Mark 7:6-7 “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 but rules taught by men.’”
Someone once told me about a conversation they had with a person who professed to be a “non-practicing” Christian. This person doesn’t go to church, doesn’t pray, doesn’t make much of Christian holidays. Let’s be clear on this: a non-practicing Christian is no Christian at all. Maybe such a person remembers being a Christian once, or used to be a Christian, but genuine Christian faith won’t let us be non-practicing Christians, at least not for very long.
But what do real believers practice? It has to do with more than going to worship, and mouthing prayers, and celebrating holidays. The Pharisees and teachers of the law did all those things, but Jesus calls them hypocrites, actors, pretenders. He reveals the root of the problem in this Isaiah quote: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
They looked religious. They prayed a lot. They worshiped regularly. They kept all their extra traditions. It made them feel spiritual. But all the while their hearts were not what God wanted them to be. They were lacking in faith and love.
How could Jesus tell? First, they lovelessly judged Jesus’ disciples, who had done nothing wrong. That is not the practice of faith and love. Later in his ministry Jesus does not mince words in exposing their hearts, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
Even more serious evidence of their hypocrisy was their treatment of Jesus himself. Nothing says, “My heart is far away from God’s” more clearly than ignoring, rejecting, or attacking his Son. You can’t say you love me and mistreat my child. Jesus says in John 5, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (v. 23).
We, too, need to be careful not to go through the motions of worship and prayer, to look like we are religiously busy, but our hearts remain empty, we do not love each other, and we fail to acknowledge our sin and trust Jesus for the forgiveness he alone can give us. Wherever Christians have adopted a subtle shift in emphasis from being forgiven and saved to being good (in other words, from Christ to me), you can be sure that people are turning into hypocrites.
The very rules and traditions the Pharisees intended to protect God’s Word eventually replaced God’s Word. You might look at it this way: In order to deliver our food and in order to protect our food, we wrap it in boxes and cans. Those boxes and cans serve a good function so long as we eat the nourishing food inside of them.
But what happens if we eat the boxes and cans, and ignore the food that they contain? We aren’t billy goats. Instead of nourishing us, the packaging will make us sick. This is what the false emphasis on their own rules was doing to the Pharisees. What was intended to protect God’s word, and deliver God’s word, now replaced God’s word. There was no spiritual nourishment there. By eating the wrapper and throwing away the food, the Pharisees had made themselves spiritually sick.
Our Lord wants nothing else but to reach us with his law to expose our sins, humble us before him, and lead us to repent. Our Lord wants nothing else but to reach us with his gospel, to show us the dying love of Jesus, pouring out his life on the cross to erase my sin and give me faith and life. That in a nutshell is the Word that must command our attention week in and week out. Everything else is only packaging. May God keep us so enamored by his message of grace that we resist the dangerous distractions that turn us from his word.