Picture of Pastor Carlson

Sermon delivered June 27, 2009 by Pastor Paul Carlson

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version, ESV, unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

Arguing With God

Mark 7:1,2,5

(RealAudio available)

How do you like this hot weather? Is there anyone here for a freak cold spell once in a while to keep us cool?

Well, it’s not the time of year for it—I wrote about this in the winter of 2008—but have you heard of the Pajamas-Inside-Out, Spoon-Under-the-Pillow-Snow-Day Ritual? Has anyone?  So, if you don’t know about it, first of all, it’s only supposed to work if there’s already a chance of snow in the weather forecast. So, I’m sorry.  It’s not going to work; at this time of year.  But with that in mind, kids put a spoon under their pillow and go to bed with their pajamas inside out to ensure that the next day will be a snow day, and thus, no school.  Mark Dursin, a high school English teacher, found out about P. I. O. S. U. P. S. D. R., as it’s referred to, one day when talking with one of his students. After explaining the ritual, she said, “See for yourself. Look it up online.”  He did, and his eyes were opened. Students all over the eastern United States are serious about it. He even discovered a reference to a Tennessee schoolteacher who learned about the ritual during her first year of teaching 25 years ago!  When he asked if the ritual worked, some said, “Yes, definitely!” and could count off the times that it worked. Others acknowledged, “Only sometimes,” but even they still practiced it.

Actually, the Jews had their own kind of irrational ritual. Only they didn’t expect a snow day. They wanted cleansing from ceremonial impurity.  It was the rule about washing hands before a meal. It didn’t come from God’s word; it was merely an oral tradition.  But so rigidly did the Jews observe it, that there’s one story of a famous rabbi, who after being imprisoned, and having only a limited amount of water, preferred to risk dying of thirst to eating without washing his hands.  “To eat with unwashed hands,” he said, “is a sin. It is better to die of thirst than to commit a sin.” — http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/111935/jewish/Rabbi-Akiba-in-Prison.htm

It had nothing to do with getting the dirt off your hands. It was all about getting clean from ceremonial impurity, whatever that might be. And this rabbi would not eat without washing his hands. Going through the motions in some ritual of pouring water over his hands in a certain way.  So we see how important it was for devout Jews to do this kind of motion, this kind of practice, this kind of ritual before meals.  It was like an obsession. 

In fact, have you heard of O. C. D.? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? I think these rabbis had it!  It was O. C. R. actually.  Obsessive Compulsive Religion.

And we find this same obsession referred to in the gospels, right here in Mark 7.

I invite you to look at verses 3 and 4.  I’ll be reading from the New English translation.  Mark 7, and verses 3 and 4.  “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing, holding fast to the tradition of the elders.  And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. They hold fast to many other traditions: the washing of cups, pots, kettles, and dining couches.)”  That sounds funny, doesn’t it?  Dining couches?  Some translations say ‘dining tables’, which makes a little more sense.

You see, the rabbis taught that a person might have somehow contracted ceremonial impurity after being in the marketplace or something like that.  Touching some vessel that was impure, or whatever, and that unless they did this little ritual, that impurity might somehow be conveyed from their hands to their food, and then from their food to their body, and then from their body to their soul.

It was serious business for them, this ritual.

But let’s follow the gospel story surrounding this tradition in both Mark 7 and in Matthew 15. We’ll be looking at both accounts, so you might want to keep your finger in both places.

A little bit of background first, though.  The scribes and Pharisees had expected, just before this, for Jesus to come to Jerusalem during the Passover. But Jesus stayed away, foiling their plans to do that.  To trap Him.

And so, since He did not go to them, Matthew 15, verse 1 tells us, then “Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus.”

And they needed to find something to use against Him. What could they come up with on this occasion to nail Jesus?

Of course, as usual, a particular thorn in their side was Jesus’ bothersome disregard of all of their rabbinical traditions.

Now since there is a crowd mentioned in this passage, Jesus must have been teaching a group of people while He was there in Galilee, and perhaps Jesus had stopped just long enough for Him and His disciples to get something to eat.

That’s when these Pharisees from Jerusalem decided to crash the party. But now they didn’t much like this crowd of Galileans around them, because people like them from Jerusalem tended to look down on the illiterate and simple people of Galilee with contempt, commonly referring to them, in a derogatory way, as “people of the soil” [SDA Commentary, Mark 7:2].

Picking their way carefully through the crowd, I can imagine their narrow eyes and scrunched up faces and arrogant frowns as they were very careful about guarding their personal space.  They were just a little out of their comfort zone.  “Make sure we don’t touch any one of these dirty people.”

Now Mark’s account adds a little bit of detail here.

Mark 7, verse 1.  “Now the Pharisees and some of the experts in the law who came from Jerusalem gathered around Him.”  Gathered around Him?

How would you like for people to stand around you, critically observing everything you do, especially when you’re sitting down to eat?

Especially squinty-eyed, scrunchy-faced and arrogantly-frowned Pharisees?

Here they are, surrounding Jesus and His disciples like a pack of wolves, salivating hate and disgust.

Mark 7, verse 2.  “And they saw that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their bread with unclean hands, that is, unwashed.”

“Ugh!  What an abomination!” they must have felt.  Feeling this inward repulsion, their disgust level zoomed to the skies, like being repulsed with the smell of garbage.

This was exactly the nail they were looking for. That’s exactly what they were going to argue about.

But with much of Galilee seeming to be in favor of Jesus, they felt outnumbered and nervous. They certainly didn’t want to offend those who thought well of Jesus.

So they decided to be sly, to nuance their attack. Yes!  Criticize Jesus’ disciples.  “Oh, this is a brilliant idea.  Use an indirect attack to avoid offending those who like Jesus.”

But oh, they really wanted to nail Jesus as having a flagrant disregard of their traditions and rules.

In the presence of this multitude, Mark 7, verse 5, the Pharisees and experts in the law all joined in the attack.

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?”

“Yes, they are flouting the rules.”

“How dare they play fast and loose with what the religious authorities teach!”

“That’s right.  It’s disobeying the tradition of the elders,” piped up someone else. [See Matthew 15:2]

Can you see the pained and saddened expression come over Jesus’ face. He thought about it for a brief moment, and then He put it right back to these sticklers for human rituals.

“And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition?” [Matthew 15:3 NET]

I’m not sure the Pharisees quite anticipated what they were about to hear, are you? Jesus continued.

Matt 15, verses 4 through 9.  “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’  But you say, ‘If someone tells his father or mother, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God,”  he does not need to honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God on account of your tradition.  Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said,  ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is really far from Me,  and they worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”

In other words, they were weaseling around God’s commands, canceling them by their petty, little rules.

But all the while they acted like they were doing the right thing, but using God merely as a cover for teaching whatever suited them.

In this specific example that Jesus used, they taught the people that the devotion of their property to the temple was a duty far more sacred than even the support of their own parents.

So Jesus really put it like it was, especially with that last word, that quote from Isaiah 29, verse 13.

In fact, I’d like to read to you Isaiah 29, verse 13, but I’d like to read it to you in the Revised Standard Version.  You’re welcome to look at it and compare it with your own Bible version if you have something else.  That’s chapter 29 and verse 13.  “These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their worship of Me is a human commandment learned by rote.”

Jesus exposed them as frauds. Can you see their faces getting red as Jesus says what He does? They are just livid, filled with rage as their teaching was laid out in the open as false.

Frustrated, there was nothing they could say. They had no come back. They weren’t prepared for this.

Embarrassed in front of the multitude of Galileans whom they despised, all they had in return were angry looks and half-muttered words of dissatisfaction.

Did you see them as they left, shaking the dust off their feet, spewing out irritation and vows of revenge?

As they did, Jesus must have been shaking His head in amazement and sadness.

And then turning to the multitude, He motioned for the crowd to get closer.  [Mark 7:14, 15  NET]  “Listen to Me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” As far as ceremonial impurity or something that takes us away, makes us unfit for the worship of God.

Let me read to you Jesus’ words from the Message translation, which, of course, always puts it in a much more explicit way.  “Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up” [Matthew 15:10, 11]. Well, is that how God views it?  Is that how we should view it?

Later, after all the dust had settled, and when Jesus had left the crowd, His disciples asked him about it.

And looking at Matthew 15, verses 17 to 20, He said, “Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and then passes out into the sewer?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person.  For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are the things that defile a person.  It’s not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”

In other words, it’s the evil imagination and selfishness of the heart.  Not the neglect of some mechanical, man-made, hocus pocus ceremony.

By the way, what about us? Do we have our own little rules and traditions that take our focus away from the principles of God’s word and away from trusting in Jesus? Just a thought . . . .

Anyway, after this story, both Matthew and Mark tell us about someone else who argued with God.  Someone, who, despite the belief of the Jews, God cared very much about.  Someone among many others that He was especially fond of.

Mark 7, verse 24.  “After Jesus left there, He went to the region of Tyre. When He went into a house, he did not want anyone to know, but He was not able to escape notice.”

Well, most of the people in that area were heathen, non-Jews. But because there were some Jews living in the area, the news about Jesus’ healing miracles spread all over.

And one Canaanite woman heard the talk of the town that Jesus was spotted in the area. And that’s when hope sprang up in her heart.

She probably had sought help from the heathen gods, but had obtained no relief. And she must have been tempted to think, “What can this Jewish teacher really do for me?”

But the stories repeated over and over, all of the grapevine gossip told her, “He heals all manner of diseases, no matter whether people are poor or rich.”

And conviction settled on her.  Ultimately she determined to believe that He could heal her child.

And I really do believe that Christ must have known about this woman’s situation ahead of time. I believe He knew about her need.

So it’s not hard for me to imagine at all, that Jesus chose to be in the right place where she could find Him easily. It’s just like the kind of loving God that Jesus portrayed.

And when she did find Him, it was much to the disgust, however, of Jesus’ disciples.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” [Matthew 15:22, NET]  But in trying to teach a lesson for His disciples, Jesus seemed to ignore her request.  Strangely.  Couldn’t His disciples somehow notice that Jesus wasn’t behaving in His usual compassionate way? Did Jesus really feel hatred toward this woman’s race?  And she kept yelling and carrying on.  “Mercy please, Master! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.” [See Matthew 15:22 MSG]

And yet, Jesus said nothing. He knew what was going to happen.  He knew what He was going to do.  Always the master Teacher, He was hoping that the disciples would notice the contrast with how Jesus normally treated people and with how He was treating her now and how He was about to treat her.

Although Jesus did not reply, this woman did not lose faith. As He passed on, as if not hearing her, she still followed Him, continuing her loud begging.  Annoyed by her persistent cries, the disciples must have started to cover their ears.  That was it! That was all they could stand.  Would He please take care of her? Send her away!  And Jesus simply said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” [Matthew 15:24, NET]

But the woman began to urge her case even more. She got on her knees in front of Him and continued begging. “Lord, help me.”  And still apparently mocking the unfeeling prejudice of the Jews, for the sake of His disciples, Jesus said, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  You see, many Jews felt that it was not right to take the blessings brought to the favored people of God and waste them upon strangers and aliens.  And yet, hearing what Jesus just said didn’t discourage this woman one bit.  After all, the very fact that Jesus condescended to discuss the matter with her at all, instead of abruptly dismissing her, as the rabbis would have done, gave her the courage to believe that, “Yes!”  He would answer her appeal.

Beneath this apparent refusal of Jesus, she saw a compassion that He just could not hide. And she didn’t waste any time in responding.  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” [Matthew 15:27 NET]  Well, if she was looked upon as a dog, didn’t she have a dog’s claim to the leftovers?  Weren’t there crumbs, also, for her?

Now let’s pause right there and put all of this into context.

Jesus had just left one area because the scribes and the Pharisees were seeking to take His life.  They murmured and they complained.  They manifested unbelief and bitterness, and they refused the salvation that He came to bring them.

And now Christ is talking with someone whom the Jews referred to as a dog, from a despised race that had not been favored with the light of God’s Word.

And yet; and yet, she has implicit faith in His ability to answer her request, begging for the crumbs, if that’s what was necessary.  She has no national or religious prejudice or pride to influence her, and she acknowledges Jesus as the Redeemer, as being able to do all that she asks of Him.

I believe that response on her part was music to Jesus’ ears. He tested her faith and He was immensely satisfied.  From Jesus’ perspective, she is no longer an outcast, no longer an alien, but a child, a daughter of Abraham, a child in God’s household.  And as a child it’s her privilege to share in the Father’s gifts.

“Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.  And her daughter was healed from that hour.”

And over and over again, time after time in the gospels, we see Jesus getting excited about one thing.  And that’s when people have faith in Him.  Faith.  Trust.  He doesn’t get excited about all the rules that people have to show how righteous they are.  He gets excited about faith.

I love these stories, don’t you?  They’re so amazing. Here we have those who were familiar with the light arguing contentiously with the Source of the light. Ones who rejected the Living Light.

This woman, on the other hand, a stranger, and an alien, also argued with God, but she responded in trust. Against all appearances, against all surface discouragement and regardless of Jesus’ words that might have led her to doubt, she trusted the Saviour.

And I guess what I would wish that we would all carry away from these stories, is that we will never want to be so familiar with, or so enamored with our rules and our traditions and the way we ‘do church’, that we fail to trust in the living Light, and fail to see Jesus.  Let’s fill our minds, let’s fill our imagination and our hearts and guide our lives by these amazing stories of Jesus, because we’ll really see the kind of God He came to portray.

Let’s sing our closing song, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.”

Our gracious heavenly Father.  There’s only one way to You.  Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thank you for the gift of Jesus.  May we accept all that you have done for us through Him. In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 Hymn of Praise: #264, O For That Flame of Living Fire
Scripture: Mark 7:1,2,5
Hymn of Response: #522, My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less

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McDonald Road Sermon transcribed by Steve Foster 7/22/09