Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | September 9, 2012

Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Jesus cleans the really dirty stuff

  • Order of Service: Service of the Word, p38
  • Lessons: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8, Ephesians 6:10-20, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
  • Hymns: 472, 378, 469, 455

Downloadable Version

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

When Jesus finished His bread of life sermon, many disciples left Him.  At this low-point in His ministry, Jesus too changed venues, heading back across the Sea of Galilee from west to east.

Even though many quit following Jesus, that doesn’t mean people don’t still crowd around Him.  People still brought their sick for Him to heal.  Mark 6 says people carried their sick on mats to wherever Jesus was, and Jesus healed many.  And even though many quit following Jesus as disciples, that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ opponents, the religious leaders from Jerusalem, stopped hounding Christ.

From the moment Jesus became a public figure, the religious leaders in Jerusalem kept their eyes on Christ.  They received reports about healings and exorcisms.  Word came back that Jesus forgave peoples’ sins.  He eats with tax collectors and other so-called “sinners,” even making an apostle out of a tax collector named Matthew.  He and His disciples don’t fast like most religious Jews.  And then they catch His disciples making food on the Sabbath, which leads Jesus to say revolutionary things about the Sabbath.  And to top it all off, when tested about His Sabbath observance, Jesus mocked them all by healing a man on the Sabbath, in the synagogue!  The Pharisees decided to remove Jesus.  They began plotting how they might kill Jesus.

Perhaps now they see a golden opportunity.  Jesus’ popularity ebbs.  He has far fewer followers.  They sense an undercurrent of grumbling, “He says hard, unacceptable things.”  Now, maybe they can turn the crowds against Jesus and get what they want:  Jesus removed!

Conveniently, Jesus provides grist for their fault-finding mills.  Or, more accurately, Jesus’ apostles do.  Apparently someone spied them eating – perhaps some of the leftover bread and fish from the recent miraculous meal? – without first washing their hands.  Gasp!

We, who also wash our hands, might be equally appalled, but not for the same reasons.  We wash our hands mostly for sanitary reasons.  After using the bathroom, after working outside or with chemicals, we clean off what might cause sickness.  Were that what Jesus’ disciples did, we might call them “Unclean!” too.  Then we’d tell them to go back in and wash up.

But the Pharisees at this moment couldn’t care less about hygiene.  The washing they wanted to see was a ceremonial washing, a religious washing.  Mark explains that the Jews had a tradition of not eating until they washed their hands, not simply to get rid of germs, but to create ritual purity.  It is, perhaps, significant that Mark describes this with the word that gives us our English word “baptize.”  He says that the Pharisees don’t eat except they baptize their hands.  Certainly, the word “baptize” has a basic meaning having to do with water and washing not always connected to a religious act.  But elsewhere Mark always uses the word in a religious or spiritual sense to talk about the sacrament of Baptism, the Baptism of the Spirit, or the Baptism which Jesus will undergo, that is, His suffering and death.

So the disciples failed to carry out a religious requirement of the Jewish faith; except they actually didn’t.  You see, as both Mark and Jesus point out, this washing has no basis in the laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy.  It came from the “traditions of the elders.”  Perhaps it’s an extrapolation from the laws dealing with bodily discharges, but nowhere does God say, “Thou must wash before you eat.”  But in the end some Jewish rabbi somewhere along the line decided that this religious ritual must be kept.  And it became for them a rule and a law:  “Thou shalt wash before you eat.”

Observing this failure, the Pharisees jump. Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands (Mark 7:5, NIV84)?  The Pharisees find themselves clean and holy because they wash before they eat.  But in so doing they miss the point of God instituting clean and unclean in the Old Testament.  They miss what’s really dirtiest.

The LORD didn’t create clean and unclean foods and ritual ceremonies to help distinguish between who was a good Jew and who wasn’t.  God intended His Old Testament laws about which foods to eat and not, about Sabbath days, about ritual purity, to help the Jews learn about sin and grace, not Jew and Gentile and which foods were clean and unclean.  Pork, one of the forbidden foods for the Jews, wasn’t unclean in and of itself.  God told Noah after the flood, “Everything is for you to eat.”  Abraham doubtless ate pork.  God’s Law teaches His people that apart from God’s own forgiveness and cleansing they are unclean.  Sin makes us unclean and no amount of rubbing and scrubbing of our own can ever change that.  Because unclean comes from inside, as Jesus said:  It is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’…  For from within, out of men’s hearts comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly (Mark 7:15, 21-22, NIV84).  Every time a Jew ate some forbidden food, or found mold, or got a rash, it reminded him of the uncleanness of his sin.  And the fact that he could never keep up, that he had to keep offering sacrifices for his sin and guilt day after day, that he could never quit keeping track of whether he was clean or not simply testified against him that he was not clean.  In other words, God’s Law made Israel conscious of their sin and uncleanness, conscious of their need for a Savior, as Paul says in Romans 3.

Or, at least, it should have.  Our sinful human nature quickly blows by that and perverts it.  It’s so easy to be zealous over the keeping of such things as hand washing, or monitoring restricted foods, or making sure to worship at the right time, in the right place, in the right clothes.  It’s so addictive to distinguish between who’s being a good, faithful Jew (or Lutheran or Christian) and who’s more of a Gentile.

The evidence surrounds us.  Jews today still live with their restrictions about what to eat, when to worship, what to do and not do on the Sabbath.  Mormon prophets forbid hot drinks.  One billion Muslims avoid pork and alcohol and must ritually wash before entering a mosque.  And their daily prayers must be done five times a day, facing Mecca, while going through the right set of bodily positions and gestures.

The Christian Church isn’t immune.  For some Christians all alcohol remains off-limits.  For others, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, church had better be on Saturday.  The Catholic church requires fasts during Lent and at other times.  And others?  Maybe it’s fasting before you receive communion.  Maybe it’s the exact way that you worship, or the language you use (“are” or “art”?), the instruments you use, the hymns you sing, the way you dress, what you bring to a potluck, etc.

Many of these things, in and of themselves, if we chose to do them, aren’t offensive and sinful.  It’s not wrong to have traditions.  It’s not wrong to appeal to traditions.  But we dare not let traditions assume the nature of law and command, as if God decreed how to dress, when to worship, what page in the hymnal to use, etc., and only then are you truly worshipping God.  It’s wrong and sinful to care more about our traditions than the Gospel itself.  It’s wrong and sinful to make our traditions the Gospel.  It’s wrong and sinful to be more concerned with the page in the hymnal, the musical instruments, or the style of dress than the forgiveness of sins won by Christ and offered in the Word.  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and warned us:  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men (Mark 7:8, NIV84).

Take care.  We try to fix our inborn corruption with a few outward deeds.  But God never asks for that.  He says things like, Circumcise your hearts (Deut. 10:16, NIV84), for we heard Jesus say, Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him (Mark 7:14, NIV84).  I make things unclean.

And if that’s the case, if my heart is that corrupt, if my thoughts are that evil, and they are, how can I ever circumcise my heart?  If every inclination of the thoughts of my heart is evil, and it is, what can I ever do to fix that?  Well, of course, nothing.  Every tendency and trait I have is corrupt.  Which means all those traditions we create bear with them the seeds of our own destruction.  Superficially we can point to differences among us, different traditions and failure to keep them, but those aren’t the real problems.  Except we hide our real problems under such traditions.  We cover up our terrible hearts and minimize them by saying, “Well, I go to church every week.  I keep myself clean.  I fast.  I dress correctly.  I say this or do that the way we’ve always done it.”  And yet to actually avoid the things that our bodies like but which defile us, the evil, the immorality, the greed, the envy, the arrogance?

The Jews baptized their hands and their frying pans.  But praise God, He baptized us.  Peter put it well, For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers,but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18-19, NIV84).  We need this washing, this Baptism.  We need Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness.  We need Christ who was pure and clean inside and out and who gave and gives to us this purity, this holiness, this purifying blood.  And He did.  The blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7, NIV84).  In our Baptism, Jesus washed us clean, because He washed us in His blood, not just our hands that touch food, or our feet that go up on the couch, but us, on the inside.  He poured out His blood on the cross so that there would be something to fill up Baptismal fonts the world around, not just water that removes dirt, but water that removes sin’s guilt that no amount of hand-washing will remove, that no number of traditions will put behind you.

That’s our tradition.  Not from our elders, but from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to clean the really dirty stuff:  my heart, my soul.  And so next week when we baptize Hannah, we can be confident that we aren’t just doing something our fathers did for the sake of tradition.  We do something our Father in heaven commanded for the sake of our salvation and the salvation of that infant, fully confident that those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death, and at the same time baptized into the resurrection of Jesus Christ, into a new life now and a new life in the resurrection to come.  That’s God’s gift to us.  It comes from the outside.  And it makes us clean.  Amen. 



  1. Thank you! Being reminded again of Christ’s purification of us is a comfort, and looking forward to Hannah’s baptism is also a comfort, knowing she’s a child of God.

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