5 minute read

I think Jesus’ favorite insult was “brood of vipers.” And why not? I mean, it sounds pretty cool and he was not afraid to use it.

When you think about it though, it is pretty hard to imagine the king of all glory calling people a brood of vipers. Sounds pretty harsh, especially if your view of Jesus is the soft, Precious Moments concoction so popular in the American church today. Jesus is not our buddy, he is our king, but I digress.

Jesus did not go around spouting out insults, yet there are a couple of times in the gospels where we see him get pretty pointed in his words. Most of these instances were directed toward the Pharisees. As you read through the gospels, you really begin to get the impression that Jesus was not too happy with the Pharisees. One particular instance in the gospel of Mark does a fine job of getting to the heart of the matter.

In Mark 7 the disciples were eating a meal. Now, this mundane fact is of no importance by itself. Truthfully, I doubt it would have made the pages of scripture, except for the reaction of the Pharisees. In their constant pursuit of tearing down Christ and his message, the Pharisees saw an opportunity for criticism because the disciples had not followed the tradition of cleansing oneself before eating. In other words, they had not washed their hands.

It starts out like this,

“ Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. “ (Mark 7:1-2)

Mark goes on to explain the significance of this by telling his readers of the “tradition of the elders.” In that day, it had become a religious necessity to ritually wash your hands prior to eating and after coming from the market. This was widely practiced by not just the Pharisees but most Jews as well. So, it is not surprising that the Pharisees raised a stink when they realized some of the disciples were not adhering to the tradition.

When confronted by this band of self-appointed religious bigwigs, the response Jesus provides cuts deep past the surface issue and right to the heart of the real problem. He says this to the Pharisees, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” What follows is an indictment against the legalism of the Pharisees, a legalism that has allowed them to build loopholes right into their faith.

Jesus continues,

For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  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)—  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:10-13, emphasis added)

Sneaky right? In order to avoid the God-given obligation to their family, the religious had actually built a tradition that allowed them to forsake God’s commandments. Now certainly, they made it sound like they were doing something spiritual. After all, they were giving their gain to God. That has to be better than using it on old parents, right? Yet, when it was all said and done, they had excused away the real commands of God by creating their own traditions. No wonder Jesus was not happy with the Pharisees.

It is wrong to disobey authority. It is slimy to pretend like you are being holier by your disobedience, and that is exactly what they were doing. The Pharisees had built spiritual loopholes into their traditions that allowed them (howbeit, only in their mind) to trump God’s real laws and responsibilities. They walked around proud of their religious superiority, and in fact, they were disobeying God’s word just like everyone else. However, their disobedience was far more sinister. It was self-righteous. It appears few things angered Jesus more than this kind of hypocrisy.

Pharisees are not the only ones with this problem though.

If Jesus walked the earth today, how would he feel about the church’s self-righteousness, particularly in America? The Pharisees were the religious leaders of their day. They were the good church folk, so to speak. They were the regular attenders at their place of worship, and they were the ones who had religious bumper stickers on their cars. Sound like anybody you know?

It is easy for us to shame the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, to curse their spiritual loopholes, but maybe we should have a different response. Instead, perhaps we should take heed of the warnings in scripture, as we have a culture today inside the church that runs perilously close to that of the Pharisees. We have built a great corpus of traditions ourselves, both written and unwritten, that dictate the way we live and worship. We have traditions stacked a mile high in some churches. These traditions decide when, how, where and why we do things the way we do.

Traditions in themselves are not evil. They can be healthy and help create unity. But when these traditions begin to dictate you actions above the commands of scripture, then you have become a Pharisee. When we let our new carpet keep us from having a real children’s ministry, lest they spill something on it, then we have become Pharisees. When we cannot budge on our location of a bible study, because it is not church unless it is at the building, then we have become Pharisees. When we shun people who visit our fellowship, because they are not dressed appropriately (or are the wrong color), we have become Pharisees. And those are the easy ones to see.

How often do we become so busy with our programs that we overlook the poverty, sickness and lostness outside our walls? These are the things that seemed to matter the most to Jesus. How often have we dismissed real anguish with the magic words, “Oh, I’ll pray for you?” Prayer is of the utmost importance, but when those words simply become a way to overlook problems, instead of rolling up your sleeves and being a real Christian, then they have become the words of a Pharisee.

We must take a long, hard look at our traditions. We must make sure we are not creating spiritual loopholes for ourselves, excuses to live easy instead of Godly. God did not call us to be comfortable and proud of our self-righteousness. He called us to die to ourselves.

May these words never be said of us,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ (Mark 7:6b-8)