13th Sunday after Pentecost - Mark 7:1-13 - August 22nd and 23rd
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
This is one of those texts where so often people will use it to go off on a tirade against "tradition". "See here - tradition is bad, so what you've been doing is bad, and instead, you need to do this new, awesome thing that I'm telling you to do." But here's the problem with that. Our Gospel text is not anti-tradition - it's not setting up a tradition versus novelty argument. The distinction in the text is a contrast between the commandments of God - note that, of God - and the tradition of men. It's not old versus new - it's God's Word versus the stupid thoughts of men, be they old traditional thoughts of men or shiny new and stupid thoughts of men. Let us look at the Word of God today, and see what it says about us and for us.
So, the Pharisees and Scribes see that the disciples weren't washing their hands before they eat. Now this isn't them suddenly becoming like mothers around the world complaining about their kids being messy at the dinner table. As Mark notes, "For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders." Washing your hands in a certain, ritual way was the custom. This wasn't about hygiene, it was we are Jewish people and this is the way we do it. It was a tradition of the elders - that is from the elders, established by the elders. And the Pharisees and Scribes complain - "And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, 'Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?'" Now understand precisely what they are doing with this question. This is not a simple "why" question. This isn't the Pharisees saying, "Oh, surely there's a good reason, can you tell us why?" This is a stronger, accusatory question - more along the lines of being asked, "and just why". Of course, they aren't really attacking the disciples. Where do your disciples get off not washing their hands? Come on Jesus, You claim to be a teacher, but Your disciples don't even have the basics of "good Jewish culture" down. Because if you were a Pharisee, if you wanted to be a "good" Jew, you'd make sure you follow the customs to a T. And if Your disciples don't, Jesus, You must be a pretty lousy teacher. Harrumph.
This is why Jesus's response is so harsh and curt. "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; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" Hypocrites. Vain - that is empty and worthless worship. Ouch. And to put the fine point on it - "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." Did you see it - the contrast? It's not "tradition versus this new thing Jesus is doing" - it's Man's tradition versus what God has said. God says X, but you put more value on Y - and not only that, but you pretend that by doing Y you become a good little Jew and get closer to God.
And then Jesus gives an example. "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition. For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If a man tells his father or mother - Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban (that is, given to God) - then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father and mother, thus making void the Word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do." Now, this is a tradition of man that happily has fallen away - but Jesus is describing something really wretched here. "Honor" your father and mother isn't just about respect - Honor was never merely respect in the ancient world - it also included support. When your mom and dad get too old to work, guess what kids - it's your job, given to you by God, to take care of them. And sometimes, that is annoying - so what they developed was a pious looking work around. You could declare Corban - basically you could make a big offering to the Church and say to your siblings, "Well, my share of taking care of mom and dad has been given to God instead - have fun with them." And then you wash your hands of your parents and let your siblings handle those messy things, all while the recently bribed church smiles and says you're a good little boy. Ain't that a racket? It's utterly horrific - and yet, because of the traditions that they had developed - oh, this is surely good and wonderful. They had invented and developed a custom that not only ignored God's Word and had nothing to do with it - but actually contradicted it. Yuck.
So then - how does this text apply to us here today? First of all, my dear friends, don't use this text as an excuse to condemn "tradition". Tradition, in and of itself, is not bad - as long as the tradition is a thing of God. We have a tradition of teaching our kids the 4th Commandment. I'm sure that when Jesus said in the text, "Honor your father and your mother" that this was not the first time you ever heard that. Or another example - in 1st Corinthians 11 St. Paul says, " For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." That word "delivered" is literally "traditioned" in the Greek - it's just not that way in English because "traditioned" sounds odd to us. But here's a great thing - received from God and passed on, made tradition - a good tradition of God.
This leads to the second point. When looking at any tradition or custom, the key thing is where the tradition comes from - is it just something *we've* come up with, or is it God's Word? If it's something from God we *must* follow it. If it's just something we've come up with - well, if it points to Christ and God's Word, we can do it... or we can get rid of it. And if it goes against God's Word we need to get rid of it. Our customs, our traditions are not equal to the Word of God. The things we do around here - by in large they are perfectly fine - but even then we can't let them become idols. We have freedom to do many things - but we dare not let how we have chosen to use our freedom in the past become a new and false god that we serve. We as a congregation are not bound to our past or how we've always done it. We are bound to the Word of God. That is to be our focus - and here's what Satan likes to do. He likes to try to twist even how we approach church and turn it into something horrible. Remember the example Jesus used - the Pharisees had deluded themselves into thinking they were serving God with their Corban, when in fact they were ignoring God and His Word. And so this is just something to always bear in mind when looking at or considering what we do here together - how does this mesh with God's Word and serve the proclamation of the Gospel - that's how we judge and evaluate what we do - not on whether we like it nor upon how long we've done it.
But this isn't just something we should be wary of together as a congregation. This is one where you need to look at yourself, your own actions. How many things are there that you or I just do, assuming that we are good and righteous because its something good little old me does -- but we haven't really thought lately if it is in fact a good thing, if it is in accordance with God's Word. Nothing is worse than a bad, nasty habit that you've deluded yourself into thinking is a good habit. That's hypocrisy, and the Devil loves encouraging our hypocrisy. And so in reality this text is a call out to each of us to check our habits, to check our customs, to make sure that what we are doing is in fact in line with God's Word rather than just assuming that it is all good and fine - because those assumptions get us in trouble.
Here's the thing. We live by the Word of God. We don't live by our own plans, by our own works, whether they are actually righteous or just made up junk. We live by the Word of God. And that Word of God will lay us bare, will show us our sin, show us the times when we've been hypocrites ourselves. Yet that Word of God will show us Christ Jesus and His faithfulness. At no point ever does Christ follow some vain tradition of Men - rather Christ Jesus, the Word of God Himself, does all that God promised in His Word that He would do. You want someone who follows the commandments of God - look to Christ, for He is perfect. You want someone who truly honors His Father - look to Christ, for He does not follow His own will, but He does what His Father wills - and that is He goes to the cross and suffers and dies for you. Over and over, this is what His Word points out - our Old Testament lesson proclaims it - "In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind will exult in the Holy One of Israel." Christ is the Holy One of Israel who makes us to hear His Word, makes us to see His love, makes us to rejoice and exult in His salvation. He loves us and washes us clean in water and the Word, presenting us to Himself "in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing." This is the love of Christ for you - proclaimed in His Word. Dear friends, pay attention to His Word, not the distractions thrown forth by men. Amen.