Externalism Versus Righteousness
Mark 7:1-23
Then came together to him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.…

In vers. 3, 4 of this chapter we are furnished with an interesting piece of antiquarianism. The daily life of the devout Jew is set before us in its ceremonial aspect; not as Moses had originally ordered it, but as custom and human casuistry had gradually transformed it. The light thrown upon several questions is very searching and full of revelation, viz. the various senses in which baptism seems to have been understood by the contemporaries of Christ, and the punctilio, vigor, and detail with which ceremonial purifications were carried out. It is only as we realize the background of daily Jewish life, against which the life to which Jesus called his disciples stood out so prominently, that we are in a position to appreciate the current force of the objections raised by Pharisee and scribe. We have here -

I. CHRISTIANITY CRITICIZED FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF RELIGIOUS TRADITION. (Vers. 1-5.) The exaggerated form the latter assumed brought out the more strikingly the peculiarity and essential character of Christ's teaching.

1. It was an age in which Jewish ceremonalism had reached its highest. The doctrine of Pharisaism had penetrated the common life of the people. They might be said to have fallen in love with it. The distinctions are artificial and super-refined, e.g. between "common," "profane," or "defiled hands, and hands ceremonially clean. They washed diligently (a paraphrase of the original substituted by our revisers for oft" of the Authorized Version, and apparently the best rendering of the difficult word in the original), "carefully," or the "many other Amongst the respectable Jews ceremonial strictness and nicety held a place very similar to what "good manners," or polite behavior and refinement, occupy with ourselves, having, of course, an additional supernatural sanction from association with the Law. Thus to-day the customs and observances of nations amongst whom civilization has long existed might equally serve as a foil for the Christian moralist; and all casuistries or secondary, customary moralities.

2. The objectors were the leaders and representatives of the religious life of the time. "Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which had come from Jerusalem." They were the leaders and teachers of metropolitan fanatical ritualism. It is well when Christianity is judged that such men appear on the bench; there can then be no question as to the representative and authoritative character of the criticism. It would be a splendid thing if the representatives of modern political, social, and ecclesiastical life could be convened for such a purpose.

3. What, then, is the objection thus raised? It concerned an observance of daily life. Christians are now judged on the same arena. In small things as in large the difference will reveal itself. It depended upon an abstract distinction: the hand might be actually clean when it was not ceremonially so. It was, in the eyes of those who made it, the worst accusation they had it in their power to make. The moral life of the disciples was irreproachable; they "had wronged no man, corrupted no man, taken advantage of no man." The Christians of to-day ought to emulate this blamelessness; infidels can then fire only blank cartridge.

II. THE TABLES TURNED. (Vers. 6-23.) The critics are themselves reviewed. Trifling captiousness must be summarily dealt with, especially when it wears the garb of authority. The character of the objectors is of the first consequence in judging of Christ's tone. Grave issues were at stake. The ground of the fault-finding was superficial and untrustworthy, and a truer criterion must be discovered. "Deceivers may be denounced, that the deceived may be delivered" (Godwin). The essential nature of rectitude - the grand moral foundations must be laid bare.

1. Christ begins with an appeal to Scripture. He is careful to show that the distinction between righteousness and ritualism is a scriptural one, and not of his own invention. At the same time, he gives the reference a satirical or ironical turn by making a prophetic identification! We don't know how much is lost in ignoring the written Word of God. It is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness."

2. He next pointed out the opposition that existed between their traditions and the Law. The instance selected is a crucial one, viz. that of the fifth commandment - "the first commandment with promise." Others might have been given, but that would be sufficient. Family obligations are the inner circle in which religion most intensely operates; if a man is wrong there, he is not likely to be very righteous elsewhere. To prove their opposition to the Law was to strip them of all pretense to religion.

3. Lastly, common sense and conscience were appealed to as regarded rites and ceremonies. The "multitude" is here addressed; it is a point which the common man is supposed able to decide. There are many weapons that may thus be supplied to the evangelical armoury. If philosophy was rescued from barrenness by this method in the hands of a Socrates or a Reid, may we not hope for greater things with regard to a common-sense religion? The great foundation of all religious definitions and obligations is the true nature of man. The essential being of man is spiritual; the body is only the garment or case in which he dwells. Purity or its opposite must therefore be judged of from that standpoint. If the soul, will, spirit, inner thought of a man is pure, he is wholly pure. Spiritual and ceremonial cleanness must not be confounded. Religion is not a matter of forms, ceremonies, or anything merely outside; but of the heart. Yet the thought and will must influence the outward action, habit, and life. The spiritual is the only eternal religion (John 4:23, 24). The private question of the disciples is worthy of notice. A "parable" seems to have been their common name for a difficult saying of Christ's. Their incapacity was not intellectual but spiritual. Professed Christians themselves often require to be more fully instructed. The progressive life of the true Christian will itself solve many problems. "Had our Saviour been speaking as a physiologist, he would have admitted and contended that many things from without, if allowed to enter within, will corrupt the functions of physical life, and carry disorder and detriment into the whole fabric of the frame. But he was speaking as a moralist, and hence the antithetic statement of the next clause (cf. ver. 15)" (Morison). - M.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.

WEB: Then the Pharisees, and some of the scribes gathered together to him, having come from Jerusalem.

Exposure of Pharisaism: its Errors and Evils
Top of Page
Top of Page