Hypocrisy in High Places

A young boy asked his father a question, “Why must we surrender our Jewish faith and attend Lutheran services here in Germany?” The father replied, “Son, we must abandon our faith so that people will accept us and support our business adventures!”  The boy never got over his disappointment or bitterness. His faith in his father was crushed. He gave up on religion. He left Germany and came to England to study. He spent many months in the Reading Room of the British Museum developing his convictions. These he published in 1848 in “The Communist Manifesto”. His name was Karl Marx.  Marx argued that capitalism would inevitably self-destruct, and be replaced by communism. And religion, he insisted,

“…is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

Heinrich Marx had converted his family to Christianity for financial gain and not only lost his son to atheism. Ultimately, he enslaved billions of people through a political system that has ruined, imprisoned, and killed an estimated 94 million people.[i]The influence of one father’s act of hypocrisy multiplied in infamy.

In Mark 7 Jesus addresses religious hypocrisy and answers the question “What kind of worship does God accept?” We can make three observations:

  1. Human Traditions Invariably Fuel Hypocrisy

“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesusand saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean’, that is unwashed.…“Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”(Mark 7:1, 5)

The word ‘hypocrisy’ describes someone whose life is a performance, a show, a sham. Jesus doesn’t even bother to answer their criticisms. Instead he quotes Isaiah,

“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 merely human rules.’ (Mark 7:6-7)

Jesus claims their motives are hypocritical. Jesus criticises their worship as vain. Jesus condemns their traditions as human rules. If you have, or have had, children you’ll know the scenario before meals. “Have you washed your hands? Let me have a look at your hands…..” That is not what the Pharisees were upset about. The disciples had not followed their Rabbinic rituals.

There were nine different occasions when the hands had to be ritually washed before and after meals along with prayers and blessings.  Water had to be poured on each hand three times alternating the hands between each wash. Then there were additional instructions concerning the washing of the hands before bread was eaten and then again before vegetables were eaten. According to the Babylonian Talmud, washing before meals was so important that neglecting it is was tantamount to unchastity. Failure to obey risked divine punishment in the form of sudden destruction or poverty.[ii]  And the ritual washing of the hands was only the beginning. Mark tells us, “And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles” (Mark 7:4). Jesus challenges these cherished traditions.  Why? Because human traditions invariably fuels hypocrisy.


  1. Heretical Traditions Inevitably Contradict Scripture

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—  then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:8-13)

Not only had they conned people, they had contradicted the Scriptures. Jesus was always very careful to distinguish between the Word of God and human traditions; between what God requires and what Pharisees had added. Jesus gives an example from a popular interpretation of the 6th Commandment. The Lord had said in Exodus 20, “Honour your parents”, but the Pharisees had looked for ways round it. They added an exclusion clause. To avoid having to care for elderly parents, you could make a will, giving all your wealth to God when you died, so no one else could have it while you were alive. Neat really isn’t it. Today we call it tax avoidance. The Lord still calls it tax evasion. Let me give you a more recent example. The Second Commandment reads,

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” (Deuteronomy 5:8)

The Second Council of Nicaea in AD 787 thought they knew better and sanctioned picture worship. By the time we reach the 13th Century we find Thomas Aquinas insisting, “The Cross and Image of the Cross must be worshipped with the same supreme devotion, with which Christ Himself is worshipped.” The Council of Trent, meeting in 1545 with the express purpose of undoing the Reformation, insisted, “By the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head and bend the knee, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose image they bear.” Consequently you will find in most Catholic churches, paintings that represent God the Father as an old man. You will find depictions of God as an eye inside a triangle representing the Trinity. You will find the image of Christ on crucifixes, Statues of Mary the Queen of Heaven, and altars containing relics of dead saints. And you will find these increasingly in some Anglican Churches also. Speaking of the popularity of the crucifix in his day, D.L. Moody wrote,

“It makes our worship and prayer unreal. We are adoring a Christ who does not exist. He is not on the cross now, but on the throne. His agonies are passed for ever. He has risen from the dead. He is at the right hand of God. If we pray to a dying Christ, we are not praying to Christ Himself but a mere remembrance of Him. The injury which the crucifix has afflicted on the religious life of Christendom in encouraging a morbid and unreal devotion is absolutely incalculable. It has given us a dying Christ instead of a living Christ-a Christ separated from us by many centuries instead of a Christ nigh at hand.”

How could the Church get away with it? Easy. Simply Re-number the Ten Commandments. For 2000 years before Christ the Jews had kept the order as we have them in our Bibles here at Christ Church. The pre-Reformation Church following Augustine decided to incorporate the Second Commandment in the First Commandment so that the condemnation of idolatry became a sub-clause. The problem with that is the Ten Commandments became Nine. Do you know what they did? To make sure they still added up to ten, they split the 10th Commandment about coveting, into two.  So coveting your neighbour’s wife became #9 while coveting his ox and other possessions became #10.  Worship at holy shrines, whether Lourdes or Walsingham, and building ornate buildings, chapels and altars may give the appearance of great devotion, but God calls it adultery. We used to have a dog called Emily. She loved to play football in the garden. The problem was she wouldn’t give the ball back – so we had to buy a second football so the children had one to play with as well. When Emily had got her teeth into one, she couldn’t catch the other. She has to choose. That is what Jesus is saying in verse 8.  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”(Mark 7:8).

You cannot hold onto both at the same time. Jesus says they “let go” = abandon the Word of God (Mark 7:8). They “set aside” = reject the commands of God (Mark 7:9). And thereby “nullify” = invalidate the Word of God (Mark 7:13). The word “hold onto” means to have a “powerful grip on something”. Jesus was saying that the Pharisees had abandoned, the Scriptures in order to retain a powerful grip on people through their rules and regulations. Not surprisingly Jesus’ sermon didn’t go down too well.  Thomas Watson the 17thCentury Anglican reformer wrote,

“Though idolaters love the false image of God in a picture, they hate his true image in a believer. Pretending to honour Christ in a crucifix, yet they persecute him in His members.”

Sadly the history of the Church from the very beginning has been one of religious intolerance directed too often against the faithful who preferred martyrdom to idolatry. We have seen how human traditions invariably fuel hypocrisy and heretical traditions inevitably contradict Scripture.

  1. Hypocritical Traditions are Exposed by the Gospel

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside you can defile you by going into you. Rather, it is what comes out of you that defiles you.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you?  For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.”(Mark 7:14-23)

Clearly even the disciples were in serious danger of being deceived. “Why are you so dull too?” Jesus asks. The Pharisees had reduced morality down to a kind of arithmetic. Wash your hands in a certain way, eat specific food prepared, cooked and served in a particular way and you will be holy. Fail to keep their traditions and you could be defiled by food, defiled by places, defiled by contact with certain people. This is what Jesus found so offensive. They assumed that they could stay holy if they did certain things and avoided other things. Jesus insists,  a list of do’s and don’ts didn’t go deep enough. Because rules are powerless to change the heart.  All Jesus had to do was a little open heart surgery on them, to show what they were really like inside beneath their religious skin.

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you.” (Mark 7:18, 20)

For many years Marxism has dominated our world. For many Karl Marx was and remains a kind of saviour, advocating the moral high ground against social injustice and corruption.
His political theory enumerated in “Das Capital” can be a little complicated until you look at the man himself. Marx advocated the proletariat rising up against the bourgeois.
Yet Marx himself was bourgeois; he despised labour leaders, and never, it seems, entered a factory in his life. He ridiculed the capitalist system based on credit, yet borrowed money his entire life. For most of the time, deeply in debt.  Marx argued that his system was based upon scientific method but was in fact as cruel as the one he wanted to replace. Forcing a third of the world’s population to conform in outward behaviour has done nothing to change the human heart.

Evil is not external but internal, from within the heart. That’s why we don’t need more rules, we need release. Observing a list of taboos won’t deal with our sin or guilt.  Only Jesus can. If Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their slavery to human traditions, He clearly encouraged the disciples in their liberty. “eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” (Mark 7:2). We see the disciples liberated, disregarding the traditions of the elders. Free to enjoy God’s creation, free to enjoy Him.

They were liberated from being people-pleasers, from doing religious things to appear holy, they could be themselves. Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. This is because it centres on a person not a moral system. It means putting Jesus first, before everything, before everyone. It means coming to Him daily in our reading of His Word, and in prayer, confessing our sin and asking for His forgiveness, cleansing and empowering. How then can we be made right before God? First, recognise human traditions invariably fuel hypocrisy. Second, that heretical traditions inevitably contradict Scripture. And third, hypocritical traditions are exposed by the Gospel. What then is true worship?  Let me leave you with an answer from Archbishop William Temple,

“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Book_of_Communism

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual_washing_in_Judaism