Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches. 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) — 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” – Mark 7:1-13
I am not one given to religious practices. That is, I don’t have to fold my hands in a certain way when I pray. It doesn’t matter much to me whether I wear an alb or not when I lead worship or preach. I don’t often make the sign of the cross. It’s just not my style. Others do this with good conscience and intent. Others find great meaning in such ceremonies, practices, and observances. Well and good. In fact, as Lutherans we do not condemn one another because we have fewer or more ceremonies which we practice in the church (cf. FC, X).
There is, however, a matter of religious observance that Jesus roundly rejects. Those practices that actually hide an unbelieving heart as opposed to those which express the faith in the heart come under Jesus’ scrutiny and receive his judgment. In the case of the question of hand-washing, or couch baptizing the issue never was whether it is good to do or not. The question had to do with hiding a proud heart behind the show of piety.
Self-righteousness is extremely repugnant to God. In the Psalm 50:7-15 God urges people to understand that he does not need our sacrifices. We, however, are deeply in need of his mercy, grace, help, and salvation. This is God’s delight: to be received as our Savior and Lord; to follow his commands away from the cross, not in order to gain access to the throne of God’s grace.
We can find plenty of reasons to abandon God’s ways. There are always excuses we can borrow. Some my be legitimate; I do sometimes get physically tired and cannot do the good thing which my neighbor may need. But many are mere dodges. In the end, however, all excuses put us outside of a need for God’s forgiveness. That is a dangerous place to be.
We are called to love God and our neighbor. That is something we are to do as God’s people. No amount of excuse-making can set that aside. Those behaviors flow from the cross of Jesus; they do not gain us access to God’s grace. We bear fruit not to make ourselves acceptable before God. We bear fruit because God has made us new through faith in Jesus. We ought to be more worried or concerned over any lack of love for neighbor than we would ever be about how someone chooses to express their praise to God. Our religion must never stand in the way of loving our neighbor.