Sermon Reading by Elder Isagani Ong (Prepared by Rev. Nollie Malabuyo)
Dear Congregation of Christ: Here’s a quote that some of you may be familiar with: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years… We have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God… And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
This was from the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” with Teyve, the father, lecturing his children about the importance of their Jewish traditions. The opening song is the iconic, “Tradition!” Traditions are good. With traditions, we know from where we came so we may proceed to where we want to go. Traditions are our moorings. One of the most popular quotes about history is this by George Santayana, a Spanish-American philosopher, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The Bible is full of memorials. The rainbow is the first memorial, reminding God of his promise that he will never destroy the world by flood (Gen 9:13-1). God instituted seven festivals for Israel as commemorations of his work in saving them from their enemies. Joshua set up 12 stones in the Jordan River as a memorial to God’s parting of the river so they can safely cross into the Promised Land. Remember the line from “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” that says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come”? Ebenezer means “stone of help,” a memorial stone that Samuel raised to remember God’s help in Israel’s victory over the Philistines (1 Sam 7:12). But the most important memorial for us is the Lord’s Supper, of which our Lord commanded us to celebrate “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
But today, most of our youth are advocating Socialism, even Communism, ignorant of the murderous history of these ideologies, from Russia, China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. They want to tear down all monuments and memorials of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mount Rushmore, and even of Abraham Lincoln and others who fought against slavery. We are in the midst of an American version of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. These radicals want to tear down all books, music, art and history that do not agree with their socialist dream. The worst is that they want to implement the saying of Karl Marx, the father of Communism, “Religion is the opium of the people.” So, they have been trying their utmost to get rid of Christianity, even with violence.
However, traditions can have negative results. A tradition can hinder progress if it is followed blindly because “we’ve always done it this way.” Or, if its meaning is not explained, it can become an idea or a ritual that no one understands why it is done. Or if it is based on wrong assumptions, it leads to wrong ideas and actions. And one of these wrong assumptions is in our text today. The Pharisees confronted Jesus because they saw that his disciples did not wash their hands before eating, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v 5). So Jesus answered them by calling them “hypocrites” (v 6) and rebuking them, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (v 8).
So our theme this morning is, Tradition! Tradition!, under two headings; first, The Tradition of Washing Hands; and second, The Tradition of Wearing a Mask.
The Tradition of Washing Hands
Jesus’ fame has spread from Galilee all the way to the capital city of Jerusalem. So the scribes sent representatives to see for themselves why this man is so famous. Since they were looking for any fault in Jesus, they saw an opportunity in the disciples’ violation of the tradition of washing hands before eating.
This tradition of the Pharisees and scribes is not about keeping germs and viruses out by washing the hands clean—you might be thinking of the coronavirus—but about ceremonial purification. In the Old Testament, there are laws saying that contact with those who have skin diseases such as leprosy, discharges of bodily fluids, and the dead, makes a Jew unclean. Or if they ate unclean foods, they become unclean. A person who is unclean required ceremonial purification by water, plus offerings of sacrifices before he is declared clean. If an unclean person approaches the tabernacle or temple, he is liable to death. The main point of these purification rites is to teach the people that God is pure and they are spiritually unclean and detestable before God.
But the Pharisees and scribes went beyond the laws of Moses with their elaborate and “proper” washing ceremonies before eating. These washing rituals are not found anywhere in the law. Mark explains that the Pharisees and all Jews hold to these “tradition of the elders.” Jesus condemned these traditions because they are additions to the Law of Moses. They are traditions and commandments of men, not God (vv 7-8). Besides, these Jews were merely going through the motions of their traditions, honoring God with their lips, but their hearts were far from him (v 6). Therefore, the Apostle Paul warns us, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8). Any tradition not based on Christ and his work to save us from our sins is not pleasing to God.
Later, Jesus explained to the people more about being clean or unclean by eating. In verse 14, he says that a person is defiled or becomes unclean not with food that he eats and comes into him, but by things that come out of heart (vv 15-19). So he lists all the evil things that are inside of man’s heart that makes him unclean before God: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (vv 21-22). Mark then comments that in saying this, Jesus “declared all foods clean” (v 19). He is announcing the end of all old covenant dietary laws, clean and unclean distinctions, and other ceremonial laws such as offering sacrifices. He is teaching here that the clean and unclean distinction is not about washing and eating, but about how a person is spiritually clean or unclean before God.
Jesus lists 13 sinful things that makes us unclean before God. Because we are sinful by nature, we continually have evil thoughts. Already during the time of Noah, God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). Jesus knew what was in the minds of the Pharisees, so he condemned them, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (Matt 9:4) This is also the state of our hearts, and if not for God’s mercy, we would all be condemned because of our evil thoughts. Next, he mentions three related sins: sexual immorality, adultery and sensuality. Sexual immorality includes all sexual sins, including adultery, homosexuality, pedophilia, transgenderism, and sexual relationship between unmarried people. Sensuality is licentiousness, unbridled lust, and indecent conduct. We are now witnessing sensuality without bounds in our nation. These sins are piling up so that it is only a matter of time before God pours down his wrath on our nation as he poured it down on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Our Lord then lists theft, murder, deceit and slander, four offenses against our neighbor. Theft includes corruption in high places and unwillingness to work because of welfare money. Abortion is murder. Deceit, slander and lying are the news media’s specialty these days. Lastly, Jesus lists coveting, wickedness, envy, pride and foolishness. These are all sins of the heart, sins that are evil thoughts. Notice that all these sins that Jesus listed are all from the Ten Commandments.
But I would like to digress a bit from our main idea. What did Mark say about the tradition of ceremonial washings done by the Pharisees? He says that they also perform “washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (v 4). And what is the original Greek word here for “washing”? It is baptismos, from where we get the word baptism. This negates the idea of most evangelicals that water baptism must be by total immersion of a person. Washing of dining couches or tables can never be by immersing them in water. In this purification ceremony, water is poured onto the hands, not dipped in water, by using cups, so the water will remain clean for other people to use. They did the same for cups, pots, copper vessels and dining tables.
The Tradition of Wearing a Mask
A second tradition followed by the Pharisees and scribes is the wearing of a mask. You might be thinking, “But our text nowhere mentions wearing masks.” True. Let’s look then at verse 6 where Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites…” then he quotes Isaiah 29:13-14. Jesus did not have anything good to say about them. He called them hypocrites, a word that is popular today for those who criticizes the church, saying, “I don’t want to go to church because there are so many hypocrites there.”
But what does hypocrite mean in the Bible? The original Greek word means a play-actor, a stage player, a pretender, one who makes “a public impression that is at odds with one’s real purposes or motivations” (BDAG, 3rd ed., 1038). This definition is a most fitting description of the Pharisees, who outwardly pretends to be righteous, but inwardly, are full of evil. So in Matthew 23:27–28, Jesus did not hold back in condemning them with these harsh, pointed words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” The Pharisees are exactly as Jesus described them: righteous outside, rotten inside.
Why did Jesus call them hypocrites? First, they want to gain human praise when they publicly pray, fasted and gave alms (Matt 6:2, 5, 16). Second, they judge others of sin when they are guilty of the same sins (Matt 7:5). Third, they followed their man-made Sabbath rules to the letter, but neglected the needs of others on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). Fourth, they asked Jesus about his loyalty to Caesar only to test him, not because they were loyal to the emperor (Matt 22:18). Fifth, they judge others to be unfit for the kingdom when they themselves were not (Matt 23:13). Sixth, they teach their own gospel to others, but their teachings actually lead them to hell (Matt 23:15). Seventh, they were nitpickers in following the smallest details of their laws to the neglect of more important matters (Matt 23:23). An example of this hypocrisy is when he condemned their Corban rule about gifts “given or devoted to God.” According to this rule, anyone who made a gift to the temple are free from giving support to their elderly parents. In applying this rule, they broke God’s command to honor their parents. Eighth and last, they build the tombs of the prophets, but scheme to kill Jesus the Great Prophet, following the steps of their ancestors who murdered the prophets of old (Matt 23:29-32). In Matthew 23, Jesus calls them “hypocrites” six times.
The Pharisees and scribes were real play actors or stage players. Literally, the Greek word hupokrites means a person who “judges or interprets underneath.” In the first-century Greek and Roman world of drama, actors wore large masks to portray different roles or emotions. So they are actually interpreting from “underneath” their masks. Even today, the symbol for drama and theater is the twin masks of comedy and tragedy.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Two things that we practice today were formerly traditions of the Pharisees: washing of hands and wearing masks. Today, we practice these two things for physical health reasons. But for our Lord Jesus Christ, these two things concern our spiritual health. We practice “traditional” worship in our church, not because “we’ve always done it this way.” Rather, our “traditional” worship come from what we learn from worship in both Old and New Testaments.
We also do not practice “wearing masks” to hide the truth of our sinfulness before God. Rather, we respond to God’s call in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us reason together… though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” We remove our mask of sinfulness by confessing and repenting of our sins so that God would forgive us. Our sins will be white as snow because the Lord’s promise in 1 John 1:9 is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” How are we forgiven of our sins? 1 John 1:7 answers, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Only the sacrifice of our Lord on the cross is able to transform us from being unclean to being without blemish or spot before God. And in heaven, we will rejoice forever because we “have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
Rev. Nollie Malabuyo is currently pastor of Big Springs Community Church (URCNA) in Montague, California. He is the founding pastor of Zion Cornerstone Reformed Churches in Pasig (Metro Mania) and Imus, Cavite.