Human Tradition

wash hands

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)

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.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Book of Faith Devotional Questions

What scares, confuses, or challenges me in this text?

What delights me in this text?

What stories or memories does this text stir up in me?

What is God up to in this text?

As I have been studying this text in the past couple of days, one sentence that Jesus says here keeps sticking with me; “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  Wow.  Powerful words, especially if you like tradition as much as I do.  Tradition is comforting.  Reliable.  Safe.  In fact, when I asked our youth who went to the National Youth Gathering what she wanted to do for worship on the Sunday that we will present our experiences from the Gathering, she said, “I just want to do regular church.”  She had been exposed to so many different worship styles and forms over the week in Detroit that she just wanted to come home and feel that she was, indeed, at home.

As I said before, I like tradition, too.  In the days before I started working on this passage (or letting the passage work on me J ), my family and I were planning to start a new tradition.  Our eldest daughter is about to begin Kindergarten, and we would like to start the tradition of going on an overnight to celebrate the end of summer, get school supplies, and get birthday pictures taken.  It will be an annual event, something by which to mark the passing of our family’s days into kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and beyond.  It will be a human tradition, alongside our other traditions of attending the county fair, the state fair, the pumpkin patch, and a host of other ways that we mark time and celebrate regularly as a family.

It is into this effort that Jesus’ words break in for me; “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  What do we do with this?  How, then will we live?  It reminds me of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” and Martin Luther’s definition of a god in The Large Catechism.  He said that “A god is that to which we look for all good and where we resort for help in every time of need.”  The Pharisees were concerned about Jesus’ disciples handwashing practices, and it was keeping them from seeing God himself incarnate in Jesus Christ right in front of their eyes.  Should we wash our hands?  Yes!  Should that rule become our god?  No!

So what do we do, we who are freed in Christ to love and serve our neighbor as ourselves?  Perhaps we are called to take Jesus’ words seriously, to let them follow us around and chew on us for a while.  Perhaps we are called to examine our human traditions, and ask if we can find a way to make those traditions show forth Christ even more boldly.  And if they can’t?  Maybe it’s time to toss them on the trash heap to make way for the things of God and the ways of God.

Following God is tough.  To paraphrase The Princess Bride, “Anyone else who tells you differently is selling something.”  Thanks be to God that he loves us first, and last, and always.  We may not always acknowledge him as our God, or follow his ways, but we are always his people, sealed in baptism and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  God bless you as you seek to follow him, now and always.

In Christ,

Pastor Breen

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