Thursday, 21 August 2008

Jesus on the wrong view of sin

A reflection on Mark 7:1-23.

As this passage opens, we read of an argument about purity. This isn't just a discussion about hygiene - it's one of religious cleanliness.

Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees. Jesus has evidently told his disciples that they don't need to obey the oral Torah and the other extra-Biblical regulations that the Pharisees have added to those of Scripture. To the Pharisees, this is something that rebounds on Jesus' own view of purity ("Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?").

Jesus' reply is strong. The Pharisees have placed their own traditions about the revelation of Scripture. Worse still, they set aside the commands of God through their own traditions that were intended to help them to keep it! They weaken the demands of the Law through adding their own regulations!

How is this possible? It's because the Pharisees have a wrong view of sin. A wrong view of sin will inevitably mean that you seek to combat it in a way that appears effective to you. The Pharisees ineffective view of sin meant that they settled for an ineffective way of dealing with it.

This is underlined by the fact that Jesus calls the crowd to him in verse 14. Previously, this had been a discussion with only disciples and Pharisees present. Calling the crowd to him emphasises the big teaching point that Jesus is about to make. It's this: "Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'" First of all, this must have sounded like toilet humour. But Jesus' point is serious and grave, as he clarifies in verses 18-23.

The Pharisees' problem is that sin is something outside of them. It's as if in their cores they are good. Sin is 'out there' - and so it can be controlled by manipulating your environment. To avoid being made unclean by sin, I avoid going to and doing things that might defile me. To the Pharisees, sin is something like a tropical disease I could catch in certain countries. The antidote? Don't go there.

Jesus' diagnosis is much more radical. Sin comes from inside us, from within, out of our hearts. We can't manipulate our hearts in the same way as we can manipulate our environments. We can't control our sin ourselves. And so, implies Jesus, a much more radical cure is needed.

A few weeks ago, I wrote of how there is widespread confusion on the nature of sin. Many Christians are unsure of exactly what sin is and so look in the wrong place for its antidote.

Legalism and sanctification-by-keeping-the-rules sprouts from an inflated view of human nature and the belief that sin is 'out there'. A friend I know refuses to go to the pub because of fear of somehow getting 'infected' there. A few years ago, I remember a friend once saying that she thought that open accountability relationships with other Christians are the primary way of ridding sin from our lives. Don't get me wrong - I think accountability is good and beneficial (when people enter these relationships with the right expectations). But we are close to being Pharisees if we think that will somehow deal with our sin: it's an evangelical way of seeking to control our circumstances to become 'clean', that implies that sin is 'out there' rather than 'in here'.

Let's not forget the far more radical (and only successful) alternative that Jesus offers to deal with sin as it really is.

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