So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “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.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
The words Jesus has for the Pharisees are often equally convicting for us as Christians today. If, that is, we can look past our self-impressed egos and self-admiring sense of superiority over the Pharisees. Let’s be honest, we’re really good at reading what the Pharisees say and do and shaking our heads in disbelief. How could they ever be so foolish? So self-righteous? So blind to the truth?
And yet, we are just like them in so many ways.
In Mark 7 Jesus is confronted yet again with the legalism of the Pharisees and his response is difficult to read. Essentially what Jesus tells them is that at the level of their hearts they aren’t really interested in following him at all. They are interested in themselves.
“…their hearts are far from me.”
They were interested in rules about God, in looking the part of one who’s interested, and in performing regular rituals, but their hearts didn’t want the cost of real change. They didn’t want real, dynamic encounters with God. That simply puts too much at risk. It’s safer and simpler to live in pseudo-moralistic systems of self-atonement. Systems of rules and doing protect our eyes from seeing the reality of our own rebellion; the depth of our own corruption. They give us something to take pride in, something to feel like we are skilled in. Something we’ll deserve a pat on the back for accomplishing.
Pursuing systems of self-redemption is far more palatable to our pride than falling flat before the Redeemer and acknowledging that we can do nothing.
The problem is often not our actual outward behaviors (although those have their moments too), but it’s the heart behind them. The secret motivations of self-interest that permeate even our noblest and holiest pursuits. We are wretched even in our good deeds.
The bottom line is that it’s not what we do that needs changing (even if what we do does need changing); it’s our hearts need to be renewed. Our motives and desires at our essential core need renewal. Even as we follow Christ so often our motives are more about ourselves than him. Even as we commit to serving at church and in our communities, as we sing songs of praise and pray prayers of love, the reality is that our hearts are far from him.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Ezekiel 36:25-27
Lord, may this day be lived with the new heart of flesh that only you can give. May we find hearts within us that are near you. Change our interests, our desires, our wants, and all the things we value. Jesus, change our hearts.