The Religious Leaders

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Mark 7:1-13

Not all of the encounters Jesus had with people were positive, but it seems as though the negative ones almost always involve the religious traditionalists of his day.

In this series of Words of HOPE messages we have been looking at the encounters various people had with Jesus during the course of his public life. The nature of these encounters varied as greatly as the people who experienced them. Some encounters with Jesus were as natural as a casual conversation by a well, others as supernatural as resurrection from the dead. Some were positive, others negative; most were reassuring, but a few ended in judgment.

People who met Jesus came away with all sorts of things: answers to their questions, challenges to think about, healing for themselves or loved ones, friendship, forgiveness, faith, eternal life – and sometimes, condemnation. Those who saw Jesus in the flesh experienced a wide range of emotions while in his presence: awe, gratitude, fear, curiosity, anger, shame, love – sometimes all of them in the same meeting.

The quality of a person’s encounter with Jesus was mostly determined by the attitude with which they approached him. Those who came to him with open minds and humble spirits found grace. They were never disappointed in what they experienced from him. It didn’t seem to matter much whether or not they even believed in him or what race they were or how sinful a life they had led. But those proud folk who disapproved of Jesus – especially critics who judged him, like the super-pious Pharisees and the religious scholars who spent their lives studying and explaining the Torah – had a very different sort of experience.

It’s hard for us to know precisely what the Pharisees and scribes, as they’re traditionally called, were like. Speaking of tradition, that’s what really distinguished them. They focused on the traditions that over the centuries had grown up around the commands of the Old Testament. Here’s an example of what happened when Jesus encountered them one day:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 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.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus,“Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

Mark 7:1-8, NIV


Do you remember the musical Fiddler on the Roof? It’s set in the Jewish quarter of the little village of Anatevka in early 20th-Century Russia. That was a time of great unrest and uncertainty, a revolutionary era. The old order was passing away; the modern world fast approaching. Strong winds of change were blowing, but they carried the smell of danger for the Jews in Russia, who faced the ever-present possibility of the pogrom. The main character is Tevye, a poor milkman, who explains the play’s title in the opening scene. The Jews’ position in Anatevka, says Tevye, is as precarious as that of a fiddler playing on the rooftop; at any moment they might slip and break their necks. “How do we keep our balance?” asks Tevye. “I will tell you in one word: Tradition!”

Tradition can be a wonderful thing. It reminds us who we are. It tells us where we have come from, and how we got to the place where we presently stand. Tradition gives us a sense of identity and connects us with a larger community. It offers us a guide for right behavior; it shapes our beliefs and values, and provides a feeling of security. Think of some of your favorite traditions, maybe ones that you grew up with. Here are a few of mine, chosen at random: turkey on Thanksgiving day, fireworks on the 4th of July, decorating the cemetery plot on Memorial Day, starting my grade-school day with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, Tulip Time parades every May, mid-week catechism classes, dressing up for church twice on Sunday, opening presents on Christmas Eve, family devotions at the supper table. Some of those traditions are still strong in my life, others have gone with the wind; some are shared by most Americans, others belong to my particular ethnic and faith community, and still others are special just to my family. But all of them were good and some still endure.

Tradition, though, can also have a negative, even a sinister side. Some of the traditions that reinforce ethnic pride and identity can also serve to exclude others and put them down. Traditions that create patriotism can be used to suppress dissent or stifle healthy criticism, and when taken to extremes, they end up promoting idolatry. Worst of all, sometimes our religious traditions can actually turn from ways of serving God into ways of disobeying him, and even opposing him. Think, for example, of how a generation ago the tradition of racial segregation led many Americans, including many American Christians, to oppose the Civil Rights movement. What Jesus does in his critical encounter with the religious leaders of his day is to draw attention to the dark side of tradition. His words warn us of the dangers of blindly following human traditions instead of the will of God.


As usual, when Jesus meets the scribes and Pharisees, a controversy erupts. It started in this case when the Jewish religious leaders observed Jesus’ disciples neglecting one of their cherished traditions, namely, the ritual washing of hands before eating. Now this was not an issue of personal hygiene. It wasn’t cleanliness that they were concerned about – the ancient world didn’t know about germs. It was a matter of ceremonial cleanness, of legal purity. In Jesus’ time the strict party of the Pharisees was very big on ritual purity. Many of their traditions had to do with maintaining this purity and avoiding contamination by contact with “unclean” people or things. It was, in fact, the biggest element in their religion.

The problem with these leaders and teachers wasn’t that they cared so much about the law. That was good. No, the problem was that their concern didn’t go deeper, to the things God was most interested in. Their purity, you see, was only ceremonial. It wasn’t inward and moral or ethical. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus had said; “for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). It’s obvious that the purity God favors is a purity of a particular kind. So what does it mean to be pure in heart, as opposed to mere physical or ceremonial purity?

In the first place, purity of heart is internal rather than merely external. God cares about what we’re really like on the inside, not just how we appear to be on the outside. It’s a purity at the very center of our person, in our inmost self, a purity that characterizes what we really are rather than just our outward appearance.

Secondly, purity of heart means moral purity rather than ceremonial cleanness. By the time of Christ, the Jewish rabbis had developed a huge body of tradition in addition to the Torah, the written Law of Moses. There were many taboos to be observed, rituals to be performed, rules to keep, washings to undertake – all with an eye to making one’s self acceptable to God. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were concerned with that kind of purity. They followed these traditions to the letter in all ritual matters, rigorously carrying out all the ablutions and anointings, the washings and cleanings. They were especially concerned about ceremonial defilement through contact with the world of gentiles. They were less concerned, though, about what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law”: things like justice for the oppressed and mercy toward the poor.

Nowhere is the danger of this legalistic, pharisaical religion more obvious than in connection with the death of Jesus. These very same leaders, these traditionalists who were so scrupulous about the rituals of the law were the men who seized and condemned Jesus and who delivered him to Pilate, the Roman governor, in order to have him crucified. John’s Gospel tells how Pilate himself was forced to come outside in order to speak with Jesus’ accusers because none of the religious leaders would enter his palace. Why? Well, they were planning to eat the Passover feast later that day, and to go into a gentile’s house would have made them unclean. So the religious leaders scrupulously preserved their ritual purity while carrying out the murder of the Son of God!

I wonder what God thought of those who so carefully kept all the “rules” even while they were destroying his son – and then hurried off home afterwards to worship him. What a grotesque mockery of religion!


This encounter between Jesus and the teachers of the law offers a powerful illustration of some of the dangers of religious tradition, by which I mean the unwritten customs and rules that come to dictate behavior within a religious community. Let me briefly point out three.

First, tradition can easily lead to legalism, the belief that we earn points with God by keeping the rules – especially man-made ones. Let’s think about what that might mean today. We’re no longer concerned with things like washing hands and cups and pitchers and kettles, at least in a religious sense, the way the Pharisees were. But think about legalism in a conservative Christian context. Do you believe people who regularly go to church, especially if they go twice on Sunday, are better than those who don’t? In some communities where I have lived, people who washed their cars or did yard work on Sunday were frowned upon by the majority. Were they sinning? What about those who smoke or drink? Is it better to dress up in your “Sunday best” for worship or can you wear anything you like? Which is more appropriate, singing hymns with an organ, or praise songs with drums and guitars? The truth is, all those things I’ve just mentioned are human traditions. The Bible neither prescribes nor prohibits any of them explicitly. You may choose to do some of them, or not. You may even have good reasons for making your choices. But don’t think they make you more acceptable to God. And above all, don’t think you may judge others who choose to follow different traditions.

A second danger of tradition is that it turns us into hypocrites. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” Jesus said of the religious traditionalists of his day. It wasn’t a new problem, for he was quoting the prophet Isaiah (v. 6). The same thing has happened over and over – in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus’, during the Middle Ages, and today. People are more concerned about following customs than finding God. They pile up the rules and then substitute obeying them for loving and serving God.

Finally, following human traditions can actually cause us not just to lose sight of God’s will but to actively break his law. All of the Jewish traditions were intended to safeguard the written commandments and make them easier to obey. But the Pharisees were using some of their traditions as an excuse for getting around the law, and Jesus called them on it. For example, in the Fifth Commandment God’s law requires us to honor and care for our parents. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for allowing their religious traditions to take precedence over obedience to God’s command (vv. 9-13).

God’s law really has only one purpose. It’s all about love: love for God and our neighbor. The law is intended as a guide to help us care about and for people. You cannot justify hurting or neglecting people by sticking to some kind of religious rule book. No, to truly serve God demands that we live for the sake of other people!

Speaking as something of a traditionalist myself, let’s take great care not to let our love of tradition lead us away from heart-love of God and practical service to people.