Worship Helps for Pentecost 15

Title: The Pharisees Question Jesus
Artist: James Tissot

Worship Theme: Faithfulness and obedience to the Word of the Lord are not only logical consequences of faith but necessary fruits that grow in and from hearts redeemed and renewed by the gospel. The readings for this Sunday emphasize with equal force that the basis of all faithfulness must be the Word of God and that all God-pleasing obedience must begin in the heart.

Old Testament: Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6-9
So now, Israel, listen to the statutes and the ordinances that I am teaching you, and carry them out so that you may live and so that you may enter the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving to you and take possession of it. 2Do not add to the word that I am commanding you, and do not subtract from it, so that you keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you.
6Keep them and put them into practice, because in this way your wisdom and your understanding will be recognized by all the people who hear about all these statutes; and they will say, “This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people,” 7because what other great nation is there that has a god as close to it as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call on him? 8What other great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances as righteous as this entire law that I am presenting to you today?
9But guard yourselves and guard your whole being diligently, so that you do not forget the things that your eyes have seen and so that those things do not disappear from your heart all the rest of the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.

1. Why did God command the Israelites not to “add or subtract” to what he commands?

2. How were God’s laws and decrees so much more righteous than the other nation’s?

Epistle: James 1:17–27  
17Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the lights, who does not change or shift like a shadow. 18Just as he planned, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creations.
19Remember this, my dear brothers: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. 20Certainly, a man’s anger does not bring about what is right before God. 21So after getting rid of all moral filthiness and overflowing wickedness, receive with humility the word planted in you. It is able to save your souls.
22Be people who do what the word says, not people who only hear it. Such people are deceiving themselves. 23In fact, if anyone hears the word and does not do what it says, he is like a man who carefully looks at his own natural face in a mirror. 24Indeed, he carefully looks at himself; then, he goes away and immediately forgets what he looked like. 25But the one who looks carefully into the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continues to do so—since he does not hear and forget but actually does what it says—that person will be blessed in what he does.
26If anyone considers himself to be religious but deceives his own heart because he does not bridle his tongue, this person’s religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

3. What tool that God uses to save and sanctify us does James keep highlighting here?

4. Obeying God’s law cannot save us because we cannot obey it perfectly – just the opposite.  Still, what does God’s perfect law give believers when we obey God out of thanks and love?

Gospel: Mark 7:1–8, 14-15, 21-23  
The Pharisees and some of the experts in the law came from Jerusalem and gathered around Jesus. 2They saw some of his disciples eating bread with unclean (that is, unwashed) hands. 3In fact, the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they scrub their hands with a fist, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions they adhere to, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and dining couches. 5The Pharisees and the experts in the law asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders? Instead they eat bread with unclean hands.”
6He answered them, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites. As it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7They worship me in vain, teaching human rules as if they were doctrines.
8“You abandon God’s commandment but hold to human tradition like the washing of pitchers and cups, and you do many other such things.”
14He called the crowd to him again and said, “Everyone, listen to me and understand. 15There is nothing outside of a man that can make him unclean by going into him. But the things that come out of a man are what make a man unclean.
21“In fact, from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual sins, theft, murder, 22adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, slander, arrogance, and foolishness. 23All these evil things proceed from within and make a person unclean.”

5. How did the Pharisees add to God’s law?

6. Why did Jesus call them “hypocrites”?

7. The Pharisees were afraid of becoming unclean because of contact with Gentiles in the marketplace.  How does a man become truly unclean, according to Jesus?

1. At Mt. Sinai God had given his chosen people promises and decrees that were perfect in every respect – even though many of the laws would only bind God’s people until the Messiah came.  Adding or subtracting to perfection would dishonor God and his grace.  Obeying these commands would show Israel’s faithfulness to God and attract the attention of their heathen neighbors.

2. God’s laws and decrees originated with the righteous and holy God and pointed people back to him, not to selfishness.  A) God’s moral law demands perfect love for God and fellow man.  B)  His ceremonial laws pointed ahead to the world’s only Savior.  C)  Israel’s civil laws demanded fair punishment for wrong doers.  No other nations’ laws compared, and no other nation had received their laws when their God had come near them to rescue them from slavery and to adopt them as his people by a holy covenant.

3. James highlights God’s Word, through which God gave us new birth – the word which God planted in us to save us.

4. God’s perfect law gives freedom, James says. Instead of being slaves to our own pride, to all our dirty desires and to people-pleasing, we are free.

5. The Pharisees added to God’s law by elevating hand-washing to a religious ceremony that they claimed made them better before God than those who did not wash (literally, “baptize”) their hands.

6. Jesus called such men hypocrites (literally, “actors”) because they were always finding fault with other people but never with themselves and pretended to love and worship God when they really intended to make themselves appear holier than others.

7. Jesus says sin and filth starts in the heart when we allow the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature to plant evil inside of us.  We are dirty due to our sinful hearts.  Then we become even more unclean when we embrace evil ideas and expose them to the rest of the world by what we say and do.  (The Pharisees exemplified this when they plotted and worked to kill Jesus, while claiming to be especially religious men.)

Putting your faith into action
“Tradition, tradition!” sings Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Giving traditions abound in congregations everywhere. Some seek member pledges. Some always conduct a fall stewardship campaign. Even the way we take the offering in church can be a tradition that no one had better mess with. Our reading warns us that traditions need to be periodically evaluated to see whether they still get the results that please God and serve the church. Churches surely want to do things decently and in order, but tradition for tradition’s sake can send us in a wrong direction when it comes to understanding or teaching truths of Scripture. Conversely, traditions that bring honor and give a witness to Christ are to be retained. The question to ask is whether the tradition is one proclaimed or prescribed by Scripture, or whether it is a human invention for purely human purposes. And sometimes Scripture commands that we abandon rules or traditions that outlive their purpose or clash with a new command of God. The change in dietary habits for the Jews that Jesus suggests in our text was hard for them to swallow. We know from the book of Acts that Peter had the hardest time in giving up this tradition, but finally obeyed God’s command. As God’s stewards we want to be sure that our way of managing all of life is in harmony with God’s directives.

A reading from the Book of Concord for Pentecost 15
Our churches have taught that we cannot merit grace or be justified by observing human traditions.  We must not think that such observances are necessary acts of worship. Christ defends the Apostles who had not observed the usual tradition (Matthew 15:3). This had to do with a matter that was not unlawful, but rather, neither commanded or forbidden.  It was similar to the purifications of the Law.  He said in Matthew 15:9, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”   Therefore, He does not require a useless human service.  He adds, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11).  So also Paul, in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” and in Colossians 2:16, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to … a Sabbath.”  And again, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ ” [Colossians 2:20–21].  In 1 Timothy 4:1–3 Paul calls the prohibition of meats a teaching of demons.  It is contrary to the Gospel to institute or do such works thinking that we merit grace through them. – Article XXVI ,The Distinction of Meats, paragraphs 21-26, 29

1  Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood
From thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure:
Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r.

2  Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy law’s demands.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and thou alone.

3  Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress,
Helpless, look to thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly—
Wash me, Savior, or I die!

4  While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyelids close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee!

Text: Augustus M. Toplady, 1740–78, alt.


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