Notes and readings (for the week commencing 6th February, 2012) are shown below, with a PDF version available here. The sermon topic this Sunday (12/02/2012) will be “These people honour me with their lips?”.

Day 1: Read Mark 7:1-13

The chapter opens with another clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of the law. You’ll remember they began plotting to kill Jesus back in Ch 3 because he claimed to forgive sins, ate with sinners and tax collectors, didn’t fast and broke the Sabbath. To that great list, they now add “and his disciples eat with unwashed hands”. Jesus is quite a problem!

Every Jewish house had large stone jars placed near the entrance for people to wash and purify themselves from the defilement of contact with goods which may have been handled by Gentiles (ie, people who were not Jews). They also washed utensils for the same reason. This was not so much about hygiene as for the washing away of moral and spiritual defilement. Gentiles ate food sacrificed to idols, they were known to be promiscuous, and they aborted their unborn. Such religious uncleanness had to be guarded against! The Gospel writer Mark points out that these washings were not prescribed in the Old Testament (except for priests), but by the elders – the traditions of men.

So – ‘why don’t your disciples observe these rituals?’ ask the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The question sparks a very sharp criticism from Jesus. He claims that Isaiah (a major Old Testament prophet) was right – these people are actors in a play (the origin of ‘hypocrite’). They honour God with their lips but their hearts were far from God. Hence they worship God in vain, because the teachings they so religiously follow are not from the word of God but are rules taught by men. Tradition had overtaken the word of God in their lives.

Jesus goes on to give an example. Although men and women were to honour their parents, some were claiming that the money they would have had available to care for them, they had given to God. They swore to give it to God, but then often reneged on that commitment, keeping the money for themselves, leaving their parents uncared for! Hence v13 – you nullify the word of God by your tradition.

Friends, we must ask ourselves – are the traditions of the church more important than the word of God? Is it possible that I honour God with my lips each Sunday, but in reality my heart is far from him? Is there a way I twist the word God so that it looks like I’m doing the right thing, while all the time I’m something quite opposite?

Day 2: Read Mark 7:14-23

Note that Jesus has now left the crowd and entered the house. This is probably Peter’s house in Capernaum. The disciples ask Jesus to explain further the concepts of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’.

The Pharisees focused on the external state of things. Jesus however points out that uncleanness is not from the outside, in; it’s from the inside, out! He expresses frustration that they can’t see this. The heart of the matter is that the heart IS the matter! External things cannot ultimately impact our heart. But our heart is already vile and this is what renders us ‘unclean’ before God.

We all know this don’t we? We know our heart has evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly vv21-22. And no amount of correct and ceremonial hand washing (or any other religious ritual) will do anything about our unclean heart! What we need is a new and clean heart – which only God can do through the Lord Jesus and his death and resurrection. If you’re trying to get ‘clean’ before God by following religious ritual, it will never happen! But forgiveness and cleansing occurs when we repent and trust Jesus. How good is that!

(We note in passing, that Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’. Since food did not defile anyone before God, people were free to eat whatever they chose – the restrictions under the old covenant were annulled. And people were free to eat with whom they chose – even with Gentiles! Jesus had smashed a major ritual barrier to Jews and Gentiles sharing food together!)

Day 3: Read Mark 7:24-30

From this point, Jesus will now spend more time in Gentile territory – to the west, east and north of Galilee. His life was in danger and the dispute over ‘uncleanness’ would have made the religious leaders all the more determined to do something about Jesus. However, we see among some Gentiles Jesus comes across, a better understanding of Jesus than the Twelve!

Although Jesus wanted his visit to remain secret, such was his fame that he couldn’t keep his presence quiet. A Gentile woman from Syrian (or coastal) Phoenicia asked Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ strange reply seems very cold and blunt, but it is a parable picking up the common language and understanding of the day. The ‘children’ are the people of Israel – the Jews; the ‘dogs’ are the Gentiles (as the Jews commonly referred to them) and the ‘bread’ is the Kingdom of God which Jesus is bringing – of which Jesus’ authority over evil is a sign. Jesus says his priority is the children of Israel.

However, the blessings of the Kingdom were always going to flow to the Gentiles. The woman understands this and replies with great wit and determination, picking up the theme and language of Jesus’ parable. She is prepared to acknowledge that according to the Jews she is a mere ‘dog’ and so accordingly asks just for the scraps from the table. She has understood who he is and her understanding is portrayed so as to demonstrate a contrast with the dullness of the Twelve. Even though not physically present with her mother, Jesus declares the daughter to be free of the evil spirit and the woman returns home to find that was indeed the case. Here we see the first Gentile turn to Jesus – because of Jesus’ kindness and grace. We Gentiles are also in the new kingdom – all through Jesus’ kindness and grace. Thank the Lord for his grace and mercy to you also!

Day 4: Read Mark 7:31-37

Our final passage for the week begins with Mark’s most detailed description of Jesus’ travels so far. It was a long way through Gentile territory and must have taken many weeks. It may have been necessary to avoid arrest. The author Mark has chosen just one healing episode to include in his account of those weeks, and some have thought that healing the deaf man is a sign pointing to the beginning of people’s understanding of Jesus and his message. We need to pray in our day for deaf ears to be opened. That is, we need to pray that the Lord will help people to truly hear the message of Jesus so that their life may be rescued from sin and death and they find life in the Lord Jesus.

Again Jesus commands silence. The risk of being overrun by sick people is now compounded by the life-threatening menace of the Pharisees and Herodians. But Jesus could not keep them quiet! They were amazed and overwhelmed and could not shut up about Jesus. Of course, we are under no such direction (to keep quiet). And my prayer is that we may increasingly be so ‘overwhelmed with amazement’ that we can’t keep quiet either!