Quite a few years ago I was the photographer at a wedding at an Orthodox church and was amazed at the ritual involved in the ceremony. They did things, which I had never experienced before. The priest had a censor filled with smoke which he waved around. He led the couple around the altar three times. The way they did things in that church were quite different from what I had ever experienced and it was quite interesting. For many years I always thought that as Mennonites we don’t have rituals, we just simply follow the Bible until one day a minister from another church pointed out to me that we also have rituals.
Experiences like these have caused me to think about what the appropriate expression of our faith really involves. It is difficult for us to critique ourselves regarding our religious practices because we take them for granted, but it would be good to think about what we do and whether it is a faithful expression of our faith in God. For example, one of the principles which our forefathers were very careful about is the practice of separation from the world. Because of that, they did not participate in the political system and they did not have radios or TV’s. Somewhere along the line we have decided that rejecting these things is not a part of what it means to follow God. But by embracing these things have we really moved forward in faithfully following God? How do you make these decisions?
I know that there are people in our circles who go to bars as a place to have fun and enjoy their friends. I know that there are people in our circles who would never go into a bar because they see it as a compromise of faith. I also know people who go into bars deliberately to meet people so that they can share their faith with them. Which of these people are following God faithfully? What does it look like to follow God?
This morning, I would like to direct our thinking to Mark 7:1-30. In this passage there are two stories. In the first story, Jesus encounters a group of people who are very religious, but who don’t really follow God faithfully. In the second story, Jesus crosses a boundary which would have caused the religious leaders to question his faithfulness. There he meets a woman of deep faith. In these stories, we get to the heart of the matter and discover what kind of a heart it is that God seeks.
I. A Heart that is Near to God
The story begins when a group of religious leaders from the center of religious observance, Jerusalem, come not to discover who Jesus is or what He is up to, but in order to criticize Jesus. We read in verse 2 that they “saw some of his disciples eating food with ‘unclean’ hands.” One suspects that they watched just long enough so that they could find some ground for accusation. We are not surprised at this action because Jewish religious leaders had already accused Jesus on other occasions, for example, of blasphemy in Mark 2:7, keeping bad company in 2:16, breaking Sabbath on several occasions and working in Satan’s power in 3:22.
The practice of hand washing was one which arose out of the requirement for priests to ceremonially wash their hands before serving in the temple as outlined in Exodus 30:19. But over time this requirement began to be expected not only of priests entering the temple, but also of all Jews all the time.
In our day when we have hand sanitizers in every corner and have grown up hearing our mother say, “dinners ready, go wash your hands” it is a little hard for us to grasp why Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands until we remember that physical cleanliness was not what the Pharisees were concerned about. Their ritual of hand washing had little to do with getting their hands physically clean. They were concerned about religious defilement. They were afraid that when they were out in public, they might have touched someone who was not religiously clean. Perhaps someone who had worked on Sabbath, or someone who had been in contact with a Gentile. Their hand washing was a religious ceremony designed to remove the moral filth they had encountered in the public setting. It isn’t hard to see that such practices were a terrible burden for anyone who wanted to make sure that they did not get morally polluted by contact with the world. So the washing was a ritual required to wash off the contamination not of germs, but of association with unclean things.
Jesus was fully aware of the intent of their question, which was really an accusation. He saw into the heart of the matter and into their hearts and He accused them of being hypocrites. The summary of his accusation is found in Mark 7:8 when he says, “you have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Then he proceeded to explain how they ignored God’s truth and held tightly to traditions that did not come from God.
The law of God was very clear about a person’s relationship to their parents. Even in the Ten Commandments the law was clear. You must honor your father and your mother. But there was another law, which was the law of “Corban.” The idea of something dedicated to God was familiar in the Old Testament. When Joshua and the Israelites destroyed Jericho, God decreed that Jericho was dedicated to Him and all of it should be destroyed. But the idea of Corban, although similar was not a Biblical law, but a tradition. A person could declare his property dedicated to God. This seems noble and good, but the problem was that this dedication did not mean that the person could not use his property for himself, it just meant that it was not available to other people. So if his parents needed help and his property was “Corban,” he could not use it to help them. It was a clear illustration of a tradition of men directly violating a Word from God.
McKenna says, “Christian history is tragically replete with examples of a spiritual Truth being represented by a meaningful symbol, elevated to a required ritual, substituted for the original truth, and finally perverted to justify an evil act.” That is what had happened in this case. The ritual may have arisen out of noble intentions, but by this time it had simply become a human ritual and was even working against the intentions of God.
Jesus supports his accusation of hypocrisy by quoting Isaiah 29:13 saying, in Mark 7:6, 7, “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.”
What was the problem of the Jewish religious leaders? They had a reputation of knowing God and being the people of God. They did all the right stuff to demonstrate to the world that they belonged to God. But, they didn’t know God. All of their religious practice was just so much talk. Jesus’ accusations get stronger and stronger. In verse 8 he says they let go of God’s commands. In verse 9 the statement is stronger indicating that they set aside the commands of God. In verse 13 we read an even stronger statement when Jesus accuses them that they nullify, the word of God. So it is evident that they engaged in worship of God, but the worship was lip worship and not heart worship.
As we hear this story and the quote from Jesus we realize that what God is looking for is not people who engage carefully in all the right rituals, but people whose hearts belong to Him.
One of the most frightening verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:21-23 which says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" These verses invite us to ask ourselves, “Am I just going through the motions or does my heart belong to God?”
We may have attended Sunday School since we were 2 years old and we may still consider Sunday School as the most important place to be on Sunday morning, but if the things we have learned in Sunday School are all in our head and if we are left with a heart that is cold towards God, then we are not where God wants us to be. Our heart is not near to God.
We may have gone forward at a gospel meeting, camp or youth event and declared a commitment to God, but if we are now living in disobedience towards God that is not what God wants. What God is looking for is a person whose heart is near to Him.
We may have been baptized upon confession of faith and we may practice all the rituals of obedience that we have been taught in church. We may not do this and do that, but if our heart is not near to God, on that final day we may well hear the frightening words, “I never knew you.”
How do we know if our heart is near to God? A heart near to God is a heart which desires to know God more. It is a heart which loves God and has a growing love for all of God’s creatures. It is a heart which wants to obey God, not because of fear of punishment, but rather from a heart of love and respect for God. It is a heart which is looking forward to the day when we will see Him face to face.
When Jesus accuses the Jewish religious leaders that they are a “people who honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” He is not only accusing them, but also inviting us to examine the state of our heart.
II. A Heart that is Cleansed by God
Jesus did not immediately answer the accusation of the Jewish leaders. Instead he got behind their accusation to their hypocrisy. But he still had the accusation in mind and rather than address his answer to the Pharisees, he addressed it to the crowd.
All of those listening would have understood the importance of ritual hand washing and many of them would have seen it as normal. The problem with hand washing was that, although in the beginning it may have had some purpose to illustrate moral cleansing, at this point, it had lost that effect. So Jesus said to the crowd in Mark 7:15, "Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.” In saying this, we need to remember that Jesus was not commenting about healthy eating, but rather about the relationship of food to morality. So Jesus pointed out that it isn’t what enters a person that defiles him, but rather, what comes out of a person. What goes into a person goes through the stomach and goes into the toilet. It has no effect on the moral standing of a person. It is those things which arise out of the heart of a person which truly defile. Evil arises within a person and comes out in words and actions.
When the meeting broke up and Jesus was alone with his disciples it seems they were in the same position as the Pharisees. They too were so steeped in their traditions that they did not have the capacity to discern the way in which Jesus was breaking the barriers of legalism and ritualism and inviting them to a life of faith. The next lesson on what God wants from those who follow him is to grapple with this terrible recognition of what it is that defiles us.
In communities which have tried to insulate themselves from the outside world by separating themselves from it, we see that this is true. In spite of great effort to prevent the evil of the world from influencing them, it is obvious that sin still happens. The source of evil actions is not from without, but from within. Although society can influence and bad friends can have a negative impact, it is still true that evil comes from within.
What is even more frightening about this is that when we read this list of evil that arises out of the human heart, if we are humble and honest, we have to say that we have all done at least some of these things and also have evil hearts. Just look at this list. In Mark 7:21-22 we read, "For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Who of us can honestly say that these evils have never arisen within our hearts and come out in our words and deeds? A person, who has a heart that is filled with these things, will be influenced by the evil around them and evil will escalate. A heart that has been cleansed by God is much less likely to be influenced by external evil and will most likely in fact be an influence. This is a question I have often asked people, especially young people – are you being influenced or are you being an influence. If we have the heart that God wants, a heart cleansed by Him, we will be an influence.
What is it that God wants of those who follow Him? He wants us to have a clean heart. How do we get a clean heart? God is in the business of cleaning hearts. That is what the good news of the gospel is all about. II Corinthians 5:17 promises, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
III. A Gracious Giving Heart
After this conversation, Jesus left to go to Tyre which is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. His intention was to hide. After the press of people who had been constantly seeking him for healing and the unrelenting pressure of ministry, he and his disciples needed time away and they went into Gentile territory to find it. But even there he was not free from the demands of people. People from Tyre had come to him in Galilee, as we see from Mark 3:8 and so they knew about Him. When he arrived, a woman from Tyre learned that he was there and came to him for help because her daughter was possessed by an evil spirit.
She broke into his world, as a woman and as a Greek. The text makes a big deal of identifying her as non-Jewish. Any faithful Jew would have quickly rejected her approach. It was not appropriate for a Jew to have a conversation with a woman. It was also not appropriate for a faithful Jew to have a conversation with a Gentile. She was desperate for help and fell at Jesus’ feet and begged for the help she needed and He engaged her in conversation because He was not bound by such traditions.
Although He didn’t dismiss her immediately, His reply to her seems somewhat harsh. Even though He doesn’t use the word for dog, but rather the word for puppy, we still find it somewhat disturbing that Jesus should refuse her request.
Among the many answers for this refusal, I believe that the best answer still is that there was an order to the revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles. Jesus had come primarily to proclaim the gospel to the Jews, to prepare His disciples to make the gospel known and to die and rise in order to bring the good news of sins forgiven and eternal life. After his departure, the gospel would go to the Gentiles. This was always God’s intention, but it was not yet time. This was the intent which God announced to Abraham when he told him that all nations would be blessed through him. In Isaiah 60:3, we read the prophecy, "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." This intention was fulfilled following the resurrection. Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all nations in Matthew 28:19, 20 and Acts 1:8. But the movement of the gospel to the Gentiles did not come automatically. The first step was when God sent Peter to Cornelius, but that wasn’t easy. First God had to break through Peter’s hard heart so that he would be ready to go to Cornelius to preach the gospel to him. Paul’s missionary journeys were a further ministry to Gentiles and so the gospel began to go to all nations as God had promised. As a result of this breakthrough, many in Jerusalem were disturbed by the implications and so the church gathered at the council in Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts 15, to deal with the conflict. Many had not perceived what Jesus already demonstrated in his life and ministry and that was that the gospel was meant for the Gentiles as well.
The woman was drawn to Jesus and Jesus desired to help her, but the time was not right. His reason for refusal was different than the refusal of the Jewish religious leaders would have been. However, even though the time may not have been right, in the end, Jesus did heal the girl and shows us by His example another lesson about the type of heart God wants. Jesus stepped outside of custom and even his own plan and extended grace to this needy woman.
What does God want? We learn from the example of Jesus that God wants a heart that is filled with grace. Geddert puts it nicely when he says, “Jesus works at breaking down great barriers – barriers of ceremony and legalism that kept the pious walled off from the ordinary Jew, and barriers of ritual and tradition that prevented Gentiles from joining the people of God.”
I have sometimes heard conversations in which people express the desire to keep strangers out of our community. When we read stories like this, we realize very quickly that this does not come from Jesus. The heart God wants is the heart that is like that of Jesus. It is a heart that does not create walls and barriers. It is a heart that is gracious in extending grace and kindness and blessing to all.
IV. A Humble Trusting Heart
One part of the story we have not talked about yet is the response of the woman to Jesus. It is an interesting conversation. She begged Jesus to help and, as we have seen, at first Jesus refused to help her indicating that it was not appropriate yet.
The response of the woman is both clever and persuasive enough that Jesus responds. She acknowledges his argument, but counters that even the puppies eat the crumbs off the floor. I totally understand this illustration. We have grandchildren and our daughter has a little dog. I have seen this scene played out every time they are all at our place and we eat. The grandchildren drop food on the floor and the dog cleans the food off the floor.
Jesus indicated in response that her response was significant. He says, “…for such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” What did he mean by “for such a reply?” What was it in her reply that he saw that persuaded him to heal her daughter?
The answer to that question reveals another answer to the question “What kind of a heart is God looking for?” What he saw in her reply was a humble, trusting heart. She knew that she was unable to help her daughter and she was humble enough to realize that Jesus was able to help her. She recognized His ability. In recognizing His grace and ability, she manifested a confident, hopeful trust in Jesus.
I like the way Geddert puts it when he says, “This needy Gentile woman moved the heart of Jesus by her open heart, her empty hands, and her daring confidence that whatever Jesus would give would be enough.”
What a wonderful text leading us deeply into the very will of God. It invites us to dismiss legalism, but not righteousness. It invites us to open our hearts and exemplifies the way to follow God.
What is the heart that God seeks? It is a heart that belongs to Him! It is a heart that is cleansed by Him! It is a heart that is gracious and it is a heart that has a humble trust in Him.
Does that describe your heart? If not, how do you get such a heart? I was reading a biography of George Mueller recently. Mueller was born in Prussia in September 1805, but moved to England and became a minister of a church in England. He was pastor of the same church for 66 years. He died in 1898 at the age of 92. Besides being pastor of the church, he founded the Scripture Knowledge Institute and built five orphan houses in which he cared for over 10,000 orphans. To support these orphanages, he raised over 1.5 million in today’s dollars, without ever asking anyone for money.
At the age of 76 he wrote, “I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord.”
That is the heart that God seeks.