On Good and Bad Religion

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

14 And he called the people to him again, and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”

In Mark Chapter 7, we are confronted once again with everybody’s favorite religious bad guys: the Pharisees. But why are they so bad? And what gives us the right to judge them? After all, the Church Father John of Damascus describe the Pharisees in this way:

Pharisee is a name meaning those who are “set apart.” They followed a way of life which they regarded as most perfect. They esteemed their way as superior to others. They affirmed the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels, and holiness of life. They followed a rigorous way of life, practicing asceticism and sexual abstinence for periods of time and fasting twice a week. They ceremonially cleansed their pots and plates and cups, as did the scribes. They observed the paying of tithes, the offering of first fruits, and the recitation of many prayers.[1]

That sounds quite good doesn’t it? Maybe a bit arrogant but basically they are trying really hard to be good so it’s probably better than where we’re at spiritually.

Well actually, no. This is all really bad, and they do not depart this encounter with Christ unscathed. There are at least two big criticisms here, and we need to hear them.

Tradition

When I was at school, I was made to wash my hands before lunch and tea. We had to queue up and have them checked by a prefect. If there was any dirt on them or any signs that they were not adequately cleansed, we were sent back to try again. (I was able to conceal my non-compliance most of the time, although with occasional lapses in success.) The Pharisees were religious prefects. At some point, they had come up with some extra laws to add alongside the Law of Moses – God’s Law. This was one of them: wash your hands before you eat. It looks like they did this with everything else as well. Mark tells us that they washed cups and pots and vessels of bronze and not just so they wouldn’t smell or be dirty, but so that they wouldn’t be ritually impure. Again, none of this was in God’s law; it was a law that they had made up.

Jesus and his disciples, we’re told with a hint of irony, were eating with hands that were “defiled, that is unwashed” (v.2). This does not escape the notice of the religious prefects, who swiftly point out to them their error in the form of a passive-aggressive inquiry: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” (v.6) There’s some dirt on your hands, go, try again and then join the back of the line.

Now, Jesus wasn’t having any of this nonsense, as you might imagine. So he rebuked them, as he seemed to have enjoyed doing, and said a couple of things about tradition. Quoting Isaiah, he says, “You teach as doctrines the precepts of men” and quoting himself, he says, “You leave the tradition of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

So there are two problems here: (1) You are teaching traditions which men have come to by themselves as though they came straight from God. This is bad. But (2), even worse, you actually leave the traditions of God and break them (vv.9‒13) in order to hold to your own man-made traditions. Both of these things are very bad – making up traditions and telling people they came from God and breaking God’s commandments to observe traditions.

We might ask: Why were the Pharisees behaving like this after all? Well, it’s hard to know. They don’t like Jesus or his disciples, obviously. The Pharisees seem to like being in charge and having other people think that they are holy and being able to boss people around and make up rules, so that in part explains their attraction to this way of life.

Incidentally, there is a real problem with Pharisaism today. We’re seeing quite a comeback of the rule-maker, the micro-manager, the control-freak whose power has gone straight to his head. To misquote Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of the making of many rules there is no end.” There is something thrilling simply about making up rules and getting other people to follow them, no matter how arbitrary or pointless they are. “What is good? – Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.” No, that’s not a recent campaign speech opener by Emmanuel Macron, but the second axiom of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. Power, lording it over other people, bossing people around, being in control – it makes people feel good. And it is utterly sinful and wrong, and ultimately leads to the death camps and the gulags and the gas chambers. Beware the thrill of power; it can start so easily, with just a bit of bossiness.

What is even worse than this, is creating rules that separate human beings from their maker: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” (Matthew 11:28‒30) says Jesus. He emphatically does not add, “As long as you’ve been double-Pfizered or have had a negative lateral flow-test in the last twelve hours or can prove you’ve got antibodies and so on and so forth and are feeling in tip-top physical condition so that you’re not a risk to yourself and others.” I’ll leave that one there.

But back to tradition. The word “tradition” in the New Testament (paradosis – which means a handing over), is often used in this kind of negative way. But before we become too zealous to descend to the bottom of the candle, or to retreat into our basements or garden sheds with only our King James Bible for a friend, we must also balance this criticism of tradition with the observation that the word is used at least twice by the Apostle Paul in a positive way:

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.[2]

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by mouth or word or letter.[3]

So, tradition can be good or bad. And to simplify this matter somewhat, we might want to say that bad tradition is the kind of thing that the Pharisees were doing: ignoring the word of God and sometimes even contradicting it because of their man-made traditions. But the way the Apostle Paul uses the word suggests that good tradition is about the handing over of the teaching of the Apostles – which is given to us through Scripture and its handing over through the teaching of the Church – so that we might in turn learn from it and hand it over once it is the right time to do so.

I could use an image to describe this. I grew up with a none-too-beautiful grandfather clock in my house. But I could imagine a clock of such beauty and complexity that it had been preserved and handed over from one generation to another for many centuries. This clock is so precious and impressive that it must not be altered in any way – neither chipped away at and changed, nor augmented or added to. It might be the case that each generation finds new things to love about this clock, new complexities in its mechanisms, new wonders in its craftsmanship. But they do not do this by changing the clock or by looking for these things in another clock. Because this is the clock they have been given and not another.

That’s good tradition.

Ritual

The Pharisees were very concerned with outward matters, “rituals” we might call them. Again, what is wrong with ritual? We’re all engaged with rituals all the time, aren’t we? Having breakfast with your family is a ritual. We’re constantly being told this by sociologists and anthropologists alike. So what’s the big problem?

Well, the problem is that the kind of ritual described in our passage is not good. Firstly, we’ve already seen that it is leading people away from the commandments of God. Secondly, this ritual speaks of the classic Pharisaical move, which is to focus on external forms of behavior and appearance and to leave neglected the inward matters of the heart – “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” Jesus says (Mark 7:6). Or to quote from St Matthew’s Gospel:

Woe to your scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (23:27‒28)

(Incidentally this whole chapter is basically one long series of savage takedowns directed towards the Pharisees. It’s really worth reading in its entirety.)

The Pharisees were performing rituals very well, but their hearts were hard towards God and they rejected the word of God and God’s incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. “Silly Pharisees,” we might think, but this is not so easy. All churchgoing Christians are engaged in rituals. In some churches this is more obvious than others, but we all do it. We rely on ritual. We often call it “liturgy.” But, here’s the important thing: if our liturgy does not reflect the inward disposition of our hearts and the actions that we undertake in our lives the rest of the week, we are hypocrites and Pharisees. To quote a great theologian and a saintly man, E. L. Mascall, the point is that “our life and our liturgy might become one,” or at least that we might try and make them one. There is nothing more pompous and annoying than people who go to Church and take a real interest in all the minutiae of the liturgy but do not exhibit faithfulness to God, humility, grace, obedience, love, and gentle good-humor in their everyday lives.

So, make your life and your liturgy one, and you will avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

A Matter of the Heart

But, is that the best we can do? Avoid hypocrisy and attempt to be faithful to Christ? In the book of James, we hear about true religion, which is “to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions (not during a lockdown obviously, as that would be both illegal and dangerous), and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” (James 1:27). So perhaps we can do that, and keep the bossiness and showy stuff to a minimum?

There’s a strand of thought in Western Civilization which is found in the early Church Father Tertullian and comes to us more recently in the writings of Rousseau and Leo Tolstoy. It basically says that the world around us is evil but that within ourselves, we are very good. Therefore, what we must do is retreat from the world and keep ourselves pure and unstained by the world whilst keeping the commandments of God.

There is a big problem with this way of thinking, however, and that can be seen in what Christ and the New Testament and indeed the whole of Scripture says about the human heart. Firstly, it is not the things that come from outside – non-Pharisee approved ritual, unclean food, insults, and persecutions even – not these things that defile a person, “but the things that come out of a man are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). And what are those things? Jesus gives us a helpful list:

(Incidentally, who could talk like this except the Lord of all creation himself? Look at the second half of verse 20, which in my version is in parenthesis, as though it is some kind of trivial point – Christ declared all foods clean. Considering all the food prohibitions in the Law of Moses, that’s quite a thing to put in brackets!)

For from within…come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man. (Mark 7:21‒22)

It’s not the world around us that defiles us. But it’s what we agree to within our own hearts. That’s what truly defiles a person.

Jesus’ condemnation is pretty damning. There are no two ways around it. The young folks who are always reminding us that Jesus taught non-judgmentalism might have difficulty explaining this passage. The best thing that we can do here is simply to own up: we are sinful. We think and do bad things. The Christian tradition has an explanation for this: it’s called original sin and it’s something that we are born into and live with because of the fall of creation that happened at the beginning of human history. We want to do good things maybe, but we can’t do them, not entirely consistently anyway, and that’s because our hearts don’t work properly. They are broken. We love the wrong things in the wrong way and we can’t love the things that we should love. We do things that we know will harm us and the world around us, and we can’t seem to help ourselves. We feel shame and guilt for these things and wish we hadn’t done them. And yet we do them again and, again, feel the same shame and guilt though perhaps even worse than before because of our repeated failure. Original sin, brokenness, inability to keep God’s commandments, inability to love him as we ought, inability to serve our fellow man in righteousness. I could continue. I would suggest that this list should be familiar to anybody who is honest about what goes on in his own heart.

Is there a solution? Yes. We do need to be obedient. That much is true, and this is the truth that the Pharisees very imperfectly represent. But we cannot do this in our fallen state. We need at least three things: we need forgiveness for our sins, we need cleansing, and we need transformation. And these are three things which are given to us by the grace of God.

Please take notice at this point: the answer here is not more effort to keep the commandments in the hope that we might somehow atone for our failures in the past. This will not work. It is like putting diesel in a petrol engine. The car will run for a while, but it will break down very soon, guaranteed.

We cannot fix ourselves with more effort. The only way is if we look to Christ, and specifically his death on the cross for us. For upon the cross, all of the sin that Christ mentions here – evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, wickedness, and so on – and all the other sin that human beings have ever committed was atoned for in an unblemished and holy sacrifice. Christ was the only man who ever had a pure heart, undefiled, untainted by sin, and he offered that pure heart and his pure life as a sacrifice to the Father, a gift which was so great that it exceeds all of our debts. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we are taught by Christ to pray. And we know that he will because he had paid in full the price of sin.

We are purified, therefore, by the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for us upon the cross. As it says in the Book of Common Prayer, “…that our sinful bodies might be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.”

And, finally, we are transformed by God’s sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. As it was prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26‒27)

Anyone who has been a Christian for a while can testify to the fact that this does not take place all at once. To quote the Apostle Paul, we are all being transformed into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18), and often with many shameful and embarrassing setbacks. But we can also testify to the reality of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, giving us assurance of God’s forgiveness and love, calling us to repentance, strengthening us in our fight against sin, the corruption of the world, and the schemes of the Devil.

To summarize all of this: to be transformed, to be righteous and holy, we must first and always and constantly look to the dying figure of Jesus on the cross: his body broken for me, his blood shed for me. If our Holy Eucharist is about nothing else, it is about reminding us of this.

Conclusion

So to conclude, don’t be a bossy, self-righteous, superficial Pharisee. The New Testament implies very strongly that it would be better just to have no faith at all – not in Christ anyway – because he’s not happy with this kind of thing.

Rather, cherish tradition to the extent that it honors God’s commandments. Love the liturgy of the Church, but make your life and your liturgy one, and don’t be a hypocrite about it. And finally, realize that you need Jesus to be saved and transformed. No amount of rule-keeping or moral effort will do it, but only what he offers us, by his grace, upon the cross.

NOTES

  1. John of Damascus, On Heresies 15
  2. 1 Corinthians 11:12
  3. 2 Thessalonians 2:15

 


Rev Dr J.A. Franklin

Jamie is a priest in the Church of England, serving his curacy at a parish in the city of Nottingham. He trained for ministry at Ripon College Cuddesdon from 2017-2019 and holds a DPhil in Systematic Theology from the University of Oxford. Prior to training for ordination he had various jobs, among them piano teacher and virger at Winchester Cathedral. He is married to Lorna and has three small children. He also hosts Irreverend, a podcast about faith and current affairs.


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