While I have not seen the movie The Untouchables it is supposedly where this knife to a gunfight quote was born into our culture. While the wording may have been original the implications were not. Wisdom suggests that you do not come to a fight unprepared. Usually people pick fights assuming they are far stronger than their opponents. Sometimes they find out how wrong they are. That is what happened in Mark 7.
If you have not read my previous entry on Mark 7 read that now and then come back.
Jesus answers their question
6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:6-13–ESV)
Jesus coupled the charge of hypocrisy to the words of a prophet they revered: Isaiah. Jesus turned the tables on these attackers with this approach, and the Pharisees were shown to have brought a knife to a gunfight. Within a few short words it was shown that they were serious underdogs in this fight when the words of Isaiah were brought to bear.
Loyalties lie elsewhere
Isaiah reported that the people would say the right things. Plenty in Israel moved their lips to honor God Almighty, but their loyalties were elsewhere. The realities of Israel’s day-to-day living included an unbowed independent streak. Their lips may have been moving with worship songs, but their thoughts were out to lunch and other things. They had stiff necks. They had the all-to-common human pattern of living that says, “I’ll do it my way.”
Isaiah said that words of worship with hearts in another place was “in vain.” Things that are vain are futile; they do not provide anything useful. Futile things drain energy but gain nothing by it. Vanity is like running in a squirrel cage, or revving your engine with the transmission in neutral. You get a lot of noise, but you get nowhere. Could worship be like life in neutral?
Bad loyalties have bad outcomes
Why were loyalties in human tradition bad? Why were they futile? They were futile because the source of the teaching was man and not God. Rules of men make fine squirrel cages, but men do not run to heaven this way.
Jesus appends his own words to Isaiah when he says in verse 8 that they have let go of God and grabbed on to the rules of men. It is like jumping from a lifeboat into a leaking ship. Sinking ships don’t look bad at the beginning, but eventually they list and sink. The traditions of men may look wonderful and very strong, but they are going the wrong direction.
We must be sure to throw in our lot with Jesus himself and not the things of men. The people of Jesus’ time were not doing that.
Jesus reached back to the Jewish scriptures and into the ten commandments Jesus to make an example. He takes out commandment 5 which tells the people to honor fathers and mothers. Jesus appended to this discussion Exodus 21:17 which stated the cursing of parents to be a capital offense.
It was the responsibility of children to care for their parents in their old age. That came at a cost; just think of putting your parents into a retirement home. That can be an expensive venture. I don’t think they had retirement homes in Jesus’ day, but caring for parents must have had its associated expenses.
Unfortunately there were those who sought a loophole for this. The loophole they found was to designate monies as corban. Money designated as corban Jesus said was “devoted to God.” That sounds fine in and of itself, but what must be understood is that those monies remained under the control of the individual who so designated them. So the Pharisee would have the money, but he retained control of what was done with it. The designated to God category did not mean the synagogue had the funds. When monies were in this category they were exempted from the rule of caring for parents.
Let me explain this in terms of estate planning. Suppose that you have $100,000 and that when you die the death tax will claim 35% of that1. You may figure it is not fair for the government to get the 35% rather than your children. A way around this is to put the monies in a trust and then name yourself as the executor. Then in your will you designate your heir as the successor executor. So, the children inherit the ability to use the monies as they see fit, but the government does not get a big piece of the pie2.
Look back at Jesus’ example. Families were exempting themselves from caring for their families by merely renaming it as a “gift devoted to God.” That effort at getting around God’s rules by loopholes Jesus decried as hypocrisy. It was selfish and uncompassionate. Benevolence was set aside for self-service. It was corruption at a family level, but something that God neither overlooked nor missed.
It is a setting aside of God’s word by man’s tradition. No man can nullify God’s proclamations, but unfortunately many try.
You do many things like that
Jesus concluded this section by indicating this approach was a paradigm. This was a pattern used repeatedly to serve oneself over and above God’s laws. God is not mocked. He sees. No wool gets pulled over his eyes.
Bringing a knife to a gun fight.
Well the approach of the Pharisees failed miserably. They thought they had Jesus in a box with their clever, vulture-like observations. They thought that Jesus would have to cave to their traditions, but he upended them. Jesus discarded with a poignancy not only their argument, but also the wider issues of how they had built their anti-God, pro-religion traditions.
In the next section Jesus would turn his teaching to the people who had watched this unfold. Jesus would take up the mantle the Pharisees should have worn. Jesus would teach the misled people. Then he would further elaborate with his disciples on these matters.