“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are from me”. Mark 7:1-23 is packed with all kinds of hard words and challenges from Jesus. But in the end, what it’s about is the heart. God wants our hearts, not mere actions, and this is not new in Jesus, as evidenced by Jesus quoting Isaiah above. This does not mean that God is not concerned with our actions. God is. But more so what God is concerned with is the heart in which act.
More specifically, God is not interested in empty ritual. Jesus is calling out a problem that is universally human, and alive and well today as it was in Jesus’ day, and as it was in Isaiah’s day. And that is when our spiritual practices cross over from ways in which we interact with God to ways in which we hide from God. Whether it’s a hand cleansing ritual in 1st century Israel or the sacrament of Holy Communion today, these practices are designed to connect us to the Spirit of God, but when they get reduced down to a mere act that I do in order to feel righteous or holy or obedient, they actually do the opposite of connecting us to God: They enable us to hide from God.
It’s like this: The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a space in which we are to take in the very presence of God. It should be a space that confronts us, that pierces into our souls, showers us with the good news of our belovedness, while at the same time opening us to spaces where God wants to refine us. It is a space in which we step up and out (literally, as we come forward) into God’s presence. But over time, if I am not careful, it can become so mechanical and comfortable that it’s actually a space in which I hide from God- a space in which I put on the appearance of a spiritual practice, but I’m actually missing God completely.
This is what Isaiah was confronting, and what Jesus is confronting here. In any and all rituals and practices, God wants our hearts- that is, God wants the core of who we are- laid bare and open. The rituals referenced in this passage today were not bad. It was the way they were being used by some that was bad. They were being used to do exactly what Adam and Eve did upon partaking in the forbidden fruit and realizing that they were exposed before God: They hid.
Above all else, God simply does not want us to hide. Where and how is it that you’re hiding? And do you have the courage to trust God enough to come out of your hiding, and let God work in you? It can be scary space, but it’s safe and it is good.