Recently, I heard a story about a client who fired who fired his therapist. Over the course of 10 weeks, the therapist listened to the man’s story of greed, fraud, anger, and manipulation in his family and business. Hatred of others showed in the client behind a smiling face in every session.
Each week in the same conversations, the client would tell stories of his religious life in his church in the community. He would brag about the church’s size, his regular religious duties, and his upcoming election as a deacon in the church. With religious fervor he used scripture to paint his life as perfect and the family conflict that brought him to therapy the result of the rest of his family.
Finally, the incongruity of the situation had become too much and the therapist confronted the man’s hypocrisy. The religious portrait he painted of himself masked the true, evil self that abused and mistreated everyone around him. He was a bully wrapping himself in a Christian flag. Not surprising, the man never came back to therapy. Unmasking our real selves from our religious portraits is always painful and difficult.
In ancient Greece Theater, actors often wore various masks to portray the different roles they impersonated. The English word hypocrite comes from the Greek word for actor – a person who wears different masks. The word has come to mean someone who acts a role without sincerity, a pretender.
This therapist unearthed a hypocrite. The mask of religion he wore so proudly on the outside did not match the darkness of his life and spirit.
The client’s faith was out of balance. The outside didn’t match the inside and the inside didn’t match the outside.
Out of Balance: Religious Hypocrisy
In Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees in our passage from Mark 7, Jesus describes the out of balance faith of the religious leaders as hypocrites. They were pretenders – their outward religious rituals masked a hollow faith.
The most important religious duty of any orthodox Jewish person in the first century was ritual purity. Much of the confrontations Jesus had with the religious people of his day involved religious purity and ritual. For example, healing a person on a Sabbath made one unclean. Touching a dead person made you unclean. Touching a person who is bleeding or a woman on her period made you unclean. Even bringing home food from the market could transfer the uncleanness from the market to a person’s home.
Because being ritual pure was so important, the religious leaders of the day developed a variety of methods to keep a person clean. We know this was a vitally important aspect of their religion because archaeologists in the Middle East working from Qumran to Jerusalem to the Galilee have unearth ritual baths called Mikvahs. In this ritual bath, a person who take off their clothes, walked down into square hole with water and then back up. It was not for outer dirt, it was for religious dirt - anything unclean that had transferred to their bodies and made them unclean. Can you imagine the stress this would cause in your life trying to maintain this kind of religious purity – wondering what you had picked up during the day?
Here in Chapter 7, the Pharisees confront Jesus and his disciples over their expectation of religious hand washing. The Pharisees are not wondering if the disciples have not washed their hands before they eat – something we should all aspire too – especially after shaking everyone’s hand today at church. No, they are challenging them for not ritually washing their hands before the meal. In fact, in some pious Jewish families they would have several ritual washings of their hands during each meal.
Jesus pushes back against this out of balance faith. This stressful view of ritual purity was not in the Torah – in scripture. Instead, these kinds of purity rituals had been developed over the centuries by rabbis and religious leaders. This oral law which Jesus calls the tradition of the elders was written down in the Mushing. Jesus challenges their notion of religious purity by focusing on Judaism’s out of balance faith.
Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
Jesus calls the Pharisee hypocrites because their outside actions did not match their inside life. There are out of balance.
The Pharisees believed that the outside world defiled them and kept them from being pure. Jesus reverses their understanding of faith and says our inside life defiles outside. Look at what Jesus says to the disciples when they question him – v. 18 - 23
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Out of balanced faith produces religious hypocrites.
Faithful discipleship balances our inner and outer lives and extends God’s Kingdom.
I’ve been thinking this week about where my faith is out of balance. Where does my inside life fail to match my outward actions and where do my outward actions fail to meet my inward faith?
How would this passage from Isaiah describe our out of balance faith? Perhaps it would say …
“You say your prayers before meals in restaurants so others see your religious actions, but your hearts are far from me.
In vain you show up to worship once a month, checking off your religious duty, yet you abandon the purposes of God in daily lives.”
Have you ever realized that Jesus saves his most harsh and critical statements about sin for the religious people of his day? “Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”
““Listen to me,” Jesus says all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
The Message paraphrase is even more graphic: ““Listen now, all of you—take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit—that’s the real pollution.”
Out of balance faith leaves the world barren, hollow and desolate. It builds unhealthy family, unhealthy churches, and unhealthy communities. The most dangerous part is that it gives off the appearance of faith while polluting everything around it.
Is your faith out of balance? Do you fight to display the 10 commandments – yet fail to follow them? Do you post scripture verses on your Facebook wall, then, work hard to tear down friends who look at the world differently than you or have a different opinion or voting preference? Do you teach your children that Jesus loves the little children, then speak gossip or hatred towards others?
In a way all of us are hypocrites – we still sin and struggle. Jesus wants us to know we will never correct our out of balance faith by trying to change our behavior, by trying harder. Correcting the balance in our faith doesn’t come from without – it comes from transformation from within.
In Balance: Faithful Discipleship
In balance faith comes from inside us through faithful discipleship. Look at the story of the young mother whose child has a sick spirit inside her beginning in v 24.
Geography is important in this story to grasp the drastic difference between out of balance and in balance faith.
Jesus confronts the Pharisees on the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee. This region is completely orthodox Jewish. Everyone looks exactly the same and speaks the same language. Everyone eats by the same rules. Everyone follows the ritual. AND these Pharisees are from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish faith. It houses the temple. These are the most religious, wisest, most respected, most schooled religious leaders in all of Judaism. The people with the out of balanced faith are the most outwardly religious people you could meet.
Then in v. 24, Jesus leaves Jewish Galilee goes to a place called Tyre, a non Jewish, Gentile - Roman province. No one here eats the same Kosher foods as the people in Galilee. They don’t speak the same language. And they definitely have different rituals and traditions – and don’t know or follow the religious rituals as those religious scholars from Jerusalem.
Jesus brings his entourage of Jewish disciples to Tyre. We see that his fame follows him when a young mother, a Canaanite, a Gentile, comes to Jesus and falls at his feet. In the eyes of Pharisee she is completely defiled – there is nothing clean or pure or religious about her. Yet, like other people Mark highlights as true disciples of Jesus – the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ coat, Jairus, the Jewish leader – this woman’s faith – her inside, not her outside - touches Jesus. She begs him to heal the evil spirit in her daughter’s life. She has a beautiful back and forth conversation with Jesus where she acknowledges his mission to the Jews and his openness to the Gentiles as well. Jesus sees her faith – and says: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Then – see what happens: “So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” The woman has such faith that she takes Jesus’ word as authority, believes him and walks home expecting her daughter to be healed.
The woman’s faithful discipleship balances her inner life and her outer life and extends God’s Kingdom. Her faith spills out to impact her actions. Her actions mirror her faith. This is the kind of faithful discipleship Jesus expects from his followers. The Gospel writer Mark sets her up as an example of discipleship for the disciples, for the early church, and for us.
In these two stories – one in Jewish Galilee and the other in Gentile Tyre, the person with the most in balance faith looks differently than the most religious.
Purity does not come from the outside – it comes from the inside. Faithful discipleship balances our inner and our outer life and extends God’s Kingdom.
Our culture today needs to see Christians with in balanced faith. Over the last 25 years too many out of balanced religious lives have been on display as representatives of our evangelical world and institutions. Televangelists preaching against sin have been exposed in their sinful behaviors. Religious politicians claiming to protect religious values have been exposed in actions against those values.
Our world today to see real faith in action. I saw this several years ago when I took Sarah to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. This museum is full of replicas and models of natural and historical events – but very little of it is real. The dinosaur skeleton in the lobby is a model – not real dinosaur bones. Even as a middle school Sarah had an adverse reaction to these non-real museum pieces. In an effort to counter act her aversion, I saw the museum had an Easter Island Head Statue. I knew this must be real so we struck out through the labyrinth of the museum to find it. Finally – there, in a prominent place at the back of a room, sat this large, ancient stone piece carved into a dark head. We both we amazed and awed at its size and beauty. Then, Sarah touched the huge stone pillar – it was hollow. It too was a fake. Face with another forgery, Sarah wanted nothing else to do with the museum. I couldn’t get her to stop to see the items that we were real. For her, nothing was to be believed.
Our world today desperately needs in balanced people of faith leading consistent, authentic lives of discipleship. This is what wants for you and me. Our lives don’t need to be perfect or pure or overly religious – we just need to be in balance, hopeful, and faithful.
This week in your efforts to follow Jesus faithfully, ask Jesus to reveal to you the out of balance places in your life. Focus less on trying to do the right behaviors to match what you think a Christian looks like and invest your time in becoming the person Jesus most desperately wants you to be – a faithful disciple. The more you become a faithful disciples, the more your actions will reflect it. Thanks be to God! Amen.