The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 7th Chapter
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
When I got to my first church they were celebrating their 125th anniversary and two old traditions in the history caught my eye. The first was The Lord’s Acre. Back then, every family would dedicate an acre of their crops to mission work. When I got there only a couple families still farmed and the tradition had faded with the family farms. The other had been spittin’ your chewin’ tabbacky juice on the floor of the church! Bringing that tradition to an end, according to the history, almost split the church! Ah, tradition!
The Pharisees had traditions too. Ancient Jerusalem was diverse. Lots of people mixed together from all over the known world, so keeping the Jewish people together was a challenge. One of the ways the Pharisees tried to help their people stick together was to create traditions around eating. Washing yourself and your food in a ritual manner before eating created a barrier between the outside world, where work and play bumped you up against people of other faiths, and the inside, Jewish world.
Well, that system made good sense in the city but out in the country... not so much. In the country, the whole community was Jewish. There just wasn’t a need to break from some, outside non-Jewish world, to an inside Jewish-only world... because well, the only people you ever bumped into anywhere were all Jews! The city traditions just didn’t make any sense out in the country.
But, out to the country the Pharisees came, looking to show how unfaithful Jesus was for not doing things the way they’d always been done. Needless to say, making Jesus look unfaithful didn’t work. But there was a bigger problem than the tradition no longer making any sense... the traditions had, for the Pharisees, become more important to them than God. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” Jesus told them. They had become more worried about following the practices THEY had put in place than living the life God called them to live. In their obsession with staying faithful, they had blindly walked right over the very FIRST of the Ten Commandments and turned their traditions into idols.
Now, it’s always tempting to give the Pharisees grief. They make good fall-guys, but before we get too enthusiastic about piling on, it’s good to remember who the Pharisees were. They were the regular attenders, the tithers, the ones who served on all the committees... they were the folks who took their faith the most seriously. So, for me, just when I feel most tempted to give the Pharisees the hardest of times, I remember that the Pharisees not only show up in Scripture, but sometimes they show up in my mirror too.
Think about the last time you found your favorite tradition was threatened by the chopping block. Were you upset because that tradition helped you remember that one in five kids are hungry in our city or because it helped you forget it? Do we get more worked up about hunger or hymnals? Human rights or the right church rite? Are we concerned for justice, or are we worried more about just us? At what point does the tradition created to point us to God, tip over and become a god itself? Those Pharisees aren’t just found in the pages of scripture. They’re right there, all too annoyingly often in the mirror too.
Jesus, when he was asked to sum up the faith, said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” In every time and place, wonderful, faithful people have started beautiful, powerful traditions. Traditions which help transport us closer to God and deeper into the love of our neighbor. But even the most amazing, powerful, beautiful and long held traditions... THEY AIN’T GOD! So we always need to ask... Does this thing we do still point us toward God? Does it still call us to a deeper love of God and neighbor? Or has something happened and what used to help us connect with God, somehow now distract us from God and somehow now perversely keeps us from living lives of kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God?
Many, many of our traditions still do a wonderful, powerful, beautiful job of helping us connect with God and care for the world. Sometimes a tradition that’s gotten off track might just need a new twist. In my first church, the Lord’s Acre became the name of the church’s produce stand, the money still going to missions. Other traditions, like spittin’ yer tabbacky on the sanctuary floor, probably need to stay comfortably retired!
As we continue to welcome other churches and guests into what the Holy Spirit is stirring up in this place, there will be more and more traditions converging here. We’ll need to take each one out, honor it for the work it has done, but also honestly examine it to make sure it still points us to God and caring for our neighbor. Some will need to be tweaked and some retired and some will need to be created new. We don’t often think about the start of a tradition but really, any tradition can be traced back to a couple of people who said, “Well, I don’t know, let’s try it this way.”
We Christians are people, who at our core, believe that Easter, transformation, new life, resurrection... those things only happen by way of Good Friday, letting go, commending of the spirit and the death of what came before. Jesus didn’t just TELL us that truth, he lived, died and was raised to SHOW us that truth.
May God continue to be with us in the exciting and ever changing days ahead, giving us courage each day to accept and even embrace the death of what was, so that we might all rise to the new life God has in store for us and for those who are on their way. Amen.