The perils of of tradition

Our very selves are defiled, made unholy not by what we take in, but by the corrosion of the human heart.

We all have certain core traditions and beliefs that are important to us they make us who we are they define our own behaviours. and the way we think other people should behave and that’s what lies behind this Gospel passage from Mark and our reading from James and Isaiah too.

In these texts Jesus addresses three different audiences:

  • a group of pharisees and scribes who raised the notion of defilement
  • The crowd that is perpetually present
  • and the disciples who, true to character in Mark’s Gospel, don’t understand.

The message is delivered differently to each of these three groups but in essences it is the same:

Our very selves are defiled, made unholy not by what we take in, but by the corrosion of the human heart.

Jesus’ three different versions build on one another, thus enabling a fuller understanding of what is at stake. We must prepare our hearts and thereby ourselves for the kingdom of God. This requires not worrying over what we eat, but how

As usual the Pharisees and Jesus are having a difference of opinion. The Pharisees were upset because Jesus and his disciples did not take part in the Jewish hand washing ritual. To the Pharisees Jesus and his disciples had committed a sin.

The Pharisees are not the only people to get upset when traditions are not followed. We get upset when people do not follow our traditions. We sometimes have to part from our traditions and it is not always easy to accept. This is often a reason why some congregation members will leave a church when someone new comes to lead, not able to accept changes. To them, and sometimes to us, the status quo is the only way to go even though society round us changes rapidly.

I remember a priest friend telling us about one of his new churches. People seemed very uncomfortable with him. He’d heard a few mutterings and after a few weeks he decided to ask the churchwarden what the problem was. ‘You lead from the wrong place said the Church Warden’ . ‘Father John always stood in the chancel in a particular place and led the service from there. It makes us uncomfortable when you move around’. Well our friend thought about it, and wondered if he was doing something theologically incorrect by not standing in this one position. It began to really worry him. He looked up all the old books but couldn’t find anything. He even thought to ring his old theological college for advice. He was losing sleep. In the end he had a brainwave. Ring Father John himself and admit his error. The next morning he anxiously waits until it’s a good enough time to ring his retired colleague. He explains the situation and the fact that he is making people feel really uncomfortable, but that he himself feels uncomfortable standing in that one particular position. He’s very worried. There is silence at the other end of the phone. ’O no. What has he done’? Then suddenly there is a burst of laughter. ‘I always stood there in that freezing church because that’s where the radiator is’ Traditions: they come from all sorts of sources.

We must not think that the Pharisees are completely bad. They were dedicated to obeying and pleasing God and that desire led to a distinctive practice such as kosher food and the circumcision. These practices helped them to keep their identity as God’s chosen people in a pagan world. Their traditions grew out of a need to keep their identity. Even though the Jewish law is quite detailed it left room for interpretation.

The Pharisees used their desire to obey God to create rules to clarify the law in these situations. Over time these rules became so hard and fast that they became a surrogate law that the Jewish leaders regarded as equal to the scriptures. They lost sight of the difference between God’s law and their opinions. Jesus said this was their sin.

Jesus did not condemn all tradition. He only condemned those traditions that were elevated to sacred status.

The church is responsible for preserving tradition. But it must make a clear distinction between essential scriptural teachings and no essential traditions. When he responded to the Pharisees questions Jesus went right to the heart of the question. The Pharisees wanted to hold on to human traditions at all costs when they could have been more concerned with teaching God’s deeper requirements of love compassion and justice. God is more concerned with spiritual cleansing and purifying. If our hearts have been purified our prayer and behaviour will be in line with what God wants. If we act out of good hearts we will know how to behave even if we don’t know what the exact rule is for that particular situation.

While a sense of tradition is necessary and desirable at times a problem arises when tradition is substitute for true worship or true prayer when the actions associated with our tradition become more important than the meaning of the traditions. We can get sidetracked.

The Pharisees were more concerned with strict observance of Jewish laws than they were about true faith. What we eat and what we drink can’t hurt us or defile us only what comes out of us – ungodly words, actions that can defile us.

Jesus wants us, and his disciples, to see the core issues always come down to that which is in the heart. Ritual external purity is not necessarily the same as genuine interior piety. We are being hypocrites if we vainly honour God with our lips while our hearts are estranged from him. The source of defilement is more internal than external It is more about who we are than foods we avoid.

Jesus defined true purity as commitment from the heart totally dedicated loving service to God and to others. Listening and doing are two different things. When God looks at us the first think he sees is the state of our hearts. He doesn’t care what we look like on the outside. He’s more concerned about what’s on the inside.

Why do you come to church? Is it tradition or is it your whole life?

How do we treat the stranger when someone new or visiting comes? Do we welcome them to their ‘own’ church or do we thing of it as ‘ours’ Do we offer them the very best of ourselves and all we have? Or do we just expect them to be and do exactly as we do? Jesus argued that the observance of purity was not needed because the kingdom of God is for everyone. Jews, Gentiles, those who would observe purity laws, and those who would not. Everyone is equal in the sight of God. When people equate tradition and the law problems come up and the Pharisees had made ‘the law’ more important than God’s rule. Just like sometimes we can make our traditions more important than the true faith in God.

It’s easy enough to take in the good stuff. We come to church, we read our bibles we pray. We listen to fabulous sermons, serve coffee and even play Christian music in our car on the way home. But sometimes over the hours that follows the good stuff gets changed as it passes through our innards. The going to church and serving becomes a self righteous ‘I’m better than him’ The reading our bibles becomes an exercise in head knowledge without applying it to our hearts. The praying becomes a shopping list to a vending machine God who must do our will or suffer our doubts of his power or benevolence. Fabulous sermons are picked apart or even worse forgotten.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these things are ‘bad’. I’m not saying that we should not go to church or read the bible or pray. But if that’s all we do: just do them, and not live them then we are missing the whole point of the doing.

We don’t do right things so that we can be right with God. We become right with God because of Jesus and out of that right being grows right doing. If it’s clean on the inside then the outside is clean too. Ok. I know we are all works in progress – perfection takes time. But there is no point in just going through the motions of being a Christian. If you don’t know Christ it will end up being an empty sham. A salvation by works. That doesn’t. We can all look fine on the outside. That’s easy. Keeping the inside clean is so much harder.

But if our hearts belong to God – nothing else will mater.