Messing with Traditions

You can really get into trouble by messing with traditions. I once preached a funeral at a small rural black Baptist church in North Carolina. The pastor had a previous commitment (I found out later he had gone fishing), and so I was in charge of the whole service. That meant a whole lot more of being in charge than I was used to—like standing by the casket in the receiving line to catch any mourners that might swoon. The problem was that no one told me about that tradition until one good sister all but hit the floor... with me standing there holding my Bible and looking confused. You can get in trouble by ignoring tradition.

Just ask Jesus. In our reading today in Mark 7, Jesus is accosted by some irate Pharisees who demanded to know why his disciples didn't wash their hands properly before eating. Were the disciples really eating with improperly washed hands? We don’t know. Jesus doesn't talk about hands; he talks about hearts.

Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Mark 7:6-7)

The problem wasn't that the Pharisees devalued the Bible. They loved the Bible. You had to be able to quote the Bible in order to be a Pharisee—not from the Bible, the whole Bible! But they had traditional interpretations of the Bible that they valued as much. Their traditions had been elevated so high and accepted so universally that they were just as important as the Bible itself. Jesus dismisses their traditions as man-made rules

Jesus wants us to know that external rules, traditions, rituals and practices don’t make us holy or unholy (Mark 7:14-15). Rituals and traditions are by their very nature external and symbolic; they can point us to something important and holy, and so they can be very helpful. But tradition is never the point; ritual is never end in itself.

Jesus neither defends non-hand washing nor attacks the practice of washing. What he does is to condemn the use of external tradition as a way to judge faithfulness! This was all heady stuff in a religious tradition that saw tradition as more than tradition. Is it any wonder that the apostles were a bit confused? Jesus expects them to get it (Mk 7:18-19).

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)

At the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. God is looking for people that are so clever that they can figure out hidden Bible codes, translate them into the only faithful Bible practices and construct iron clad silly-gisms that condemns all the heretics and false teachers that don’t get it right. God is looking for people with hearts that are right with Him. Ultimately it doesn't matter how we wash our hands; we need to wash our hearts!