Roy Clements - Holiness, Tradition and Pharisees

Holiness, Tradition and Pharisees

Mark 7

Holiness is one of those words that means different things to different people, isn't it? What associations does it conjure up in your mind? For some of us I suspect holiness has decidedly unattractive connotations. A "holy joe" is one of those religious fanatics who embarrasses you by his antisocial killjoy attitude to life. "Holier than thou" is the way we describe pompous prigs who reckon themselves morally superior to everyone else. Even at its most positive, the word "holy" I guess conveys rather austere if nostalgic memories of the hymns we used to sing in school chapel... "Holy, holy,holy" - intoned to a ponderous organ amid hushed whispers, stained-glass windows, gothic architecture and acute physical discomfort. No, holiness is not a quality to which the majority of people feel attracted. 

But then it would rather defeat the object of the exercise if they did. For the whole point of holiness is to be different, separate, clearly distinguished from everything that is profane and ordinary. In Old Testament times the pots and pans they used in the sacrifical ritual of the Temple were "holy"...because they were kept especially for that "sacred" purpose. The priests were "holy" too, because of their special role in offering the sacrifices. Defining such objects and persons as "holy" was a way of making clear to the Jewish people that in a very real sense God didn't belong to this world. He was different and therefore those who wanted to have dealings with him had to be different too. 

The holiness code that comprises a substantial part of the Book of Leviticus generated a sacred-secular divide in ancient Israel for precisely this reason. To embed in every Jewish mind an awareness of the mystery and transcendence of God... what biblical scholars have sometimes called his "otherness". 

The trouble was, some of them took it too far. The idea of holiness always has this risk attached to it. In the wrong hands instead of being a vehicle of witness to the sublime uniqueness of God's person, holiness can all too easily be perverted into mere religious eccentricity...a pious theatrical that awakens at best the amusement of the watching world, and at worst its contempt. The boundary between being sanctified and being sanctimonious, between being pious and being downright peculiar, is a frighteningly narrow one. The risk of the former degenerating into the latter is always greatest when the people of God feel threatened. 

Take the period, for instance, five centuries before Christ, when the Jews were taken into Babylonian exile. It was a devastating experience for them. Suddenly they found themselves surrounded by a totally pagan society. Everything familiar had been snatched away from them. The instinctive response of any ethnic or religious minority in such a hostile environment is to become culturally defensive; to guard with jealous pride every cultural distinctive it is possible to preserve. And that is exactly how the exilic Jews reacted. They may not have had the Temple any longer, but they could still circumcise their children and observe the Sabbath. The might have to speak Aramaic in the market-place, but they could still use Hebrew in their synagogues. These cultural markers thus became more important than they had ever been before. For they were the only way the they could retain their identity as Jews in the cosmopolitan melting-pot of Babylon where they were now forced to live. 

In many respects it was a perfectly understandable, even laudable development. We observe exactly the same kind of thing in many countries today where minority groups strive to preserve their local dialect or their national dress against a cultural tide that would homogenize the entire world if it could. But the trouble was that in the case of the Jews, because of their special self-consciousness as the chosen people of God, this need for the maintenance of their cultural distinctiveness got tangled up with their ideas of holiness. They turned their traditions into a system of regulations and defined holiness as obedience to these rules. 

Take for example the issue of ceremonial washing. The Book of Leviticus certainly laid down certain regulations regarding ritual ablutions in its holiness code. But the scribes of post-exilic Judaism amplified these regulations to such an extent it was considered improper to eat a single mouthful of food if the appropriate handwashing procedure had not been observed. Mark, you may have noticed, draws our attention to this practice with what I sense may be a slightly sarcastic edge to his tone. (Mark 7:3-4)

Now as I say, this kind of legalistic attitude towards things like ritual washing became increasingly influential in the post-exilic period. The original biblical idea of holiness was being subtlely subverted by the need of Jews to defend their sense of cultural superiority in a world where they were now politically and economically powerless. The rabbis vied with one another to pile more and more regulation on top of the ancient law of Moses. They were convinced that only by the painstaking observance of such rules could the Jewish people maintain their cultural distance from the Gentiles and thus preserve their unique privilege as God's "holy" people.And in the first century no group was more zealous in its conformity to those rabbinical rules than the Pharisees. 

Now in some respects the Pharisees have had a bit of a raw deal at the hands of Christian commentators over the years. The very word "Pharisee" has a pejorative, almost villainous overtone to it, which is really unfair. For there was much about the Pharisees that was admirable. (i) this was a group who believed passionately in the inspiration of scripture and devoted themselves to the rigorous exposition of the biblical text. (ii) this was a group who zealously pursued personal holiness (iii) this was group who scrupulously tithed their income. (iv) this was group who enthusiastically sought to win new converts to their faith. 

Who does that remind you of? I have to say it reminds me in a most uncomfortable way of conservative evangelical Christians. What the Pharisees identified as the marks of a "righteous" person, we label today as the marks of a "born again", "committed", "Spirit-filled", "evangelical" Christian. We distinguish ourselves from the non-Christians around us, in just the way that the Pharisees sought to draw a "them" and "us" line of separation between themselves and those they labelled as "sinners". Like us, they vigorously opposed the decline of biblical authority and standards within first century Judaism. To use vocabulary familiar to evangelical Christians, they were worried about "liberalism" and "worldliness" in the church. And just like the old evangelical Keswick movement, they pursued their pietistic concern for moral and theological purity in the name of "holiness". The people of God had to keep themselves "holy", they insisted, that is uncompromised by the defiling contamination of the "world". 

As I say, in many respects this was a noble endeavour. The people of God needs in every age the stimulus and challenge of its puritans if it is not to become spiritually indolent and undisciplined. And at their best that's what the Pharisees were. But unfortunately the way the Pharisees sought to pursue their campaign against worldliness was by embracing with open arms all that pedantic detail of rule and regulation which had been developed by Jewish rabbis since the exile. And, as we have already said, much of that had less to do with authentic biblical holiness than with the preservation of Jewish distinctiveness. That was why they came into collision with Jesus. 

Jesus' vision of the coming kingdom of God was global in its dimesions. It embraced all the nations of the world, not just the Jews. And this meant that the Old Testament law had to be radically re-examined in order to retain the essence of its moral,nd spiritual purpose' but eliminate those elements which were designed only to keep a cultural distance between Jews and the idolatrous pagan world around them. 

The rules about ceremonial washing were a classic case in point. For as Mark tells us in our reading, Jesus and his disciples ignored the ritual washing rules of the rabbis. Hence the indignant inquisition they mount against him in v. 5. You pretend to be a teacher of true religion, Jesus, then why don't you teach followers to observe the halakha regulations about eating with ritually clean hands? Is this ignorance on your part? Or is there some more sinister heretical motive behind this non-conformist behaviour? (see Mark 7:.5) 

Now, I couldn't blame you if you told me you felt such a question was very remote from your personal sphere of interest. What possible relevance could this debate about first-century Jewish ritual ablutions have for us? Washing your hands before meals is surely an issue more appropriate to the kindergarten than to a church. But while I can sympathise with such a reaction, the fact is your wrong. Indeed the reason Mark has recorded this incident is because it is hugely relevant to Christians in every age. In replying to this, admittedly rather obscure and pettifogging issue raised by the Pharisees, Jesus expounds two enormously important principles. If as evangelical Christians today we fail to understand and apply those principles then we shall fall into precisely the same error as the Pharisees did. We shall end up writing a rule book and calling it holiness. And in the process we may very well miss out on the content of true holiness altogether.

1. True holiness is not to be confused with the rules which religious people keep in order to be different (see Mark 7:8)

The Pharisees as we have already said held the teaching of the post-exilic Jewish scribes in great reverence. According to Jesus they held it in too much reverence. Maybe in theory they didn't put that tradition on a par with Scripture, but in Jesus' obervation that was what in practice it came down to. 

It is important not to overstate the issue. Jesus is not an iconoclastic revolutionary who believes the way things have been done in the past has to be bad. The issue is one of relative authority. 

(i) Things specified by tradition are not mandatory. There was absolutely no reason why his disciples should ritually wash their hands just because some Rabbi two centuries earlier had insisted upon it. If the Pharisees wanted to observe such rules that was their business. Jesus does not say they are wrong to do so. But no way was Jesus going to have his disciples strapped into the straitjacket of their fastidiousness. Tradition is not mandatory. That means there must always be diversity in the Church. Peope's opinions about what biblical holiness requires will differ. That's fine. We are bound to obey our own convictions on the matter. But no one, be they a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic Pope or an evangelical church-leader, has the right to force their interpretation of what the Bible requires down the throats of everyone else. Tradtion is not mandatory. A tolerance of diversity is. 

(ii) Tradition must never prevent a fresh and radical examination of what the Bible says. God's Word does, of course, possess mandatory authority, but all too often a blinkered legalism blinds us to what that divine requirement really is. Isaiah was talking about "rules taught by men". And that's what the Pharisees' teachings were according to Jesus.But true holiness is defined by God's Word in the Bible, not by such manmade traditions. 

It is for this reason that the church must always be prepared for change. You know, I'm sure the proverb "You can't teach an old dog new tricks". Its not always true of course. I recall with great affection one old age pensioner I knew years ago who learned to ride a motorcycle in her 70th year. But granted there are exceptions, it has to be admitted the generalisation is an accurate one. The passing of the years brings with it a mental inertia that makes change more difficult. And if that is so for individuals it is true also of churches. New churches are in the main always more adaptable. As the history of a church gets longer, so do its traditions become more inflexible. How many new initiatives have run into sand over the years I wonder to the reactionary chorus from the back pew: "But we've always done it this way!" 

But that conservatism becomes all the more intractable when those who cling to the past in that way try to theologically rationalise their traditionalist prejudices with pious talk about Christian holiness. It is far from uncommon to encounter the attitude that the church should not seek to move with the times or think afresh about some issue. because to do so is by definition "worldly". It is good for the church to retain archaic practices and old-fashioned opinions, because whether they are right or wrong, they prove we are "holy" and not being influenced by secular trends. Among some contemporary Pharisees this expresses itself in a preference for gothic rather than contemporary architecture or for the language of the AV rather than the NIV. Such ecclesiastical relics feel more "holy" somehow. Among others it is conservatism on moral and social issues that is the touchstone of sanctity - isues like divorce, abortion, contraception and, of course, homosexuality. 

No matter that these issues are complex and raise difficult questions of biblical interpretation. The rule is thus ...and holiness means obeying it. But often such rules have more to do with cultural defensiveness than real holiness . They are sanctified by hallowed tradition and nothing else. And (i) tradition is never mandatory: you may prefer the traditional opinion on things...that's your privilege...but your preference is all it is. Once you start insisting that everyone must do things your way you are joining the Pharisees in manmade legalism. And (ii) tradition can sometimes be wrong; as Jesus reviewed the moral and religious practices of his contemporary Judaism in the light of fresh and radical examination of the Bible, so we must constantly subject our church traditions to the same scrutiny. 

This was the issue of course which divided Christians at the time of the Reformation. Medieval Catholicism would not change. It insisted its traditions were binding. But many of those traditions not only had no basis in Scripture, they were downright contrary to the teachings of the Bible, as Martin Luther pointed out. The church must always be open to reform...not just because hidebound traditionalism can be obstacle to its progress...but because sometimes the church makes mistakes. And sometimes it takes centuries before those mistakes are recognised. One of the great ironies of our present situation is that those churches which label themselves "Reformed" are often the most reactionary in their attitudes. Its not uncommon to find an intolerance of new thinking every bit as belligerent as the Spanish Inquisition There are countless so called "Reformed" churches around today who seek to solve their problems not by a radical fresh reflection on needs of modern culture in the light of the Bible, but by the old catholic method..."What did our denominational forefathers say?" The Reformation didn't end in the 16th century. Properly understood the church of Jesus Christ must be always reforming itself. 

There must always be change in the church. For the only alternative to change is the tradition of the elders. And tradition never saved anyone! But that brings me to the second great principle that Jesus is expounding in our study passage.

2. Holiness is not about external actions but the internal state of our hearts (Mark 7: 14-15) 

Whenever we human beings think about meeting God it is inevitable that we experience a sense of unworthiness and shame. Like children who have been playing in the mud, we'd rather get ourselves cleaned up before Dad sees us. And it is the characteristic of all forms of legalistic religion that it tends to externalise that sense of treat it, quite literally like "mud"...a form of contemination that you acquire through contact with dirty places and which adheres, as it were, to the outside. A lot of religion is Jesus day was of this sort. Holiness, it said, was about what you touched or didn't touch, where you went or didn't go, whom you met or didn't meet, what you did or didn't do. In short, holiness was about external actions of one kind or another. 

A careful reading of the Old Testament would have exposed the fallacy in all this. Moses himself in the book of Deuteronomy constantly impresses upon the Jewish people that it is their hearts that must be circumcised not just their bodies. David in the Psalms exposes the inadequacy of ceremonial sacrifices is a contrite heart God is really interested in he says. And, as Jesus points out in this passage, Isaiah like many of the prophets, is scathing in his denunciation of a religion that never gets beyond the superficialities of ritual performances...again it is the location of the heart that really matters. But not many Jews of the 1st century understood that. 

Certainly the Pharisees, in their obsession with ritual washings, don't seem to have done so. The real trouble with the Pharisees comments Jesus in these closing verses of our passage, is that they grossly underestimate the inveteracy of evil. They treat evil as if it were a form of environmental pollution or a bacterial infection...something in other words separable from the human being to which it is attached. Something that can be washed off with ther appropriate ritual disinfectant, or killed off by conformity to the appropriate prescription of antibiotic rules...without any racical change being necessary in the underlying human personality. But it isn't so. The root of evil in this world doesn't lie in external action. Iit lies within the individual human heart.(see Mark7: 20-23). Jesus lists a terrifying catalogue of vice, but who can deny that heis right when he implies that the seed of all this moral corruption lies inside each one of us? 

Robert Louis Stevenson understood it, demonstrating that within every sophisticated and educated Dr. Jekyll there is a cruel and sensual Mr. Hyde William Golding understood it, showing us in his novel Lord of the Flies that inside every polite, middle-cless choirboy there lurks a barabric and murderous savage. Sigmund Freud understood, uncovering in his exploration of the subconscious mind a seething cesspit of incestuous lust and bestial violence. And at the end of the twentieth century surely modern man now understands it.. After the atrocities of two world wars, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and goodness how many other killing fields, can anyone any longer entertain the utopian fantasies of those evolutionary optimists who at the end of the last century were insisting that the human race was making moral progress? We are not getting better and better as a race. It is very arguable that we are actually getting worse and worse! 

That is why a religion of rules such as the Pharisees advocated could never meet our real need. It will take more than a little holy water to purge the moral filth out of us. What we need is not just clean hands, but a new heart! For that is where the true holiness that God demands resides: not on the surface of our human lives but inside at the profoundest depths of our human nature. 

It is our unwillingness to accept this humiliating knowledge about the true depths of our depravity that makes legalism so popular with religious people. Legalism is a way of evading the demands of radical repentance. It fastens our attention upon trivial details and petty rules and pietistic practices which, though irksome, can be fully observed if we are really determined to do so. In this way our minds are distracted from the big moral issues about love for God and neighbour, with regard to which our consciences can never be completely clear and which constitute therefore a permanent source of inescapable moral anxiety for us. Legalism is a guilt avoidance device. It is the religious alternative to repentance and faith. 

And that of course is why, while change in the church is vital, changing the church is never enough. It is always a temptation to think that defects in a society can be amended by institutional means. That's why we put so much effort into politics and education. It would be so reassuring to think that the evils we see around us can be put right by better laws, or better schools. It would be nice to think that deficiencies in our holiness could be compensated by similar remedies: better creeds, better sermons, better conferences, better theological colleges, better Christian books, better Christian youth clubs, better this, better that. The fact is the only thing which can make a lasting and substantive difference either to the world, or to the church, is the moral regeneration of human hearts. The only source of true holiness is the Holy Spirit. For all the good that politics and education can achieve. For all the good that reformation in the church can achieve; for all the good that relgious and moral rules can achieve; at the end of the day evil is just too deeply embedded in us to be treated by such means. It isn't a fungus adhering to the outside. It is a virus, like AIDS, that has insinuated itself into our very genetic code. It isn't part of our reprogrammable software; it is hardwired into our human nature. 

And that of course is why Jesus said to that other famous Pharisee, "You must be born again!" (see John 3). We shall not see the kingdom of a holy God unless we ourselves are holy. And that demands a spiritual change that penetrates to the very root of our personalities. 

There were many Pharisee in Jesus' day who technically possessed impeccable holiness. Do you remember Jesus parodied one of them praying in church? "I've never committed sexual immorality; I ttithe my income scrupulously every month; I never cheat or steal; I read my Bible and say my prayers every day; I am a good evagelical Christian!" But it was all externals.What a shock it must have been to his listeners when Jesus said that an "unholy" taxman who just beat his breast and begged for mercy on his sins was accepted by God and that pious Pharisee ignored. 

But that's the way it is. God looks on the heart. That is why Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees if we wanted to enter heaven (see Matthew 5) - not meaning that we must keep the rules better, but that we must offer God a moral and spiritual response from the heart. As Paul would later put it: "the righteousness I used to be proud of, a righteousness based on rule-keeping, I regard as rubbish. The justification that Jesus offers me has its roots in faith." (see Philippians 3). And faith is primarily a function of the heart: a fruit of the Holy Spirit's work within. We must be born again. 

The biggest trouble with legalistic tradition in the church is not that it obstructs the church's progress, or even that it prevents biblical reform. The biggest trouble is that it distracts our attention from the really important issue. We argue about women priests, we argue about gay marriage, we argue about modern liturgies and social justice; we argue about so many things in the church today, and all the time a desperate world waits in ignorance of the one issue that really matters, the one person who can really change us. Like the Pharisees we shake our censorious heads at these wicked people who refuse to follow our conventions We complain of the immorality of the age, the corruption of the culture, the worldliness of the church. But what remedy do we offer? Rules! Traditions! Ecclesiatical face-cream of a dozen different brands (see Mark 7:14, 21) 

You want to be holy? Then clean up the inside. The job is too big? Take yourself back to the one who made you in the first place and ask him for a major overhaul. Ask him, as David once did: "Create in me a clean heart". He can do it. And once he has done it, you will amazed how pathetic and trivial the so-called "holiness" of all our modern-day Pharisees seems by comparison.

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