Jeremiah 17:9 is one of the most familiar prophecies of Jeremiah. There Jeremiah prophesies, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…” These words are a part of a larger prophecy against Judah and her sin in which Jeremiah differentiates between a man and his life that trusts in the Lord and one who doesn’t. The preceding verses read, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. he is like a tee planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah’s point is simple: The man who trusts in the Lord has life and bears fruit while living that life even in drought; the man who doesn’t trust the Lord has a deceitful heart and withers away while bearing no good fruit. Jesus takes this same image and applies it to the Scribes and Pharisees (the Religious Leaders) in Mark 7.
Hypocrites and Their Traditions
The Scribes and Pharisees noticed that some of his disciples did not follow the Jewish ceremonial and ritual traditions regarding the washing of hands, utensils, and furniture (7:2-4). They had a problem with this. So, they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” That was a mistake! Jesus seized this opportunity to rebuke and correct them and to defend his disciples (7:6-23).
The long and short of Jesus’ response is that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites, and they were “hypocrites for two reasons: (1) their actions are merely external and do not come from their hearts, which are far from God; and (2) their teachings are not from God but reflect the tradition of men” (ESV Study Bible). Let me briefly explain.
Mere External Actions
Jesus applied Isaiah’s prophetic words about hypocrisy to the scribes and Pharisees of his day (7:6-7). In doing this, he claimed that the scribes and Pharisees were concerned with drawing near to God through external action rather than heart humility. They wanted to please men and God with their external actions, but they were full of deceit and pride. They were not interested in humbly relying upon God. Behavior modification was their way “to get” to God. But, behavior modification without heart change will not work. The real problem is the nature of our hearts before God, not our behaviors. Behavior flows from the heart.
Teachings of Men not God
Because the scribes and Pharisees were so concerned with behavior modification and ensuring that they stood right before God in their actions, they had a tendency to elevate the teachings and traditions of their forefathers to the same place as the teachings of God. What were supposed to be interpretations, applications, and traditions derived from God’s law had become equal to God’s law itself. They had allowed the teachings and traditions of man to usurp those of God.
A Dangerous Position
This is a very dangerous position to be in and to hold. Not only are the traditions of men not the same as God’s Word and therefore useless in cleansing our hearts, they also lead to a disregard of God’s Word. As they replace God’s Word in our hearts and lives, they lead us away from it all together. This is a REAL danger! Confusion abounds in our lives about what is actually required of God and what is not, about what is God’s Word and what is not. We must be careful that we do not follow in the footsteps of the Scribes and Pharisees by confusing the Word of God and the traditions of men and that we do not buy into the notion that external religion is the same as “heart-changing” Christianity.