When Traditions Get in the Way

Text: Mark 7:1-8

There is a downside of being a part of a tradition that extends back thousands of years. We can become so wrapped up within the individual traditions themselves that we forget the foundation of why we do what we do. Jesus frequently locked horns with Pharisees over matters of how one expresses faith. Unfortunately, we tend to think of Pharisees as being self-righteous, overly religious folks who were more concerned with doing things right than doing the right thing. While this may be true, we often forget that Pharisees in Christ’s time were the good, church-attending folk. They were people like you and me, who did try to honour the traditions and to follow God with honesty and integrity. Yet there are times when the traditions get in the way of our relationship with God.

Maybe we can hear this in a new way. In a day where hand washing and cleanliness has become even more important to us, with the threat infectious diseases… remembering the SARS crisis a few years ago, we are very much in line with where the Pharisees are at. They see those who follow Jesus eating without first washing their hands. While one would think that this is a cleanliness issue, they rail at Jesus about it because that was not how things were done around here. They were going against “the tradition of the elders.”

Jesus stares at them for a moment with a stunned look on his face. It seems that washing, for these Pharisees, became so obsessive that it went beyond the original intention of simply providing clean and safe food for people to eat. The washing was also helped remind them about the presence of God. However, the tradition became far more important than the reason for which it was created in the first place. The hand washing was originally a method for both public health and to help them learn about themselves and their relationship to God. It seems that these folks were more concerned about doing it correctly, than understanding why they were doing it. Jesus responds by quoting something from Isaiah (29:13): “The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;”

Tradition was getting in the way of their relationship with God.

This is precisely the downside that we as Christians face these days; nearly two thousand years after Jesus confronted the Pharisees in the midst of their zeal. As churches, we are not immune… we have developed all kinds of practices that we have forgotten their original meaning and intention. Yet we are so entrenched in the tradition, that we don’t even care about how things got started. When it becomes more important than our faith, our relationship with God, then we start getting into trouble.

Some of you may remember that I began the year with some examples of how the story of a tradition has been lost, but the practice continues without question. A spoon used at communion, the way in which we developed our practice around offering, the pews we sit in…

It seems that it is human nature to develop traditions, and adhere to them without taking time to understand their origins. There’s a problem here… in forgetting the origins itself, the traditions slowly change away from their original intent into something that it no longer resembles. The tradition of the elders of washing before eating was a prime example of this for Jesus. God’s wish was originally for the people to eat food that was safe and healthy. Yet it became a ritualistic practice, and ended up being used to exclude people from society. The tradition ended up getting in the way of our relationship with God. Remember that the Pharisees were the good, church-attending folk like you and I who wanted to be faithful… but in strict adherence to the rules, lose sight of what God is calling us to be.

Jesus calls us on things like this. Where traditions themselves get in the way of our relationship with God, we need to reconsider them. Tradition for tradition’s sake can obscure what they were originally intended to do: remind people of our relationship with God. They exist to deepen our relationship with God. If you’ve ever seen either the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” or the 1971 film version of it, tradition figures heavily in the story. Tevye the Milkman, at the beginning of the story tells us that tradition helps us to know who we are, and what God expects us to do. Yet in course of the story, Tevye realizes that while this piece of wisdom does remain true, some of these traditions would prevent his daughters living full and fulfilled lives… especially in the radically changing and dangerous world of 1905 Russia. Some of the traditions were getting in the way. That’s what Jesus was getting at in his discussion with the Pharisees. Traditions, no matter how well intended when they started, sometimes do get in the way. Instead, Jesus wanted his followers to have hearts that were close to God. Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we know who we are, that we know we belong to God, and have a meaningful relationship with God… for Jesus that was far more important.