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Reading: Mark ch. 7

As we meet in this way around the bread and the wine, we do so to call to mind the one whom we serve € to contemplate his character, to ponder upon his love, to reflect upon his life, his obedience, and the way he pleased his Father in all things; and we do this so that we may search our own hearts and minds, renewing our resolve to mould ourselves upon the pattern which he has set us.

Well, in the chapter we have read from Mark € s gospel record (Ch. 7) we have but a fleeting glimpse of our Master € -just one or two brief incidents which took place during the course of his ministry; but they are sufficient to give us an insight into the spiritual depths of his mind, and can teach us more concerning the ways of God than can whole biographies of other men.

V/hat a wealth of instruction is to be found, for example, in the incident first recorded in this chapter! The scribes and Pharisees were seeking occasion against Jesus, and accused his disciples of not washing before eating. They may have been present at the feeding of the 5,000, recorded in the previous chapter, when, of course, ritual washing was out of the question; or they may have seen some of the 12 eat without first washing their hands. This was regarded by them as a very serious offence, infringing, as it did, the very strict rules concerning ritual cleansing which had been imposed, not by the law of Moses, but by Jewish tradition. But what did Jesus have to say? v. 9, € Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that y may keep your own tradition. €

Jesus was not, of course, condoning a lack of simple hygiene. No, what he was doing was condemning the hypocrisy of these men, who were so punctilious about keeping the letter of their tradition, but who in doing so quite disregarded the commands of God € commands which are concerned, not with the superficial, outward, observance of forms and rituals, but with the living of our lives in a manner well- pleasing to Him.

He cites as an example the case of Corban, an expedient which had been devised by Jewish tradition whereby a man might be exonerated from his duty to his parents. This was an example of the depths to which human deceit can fall, when a man could delude himself that he was scrupulously observing the law, when in fact he was blatantly disobeying God € s commandment. God had commanded, € Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land € , and € He that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. € This was a fundamental commandment, one of the 10 commandments, linked with those commands to honour and serve God, to refrain from killing, from stealing, from adultery, from covetousness. It is part of that way of life which is enjoined upon those who would serve God, an infringement of which will incur our Maker € s sore displeasure. And yet these Pharisees had deluded themselves that they could defy it with impunity! No wonder that Christ denounced them in such scathing terms: vv. 6, 7.

€ Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. €

Yes, scathing words, fully deserved by those to whom they were addressed.

But these are words which we should think about, because they pinpoint a weakness of human nature of which any one of us may be guilty. € This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. € We all know what Christ means, don € t we? We can get down on our knees at night, or in the morning, and say our prayers, and yet our heart can be far away; we can give thanks for our food, but it can be a meaningless routine; we can even pray in a meeting such as this, and our words be merely vain repetitions, not reflecting the feelings of our heart; or we can stand when another is praying, and our thoughts be upon other things. I suppose that at some time or other most of us have been guilty of these things.

But Christ € s meaning goes further than that. What he is condemning is a pretence of religion € a profession of service to God € which is not reflected in our heart and mind, Our service to God is not confined to the instances we have mentioned € to our prayers and our attendance at the meeting: it extends to every moment of our waking hours. We claim to be Christadelphians; we claim to be brethren and sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ € men and women who have been called out of the world of the ungodly, to serve the true and living God, aspiring to develop characters bearing some resemblance to that of Jesus.

Those are our claims € our professions. But what are we like inside? Are these the things that fill our heart and mind? Or are our thoughts filled with our job, how we can get on in the world, our homes or hobbies, or any of the other things with which the world distracts its thoughts from the things that really matter? € They honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. € Trenchant words. May it never be possible for them to be said of us.

Yes, Christ uses this occasion € this carping criticism of the scribes and Pharisees € to teach fundamental truths to those who really desire to follow him. He does so on two levels: first, to the milling crowds who throng him, and then to those chosen few who had been called to be his disciples. Having denounced the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he calls the multitude to come closer, so that they might hear the positive aspect of his teaching: vv. 14, 15,

€ Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him:

but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. €

This was a viewpoint which the Jewish crowds, conditioned by the teaching of their elders, had not thought about. They had always thought of defilement as something external € something they contracted by eating the wrong thing, or not washing, or failing to scrupulously observe one of the many regulations imposed by their rulers. The real nature of sin had not occurred to them; and although Jesus did not elaborate his meaning at that moment, he must have given them much food for thought. € The things which come out of a man (out of the mouth, as Matthew € s record gives it) these defile a man. € What does come out of the mouth? Why, words, speech. And how do they defile a man? Well, this is something on which James has much to say: € The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature ,.. The tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. €

So both Jesus, and James, are telling us what a powerful influence, either for good or evil, the tongue can be. And this is not merely a condemnation of gossips or scandalmongers € those who delight in spreading evil reports; it is something which contains valuable instruction for every one of us, Yes, the things we say can be an influence either for good or evil, both on others and on ourselves. What we say can encourage, comfort, instruct or enlighten; or it can do just the opposite: it can hurt, it can create feelings of resentment or anger, it can discourage or dishearten; and if it does that, it not only harms others, but it defiles ourselves € it is a grievous sin in the sight of God.

But the teaching of Jesus goes deeper than that; and it is this deeper aspect which he expounds to his disciples a little later when they are alone with him in the house. They also were puzzled by his words, and asked him for a fuller explanation of what he meant. And this is what he says: v. 20.

€ That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man € . Why? He continues: v. 21 € For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man € ,

What an appalling catalogue of human crimes None of us, surely, is ever likely to be guilty of any of those things Probably not; but let us not miss the point Jesus is making. Note carefully what he says:

€ out of the heart proceed evil thoughts € ; and it is these evil thoughts that beget the gross sins here listed. This, of course, is what James tells us: € Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust (his own inner desires, or thoughts) and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived it bringeth forth sin. € And the important thing to remember is that every one of us has these evil thoughts, these lusts, which, if allowed to germinate, will result in sin.

Now this is where the teaching of the Scriptures is utterly opposed to ideas which are popular in the world in which we live. It is fashionable today to work on the hypothesis that man is inherently good, and that his crimes and his shortcomings are the result of his environment. This is, in effect, a repetition of the fallacy of the Pharisees: that defilement is something external to ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. The stark fact is, as Jesus is at pains to point out, that we, every one of us, is inherently sinful, and that it is this inherent sinfulness that we have got to tackle if we are to be worthy followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Well, it is to help us to tackle our weaknesses that we meet together in this way week by week. When Jesus spoke words such as those recorded in our chapter he knew what he was talking about, for he had experienced it himself. He had those human desires which we experience: he was tempted; he was provoked; he suffered pain, and privation, and sleeplessness, and worry; he knew what it was like to be jeered at, to be abused, to be falsely accused; and in all these things he showed us how we should act, or react.

Let us take the question of the things we say. It is, I feel, most significant that references to Christ € s sinlessness are so often associated with his control of his tongue. For example, the apostle Peter, in exhorting us to try to copy him, writes, € Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps; who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not. € Yes, Jesus suppressed that urge, natural to every one of us, to retaliate: to give as good as we get; to give those who offend us, or insult us, a piece of cur tongue. It is the most natural thing in the world to give vent to our feelings in words, and most people do. But not the true follower of Christ. He taught: € That which cometh out of the mouth, that defileth a man. € This was a precept which he practised; and difficult though we may find it, to follow his example in this respect is part of our preparation to be his companions when he returns to set up his kingdom.

But, of course, Jesus was only able to control his tongue because he had first controlled the thoughts of his heart € that heart which, if allowed to indulge its own thoughts, would lead to the commission of those awful sins to which we have already referred. How did he do it? And how can we do it? This is a question which we need to ponder deeply. There is no facile answer, no quick and easy way to conquer those evil desires and tendencies which exist within every one of us. Jesus did it because he was in constant communion with his Father in prayer; he did it because the Word of God was his daily meat and drink € the source from which his thoughts were fed, on which his mind was nourished and grew; he did it because his desires were centred, not upon the gratification of sensual feelings, not upon the acquisition of material possessions, but upon the realisation of that state of perfect righteousness, of unsullicd joy, which God has promised to those who truly serve Him.

All these resources are equally available to us, and only if we use them to the full can we overcome those innate sinful tendencies which exist within the heart of every one of us. We need to get nearer to God € by seeking Him in prayer € by meditating upon the teaching of His Word € by trying to copy, in all our ways, that example which He has set us by the one whom we now remember. This is the urgent task which lies before us, the one thing that really matters if the coming of our Lord is to be to us the realisation of the things we profess to believe. May it be that each one of us so prepares our heart and mind that he may say to us, € Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. € :

€ A. Hone