If you’ve been paying attention to these lessons from Mark, you might have noticed a pattern emerging. This Gospel seems to be focused on Jesus’ confrontations with the official interpretation of God’s law. We mentioned before that chapters 2 and 3 have five different conflicts which he had with the religious leaders. This is another one, and it touches on an area that we need to understand.
First, we need to remember that this Gospel was written mainly to Gentiles who had to be taught the reasoning behind some of the Jewish customs. But there’s something you need to know which Mark doesn’t mention. We tend to foist upon the N. T. our modern comprehension of the world. We’re told that we need to wash our hands on a regular basis. Why? Because of hygiene. There are germs which we pick up, and the washing kills them. If we don’t wash, it’ll affect our health in a bad way.
But that wasn’t why the Pharisees believed in washing hands. They had no concept of germ theory, anyway. The reason why they washed was to symbolize something, namely their separation from the world. The world was sinful and “unclean” (in a moral sense), and they wanted no part of that. So they washed their hands to rid themselves of the moral filth that they might've “picked up.”
This was a based on an O.T. understanding of life. Remember, the main motif of the O.T. was separation: Separation of the common people from God, of clean from unclean foods, of common days from holy days, of clean from unclean people, etc. In a way, it was the “quarantine” method of righteousness. Evil was kept “over there” as much as possible.
But then Jesus came along, and a whole new paradigm was in place. He touched a leper, and instead of becoming unclean himself, his “cleanness” spread to the leper. Same thing with the woman who constantly bled.
But the Pharisees were so caught up in their way of doing things that they were trapped in legalism. What’s legalism? There are lots of definitions out there, some more helpful than others. But I have one, or at least a way to recognize it, and it’s based on Jesus’ accusation from this passage. Here it is—It’s being concerned about things that God doesn’t care about and not being concerned about things that he does care about. See, legalism is not concern about obeying God’s law. The Lord has given us instructions, and he didn’t give them just because he likes hearing himself talk. If you want to obey him and study his instructions in order to do so, that’s not legalism.
But notice the contrast here in Christ’s indictment. Washing of the hands for a symbolic cleansing---God doesn’t care about that. Taking care of your parents when they’re in need—very high on God’s priority list. And how do we tell which is which? Well, what standard does Christ present? Simple enough test: What has he made explicit in his word?
And it’s a pattern you’ll see over and over with legalism. People care about things that God doesn’t care about, and eventually it’ll crowd out the things that actually hold his interest. Part of the reason, quite frankly, is laziness. You see, legalism is at the same time both A) a crushing burden and B) an easy way out. To ritually wash your hands before a meal is no burden at all compared to taking care of your parents when they’re too old to provide for themselves.
But before we point the finger at those nasty Pharisees, we might take a moment for self-reflection. I know that America is about as far away from legalism (in the traditional sense) as you can get. If anything, we’re in far greater danger from antinomianism than from legalism. But the root error is still the same: We care about things that God doesn’t care about and don’t pay any attention to what’s really on his heart. What does he really want me to do? How can I change my priority list to reflect his? I think you know that answer to that, don’t you?
Father God, I want my heart to be an echo of yours. I want to care about what you care about. I want to love what you love and hate what you hate. Please.