Home > Sermons > Sermon: Matters of the Heart (Mark 7:1-23)

Sermon: Matters of the Heart (Mark 7:1-23)


A sermon on Mark 7:1-23


The season of fall is my favourite season. I love the traditions of getting ready for school, new books, fancy pens and pencils and new clothes. I love the cooler weather and watching the leaves turn colours. I love the smells of pumpkin spice and apple cider.

It’s also the time for one of fashion’s most sacred rules: don’t wear white after Labour Day.

This was drilled into me as a child as we would put away our summer clothes and shoes and polish our black Sunday shoes. Perhaps you are like me, though, following this fashion etiquette without understanding why.

Perhaps you assumed, as I did, that it had some practical reason. Maybe white clothing tended to be lighter or cooler and the darker colours made the colder weather more bearable? Perhaps white shirts showed off your hard earned tan better than darker colours?

However, fashion does not have a reputation for being practical.

According to a Times Magazine article, this was a hard and fast rule for the elite classes by the 1950s and for “those savvy enough to learn all the rules increased their odds of earning a ticket into polite society. “It [was] insiders trying to keep other people out,” “and outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules.” Times Article

Our tradition to put our white clothes away come labour day is away to keep insiders in and let outsiders try to climb in by proving they know the rules.

Pharisees and Their Traditions

The Pharisees and Scribes were obsessed with the traditions of the law – after all, their lives’ work depended upon it. They would have been the ones keeping tabs on who was wearing white after labour day. The Pharisees were the interpreters of the law, trying to interpret how the law could be kept in the current culture by the common people and the Scribes were the teachers of the law and traditions. Before we dive into today’s Gospel reading, it is helpful to be reminded that the Pharisees and Scribes devoted their lives to ensuring that the law was kept – in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) The trouble with the Pharisees and Scribes, as we shall see, is that they often missed the point of the law and reinforced traditions that enabled them to keep insiders in and outsiders out.

This wasn’t the first time that the Pharisees questioned Jesus. Jesus and his disciples were traveling, teaching and healing the paralytic, demon possessed, sick and unclean. He stilled the storm and fed the five thousand. Meanwhile, the Pharisees were concerned about the disciples not fasting, and picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Of course, they were more concerned with who these disciples followed, especially as Jesus continued to draw crowds wherever he went.

The author of Mark writes very succinctly and at times very abruptly. Sometimes we go from story to story with a brief “Immediately!” as our only signal. So when Mark provides details, we usually need to pay attention. Whenever the Pharisees and Scribes are mentioned up until our reading today, there is a note that they come from Jerusalem. Jerusalem represents the opposition to Jesus, culminating in the crucifixion. Therefore, the Pharisees and Scribes remind us of the building threat against Jesus.

Let’s take a moment to look at the complaint against Jesus.

The Complaint

The complaint had some validity according to Old Testament laws of touching the unclean for the villages and market places were filled with people who were sick. The verse right before our passage tells us that Jesus and his disciples had been spending a lot of time in such places precisely with such people: Whenever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were being cured. Everything about those encounters would have made the disciples ritually unclean – even the shadow of a Gentile falling across a dish or plate would make it unclean. Jesus and his disciples had spent time with the ceremonially unclean and needed to be ceremonially cleansed.

The greek word used to describe the ceremonial cleansing means “with the fist”. According to one scholar, it “may mean rubbing the fist in the palm of the hand, but more likely involves washing the hands up to the wriist or even using a fistful of water rather than a larger amount.”  (English, The Gospel of Mark) Mark is telling his audience about this tradition perhaps because it is not widespread in the same way that Sabbath is.

What lies at the heart of the dispute, is that Jesus and His disciples did not follow many of the traditions of the elders. These oral traditions were upheld as just as important as the law for they explained how to keep the law, how to be a faithful Jew. For the Pharisees and Scribes, Jesus was rejecting not just their authority on these matters but what it meant to be a Jew in their times. At the very heart of their complaint was the question of who Jesus is – did he have the authority to change the traditions and law at the heart of Jewish society?

Jesus’ Response

Jesus takes a two-prong approach to answering the Pharisees and the Scribes. First, He addresses their concerns directly. Jesus calls them hypocrites because they outwardly honour God but their hearts are far from God. The Pharisees and Scribes are so concerned with oral traditions and interpretations of the law that they miss the point of the law completely. Later, Jesus describes what defiles a person – and it’s not a dirty cup or unwashed hands but a sinful heart.

Jesus then attacks their traditions more generally by looking at how the Pharisees and Scribes use their traditions to invalidate the law. The example Jesus chooses is about Corban, a tradition that has to do with dedicating one’s possessions to God and in doing so, those possessions cannot be used for anyone else. One scholar writes, “If a son made such a dedicatory vow, ancient scribal law of the Jews stated that the vow could not be cancelled, even to support one’s parents with one’s possessions.” So while Scripture says to Honour your father and your mother and he who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death, the Pharisees and scribes created a loophole when it came to their possessions. They could not honour their father and mother if they had previously set aside money or possessions as Corban because that would be breaking a vow before God. In fact, it was possible to set aside all the money that would normally be devoted to care for aging parents. And this was wrong. The Jews were finding ways to not fulfill the law of caring for their father and mother through fancy traditions that would make them seemingly exempt.

What Defiles a Man

Jesus was not about the traditions of the elders but about the heart of the law. He would not care if we showed up in white after Labour Day – or not – but how we would treat one another.

Jesus is not concerned with a dirty cup or plate, or dirty hands from touching the sick or the Gentile. He is concerned with the heart. Jesus gives us a long list of evil thoughts and deeds that stem from the heart -evil thoughts, fornification, thefts, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, arrogance and foolishness. While not exhaustive, if you are like me and see yourself somewhere on the list, perhaps you feel the weight of the matters of the heart in comparison to a dirty cup or unwashed hands. Perhaps those traditions – or the rules about when to wear white pail in comparison to the areas of our hearts that need attention.

Our reading in James today takes this a step further. He writes, Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. 2-3 Thousand Refugees have been crossing over the Macedonian border each day this week. One man is quoted saying that “we just want our children to have peace and go to school”. Surely James had such situations in mind when he calls for a purity that cares for orphans and widows in their distress.


I don’t have a whole lot of answers for us today. But I do have some questions that I’m going to invite us to reflect quietly on for a few moments.

  1. What traditions do we hide ourselves in so we don’t have to face the real matters of our own hearts?
  1. What ways of Jesus do we uphold as good and righteous to follow while explaining away the ones we don’t like?
  1. Who are the orphans and widows in our society? How do we as a community care for them?

Today’s passage is not an easy one. For it is not as simple as wearing or not wearing white past a certain date. It is not about simply washing hands or dishes. But it is about having a heart that is right with God. And if we are honest with ourselves, we all fall short.


In a moment, we will gather around the table and remember together that

God is steadfast in love

and infinite in mercy

And we can be confident as we confess our sins because he welcomes sinners at his table and into his presence.


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