”
Yet, at its heart, it is corrupted. Because, while this tradition like many others, sounded good, at the heart, all it was, was a way to circumvent the law of God and give expression to the greed of the heart. Because by devoting the gift to God, a son did not necessarily promise it to the temple nor did he prevent its use for himself…
The Pharisees are unmasked.
It does not say here, but, you can find the same story in Matthew 15, and upon hearing these words of Jesus, the Pharisees are livid. They are offended. They understand. They know what Jesus just did.
I don’t know if you remember that times when you’re a child, and you got caught. I remember. You know that you are in the wrong. You thought you hid it alright, but then your parents call you out and you stand there red-handed? That’s what just happened to the Pharisees. The mask of the Pharisees looked good, but beneath it, a study of the heart reveals their motivations are not as pure and holy as they seem to think or pretend to be! The Pharisees were unmasked.
It’s the heart behind the mask that matters
Thus, Jesus calls out the Pharisees as hypocrites. He provides an explanation and an illustration, but so important is it to Him that ALL people understand this that he does not stop here. But, in verse 14, it says, again Jesus called the crowd to him. He cares so deeply that people understand what being good is all about, that he shifts his focus from the Pharisees to the people, and he draws them to Him. He cares about us understanding. He care about you understanding.
And he says, “Listen! Listen to me! Don’t listen to the traditions of the Pharisees that look good, but that miss the point. Listen to me and understand this.” He says: “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?” He’s referring back to the original accusation. “For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” It’s not what is on the outside that can defile a person, that can make a person good or bad – which is the accusation of the Pharisees – but it is what is revealed on the inside that defiles a person. The heart.
Would you still call yourself a good person? The mess reveals the myth.
At this point, Jesus and the disciples leave the crowd and entered the house. When they are alone, his disciples asked him about this parable. And this is not because Jesus was not clear. But it was so ingrained in the culture, in the people, that it is the outside that makes you a good or a bad person. And Jesus teaching completely turns this upside down. That it takes time for the truth to register with the disciples. And it’s not just their culture, but also our culture that’s challenged in this way. Because don’t we also, evaluate and determine someone’s goodness, even our own goodness, based on what we see? Jesus’ teaching always turns culture upside down.
Jesus asks them. “Are you so dull?” “Don’t you understand yet?” But Jesus spells it out one more time for them. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart, but into their stomach and then out of the body.” It’s not the mask that matters and that makes you a good or a clean person. But he continues: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart that evil thoughts come.” It’s not the mask, but it is the heart.
So, by Jesus’ perspective, the challenge becomes to take a look at your heart. What do you see then? When you’re completely honest with yourself, what is going on in your heart.
And Jesus helps his listeners one more step by naming some such evil thoughts… When I was studying this text, I wrote out each of the items he mentions, and then their definitions. And it left me silent. We don’t have time to go through them all. I’ll leave you to look into them on your own time. But we will read through the list. And take this as a test, when I read an item, ask yourself, if you recognize this in your heart:
“sexual immorality, theft, murder, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly… All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Now, can you still call yourself a good person?
On the outside, the Pharisees looked like good people. On the outside many of us look like good, happy, cheerful people. And to most everyone around us, we can pretend. We can make great sounding arguments and reasons for the decisions that we make and excuses for the actions that we take. We can fool everyone. We can even fool ourselves, convincing ourselves that we are making decisions for the right motivations. But we can never fool Jesus. And when he pealed back the mask of the good person, the mess of the heart was revealed. We are left standing like little children in front of their parents, wanting to hide, wanting to make excuses, but finding nothing substantial to duck behind.
The answer to the mess
So where does that leave us? A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Bible study. We were studying a passage in Ephesians which talks about forgiveness. Half-way through the discussion, one of the guys asked, “But how on earth can we apply what God is telling us to here? What does this look practically? And what about when I fail?”
I will never forget the answer that the girl gave: “Well, I know that, for me, what this looks like, is that when I fail, I always just go home and cry. I cry and I pray, because I know I failed. And then I just try again.”
When I heard that my heart just broke. Is that it? Is that what we are left with? Just trying harder? And the sad truth is that, if we stopped here, at the end of this text, that’s the best answer we would have. That is what we’re with. The challenge of trying to be good people, but having to face the mess in our hearts at the end of the day. And then the perhaps cyring. Knowing we’re not enough. And then trying again.
But that’s not the reality that the Bible offers us. That Jesus offers us. Because what we need is new hearts. And did you know that is a possibility?
What God wants from us is not perfection. What God wants from us is not a perfect heart. A perfect person. What God wants from us is to take that messy heart and come to Him with it. Psalm 51:17:
“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
God wants our hearts as they are. He unveals the mask and reveals the mess, not so that we have to be burden by it. Not so that we have to fix it, but so that we can come to Him with it. There is no need to hide behind the mask anymore before Christ. You can just reveal everything to him. Actually, he already knows all anyway! All he is asking from us to take off our masks and stop pretending, and to come to Him with it.
Guess what happens then? What He will for us is to take our hearts, and, as we read in Ezekiel 36:25, He “will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. He will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” He will do the washing, and you will be clean! But He doesn’t stop here. Then He “will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” He takes our messy heart and gives us back a beautiful clean heart! And then He will put His “Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” So it ends up not with us trying harder. But it ends with us coming to Him, and for Him to work through us.
The best way for me to paint a picture of this for you is to go back to when I was a child. I grew up with my parents telling me that they loved me. That nothing that I did could ever change this fact. That if I did something wrong, they wanted me to come to them. To tell them. So that they could tell me that they loved me and then to work through the mess together.
And that happened. Sometimes I was confronted by them. Just like Jesus confronted the Pharisees. Sometimes I recognized my mess and just came to them with the mess. Every time, it was not a pleasant experience. Every time that I stood before them, I felt naked. The mask of good behavior had been taken away, and my mess was there in front of both of us. And each time I was scared of what they would think and sad of what I had done. But without faillure, the first thing my parents always did was to take me into their arms and tell me that they loved me. But not just that they loved me, but that they forgive me. You know what would happen then? The sadness would still linger, but the fear would fall away, and my heart would feel free, because my mess was not held against me!
That’s what God wants to do for you as well. He wants you to come to Him with your mess, even though it’s not easy, and to give your messy heart to Him. And then He wants to tell you that He loves you. But not only that, but that you are forgiven. He holds nothing that you have done against you!
And then after my parents gave me a hug and told me that I was loved and forgiven, then we would sit down together, and figure out how to move forward. And that’s what God does as well. He gives His Spirit to held you to follow His decrees and how to move forward. But now it is no longer under the pressure of fear of condemnation. And it is no longer contrained by the chains of what you did wrong, and having to try harder. But it is within the atmosphere of love and forgiveness.