"Look, I know I'm not perfect, but deep down I'm basically a good person". Ever heard someone say that before? It's the message that our society screams at us all the time.

Take, for example, the latest film in the Batman series 'The Dark Knight'. If you've seen it you'll remember that scene near the end of the film with the two ferries (if not, this is going to spoil part of it)—the Joker, who's the villain, has rigged both ferries with explosives, and given the people on each ferry the detonator for the other ferry. So the people on each ferry have the option of blowing the other one up, and the Joker gives them 15 minutes to make a decision, after which if one of the ferries hasn't used their detonator, he'll blow up both ships. The tension mounts as we wait to see which one of them will crack first, and there are stages at which people on both ships look like they're about to push the button...but in the end, neither of them does; they both decide to throw away their detonators. By the time the 15 minutes are up Batman has already caught the Joker and stopped him from blowing up both ships anyway. But the point that the film puts across very clearly is this - that basically, deep down, human beings are essentially good.

In last night's passage, we saw two very contrasting evaluations of mankind.

First up we've got the view of Israel. When the Pharisees complain to Jesus about His disciples' unwashed hands, at first glance it looks like they're simply suffering from a case of washing-related OCD, given the extensive list in Mark 7:3-4. Dig a little deeper though and we notice that to them this wasn't an issue of being trivially picky; v2 and v5 show that they really thought that eating with unwashed hands was an issue of defilement - i.e. that it made someone unclean before God, a very serious issue indeed.

So here, in essence, is Israel's view - deep down we're basically good, but our problem before God is this external stuff that we can fix by doing lots of religious things. Sound familiar? It's easy to see parallels with the way that people think today: 'The things I do wrong are the fault of society's corrupting influence, and the way to be acceptable to God is to be very religious'.

Jesus, on the other hand, says that the truth about us is very different; that what makes us unacceptable to God is not external factors, but our hearts. Deep down, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. We're the ones to blame. It's our fault.

As we start off reading that list in v21 we might not be feeling too bad about ourselves - so theft, murder, adultery - we might be thinking to ourselves "well I haven't done them, so I'm doing all right". But when we get into v22 things get a bit less comfortable don't they - if we're honest with ourselves we know we're all guilty of those things.

The irony of what the Pharisees are doing, as is the irony of all religious effort today, is that far from solving the problem of sin, it is in itself a sinful practice. Jesus is outspoken in His condemnation of the Pharisees, describing them as hypocrites for following their own made-up rules instead of following God's actual commandment. Essentially what the Pharisees were doing were making for themselves a set of rules that were easier to follow than the actual commandments of God, and allowed them to be selfish and still feel justified (as in the case of Corban, a religious-sounding way of avoiding caring for their parents).

This is surely why the following rules are still so attractive to people today - tick box religion is a lot less effort than loving God with all our hearts and our neighbour as ourselves. The problem is, it is useless in God's eyes (v7), and simply testifies to Jesus' assessment of our hearts.

So Jesus' verdict is probably not what most people would expect, and it's certainly highly non-politically correct these days, but this is what it is—that at heart, all of us are essentially evil.

Application questions

  • What things do we or might we be tempted to treat as traditions that please God?
  • In what ways do we try to remove our responsibility from our sin?
  • Why is it important that we accept the responsibility for our sin?