In Mark 7, Jesus got into a religious argument with some Pharisees and lawyers. They accused his closest followers of loose living, not being respectable and doing what they’re supposed to as good, observant Jews. Jesus accused them of nullifying God’s word to support their notion of respectability. That’s a heavy charge. The issue here is how they were reasoning about corban. We need to see what corban is, then we need to see how the Pharisees got to their position on the matter, and finally we shall see how easy it is to imitate them.
But first let us really explore how sharp are the words used by Jesus here. He calls them “hypocrites,” saying that they claim to be serving God but are not doing so. He quotes Isaiah asserting that they profess to honor God, but do not really worship him on the inside. “They worship me in vain,” Isaiah said,” and that must have stung, because it says that all their religious actions, all their sacrifices for forgiveness, all of their prayers, were completely useless. The reason Jesus gives is that they are not teaching what God revealed, but only human ideas. He says that reason three times, once in the quotation from Isaiah, once in v.8 (where he accuses them of “letting go” of God’s commands and “holding on” to their own traditions), and finally in v.9 (where they “set aside” God’s commands for the sake of their tradition). So he is very clear that their religious tradition is contradictory to God’s command, and by preferring “what they’ve always done” they are cutting themselves off from truly serving God.
What’s the issue? The issue is corban (also spelled korban or qorban). Mark gives a brief definition of the word (“devoted to God”), so we are talking about voluntary offerings of material goods to God alone. Jesus is not saying that there is anything wrong with devoting things to God. Making offerings to God was (and is) a good thing. The question is what the Pharisees do with that good religious practice.
The Pharisees were not idiots, and in general they took religion seriously. They had the Law of God, of course, and they were trying to think through how to live a religious life consistently, how, that is, to make God the Lord over every aspect of their lives. This is not a bad goal, and many serious Christians today try to live their lives like that. That is why we must understand where they went wrong.
The Pharisees considered that everything devoted to God alone could not be used for anyone else. That is what it means to be devoted to God alone. And they considered that allegiance to God had higher prior priority over any other human relationship, even our closest relationships. God’s Law commanded to honor one’s father and mother, and that included providing for their physical needs. But service to God must take priority over service even to one’s parents, as important as that is. Indeed, service to God is one of very few things that can take priority over service to parents. So, they reasoned, if someone made an offering to God (a corban), that offering could not be taken from God and given to the parents instead! Now, there are many different ways to offer things to God. There is the simple offering, where one identifies something and offers it right then. Alternately, one can promise unknown quantities, such as however much I might happen to make over a certain amount. One can also offer God delayed sacrifices: I will live on what I have, and devote the rest to God in my will. In the Pharisees’ understanding, it seems, all of these gifts to God were corban, devoted, and therefore could not be used for any other purpose.
This all sounds very reasonable, and many serious Christians today might find themselves nodding along to my proposed reconstruction of the Pharisees’ reasoning. (Except, of course, that they know it’s the Pharisees! We conservative Christians are often rather more like the Pharisees than we care to admit.) Yet this reasoning must break down somewhere, because Jesus says the Pharisees’ worship is worthless. Where is the false step?
This chain of reasoning, each of the component parts of which might well be acceptable to Christians, seems to have created a loophole. Let us say that a hypothetical person, we’ll call him Isaac, had poor parents, but did not wish to share his money with them. He could declare corban (that is, “devoted to God”) any amount that might have helped his parents (Mark 7:11). In the meantime, he could continue to enjoy his wealth, but he was not allowed to give any to his parents because they are not God, and that amount that he would have given them is precisely the corban. Thus he would be religiously prevented from helping his parents (Mark 7:12). It is good to be on God’s good side.
Following the religious rules, Isaac has become a religious git. The reasoning seems sound, but the rule-makers have missed the point of worship.
The problem is that the unspecified amount “what might have been used to help his parents” ought to be all his wealth, not only some, because however little Isaac himself might have, he ought to share that with his parents. And if he were to say that all his wealth is corban upon his death, while he continues to live on it until then, he ought to recognize that part of his living on it now includes supporting his parents! One does not honor God by shirking one’s responsibilities so that one can make a larger offering “later.” Put another way, voluntary religious acts (such as corban) cannot be allowed to take precedence over religious obligations (such as supporting one’s parents). It all sounds so good and holy (“he wants to honor God above every human relationship”), but in fact it is so horribly wrong, turning one’s religion into a tool to defraud other people! That is why Jesus uses such strong words.
So if anyone wants to dedicate “what might have been used to help their father or mother,” let that person dedicate, at once, everything he or she owns. Everything must be given up now! When they own nothing at all, then (and only then) can we concede that they cannot help their parents. (And even then, they can help their parents with their abilities and their time.) And they cannot dedicate to God what is not theirs to give; some of their money ought to be used to fulfill their responsibilities to family. The Pharisees took right-sounding principles and applied them only half-heartedly, not recognizing the more important principle: we are to honor God by loving our parents (and everyone else around us). Religious acts that are undertaken in order to get around obligations have no religious value. They are merely hypocritical.
And this is why it is so easy for rules-loving Christians to fall into the trap of the Pharisees. Of course we must honor God above everything else! Even Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Of course anything that has been devoted to God (corban) cannot be used for any purpose other than in God’s service. Of course it is good to honor God with our money. When asked what is the first and greatest command, Jesus answered without hesitation, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
But he did not stop there! He continued: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31). Any religious action which someone might undertake, not out of love, but out of spite for one’s parents or anyone else, does not honor God, whatever might be said. That is no worship of God. Religious rules must work to encourage people to love God and their neighbors, or they are not right rules to follow. Jesus often, as in the conflict with the Pharisees in Mark 7, flouted religious rules, not because they were rules, but because they were the wrong rules.
There is a greater law which must constrain our tendency to religious rule-making. It is the Law of God. It is God’s law of love.