14 Pentecost, Proper 17 – August 30, 2015
After six weeks in John’s “bread of life” chapter, we are back to the gospel of Mark. But what an odd place to land: right in the middle of an argument. Actually a familiar argument, a routine argument. Haven’t we all been in that argument about telling kids to wash their hands before dinner – either as the kid or the adult trying to get them to wash their hands?
But is that what is really going on in this passage? An argument about hand washing? Well, yes and no. Yes, it really is about the practice of washing hands. No, as is often true in such arguments, there is often more going on beneath the surface than initially meets the eye. With our kids, maybe they just forgot. Or maybe they’ve decided that even though Mom and Dad think this hand washing-thing is important, they don’t, and, while they’re at it, maybe they’re tired of all the rules Mom and Dad are making. So maybe not washing their hands, in this case, is less about forgetfulness and more about testing their parents’ authority.
The same thing is happening here. It’s not just about washing hands, it’s about the tradition and authority behind that practice. Which is the point the Pharisees press: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” they ask, somewhat aghast at the implications of Jesus and his disciples running rough shod over tradition. What is at stake, then, is not just a specific practice but the larger question of authority. In short, the Pharisees want to know, just who does Jesus think he is to flout the tradition of the elders?
In the broadest of senses, ritual and tradition control and shape our lives from birth to death and all the years in between. Ritual and tradition encompass more of human life than we realize. But when you think about it, ritual and tradition pervade the ordinary routines of life to the most profound of sacraments and ceremonies, ceremonies whether in church or secular.
Take traditions in families. Husband and wife each bring their own traditions and rituals to their marriage and blend them together, particularly at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
There is a well-known story about the feast prepared for those two occasions. In a certain family the tradition was always to have a baked ham in addition to the traditional turkey. But the ritual seemed to be that no matter what, they cut an inch off each end of the boneless ham and baked in the same pan beside the ham proper. Finally the newest husband in this extended family challenged his wife and mother and sisters in law to tell him the reason. “We’ve always done it this way in our family,” they answered. “It’s traditional.” His mother in law also pointed out that her mother, the grandmother of the family, did it this way.
When the grandmother was asked, she replied likewise, “Well, my mother did it this way.” The great grandmother was in a nursing home at a very advanced age, but was lucid. When they all visited her that afternoon, the youngest husband asked her why she sliced off the ends of the ham before she baked it. She laughed and said, “My pan was too small and so I sliced off the ends to make it fit.” Hence a traditional ritual.
But not all traditions are bad. Some traditions are important. They can be a valuable aid in communicating to us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.
For two thousand years, the Church has observed the twin traditions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Communion, and both of them are the very best kind of tradition. They tell us who God is and who we are. And both speak of spiritual realities behind and beyond the tradition itself.
In our text for today, Jesus speaks about the kind of tradition that fails the test. He points out that there is a kind of tradition that gets in the way of spiritual realities rather than pointing to them. Jesus condemned such traditions that became more important than the things they represented. In verse 8, he says, “For you set aside the commandment of God, and hold tightly to the tradition of men.” Jesus saw through their dead tradition. He saw that they were more concerned with outward things than they were with the things that really count.
Jesus cut through the superficiality of their outward observances to stress that the inside was more important than the outside. Jesus was more concerned with their heart condition than their hand condition. Someone said, “The heart of Christianity is the heart.”
What is important, said Jesus, is who you are and what you do. And those things he enshrined in the great Summary of the Law: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
No longer was it necessary to obey the rituals and traditions of a thousand years earlier for the survival of a small group of tribes in a hostile land. The Israelites had survived, but they had made the rituals and traditions the object of their worship and not God.
They used human tradition to control themselves and their neighbors and not to love them and set them free. Enough, said Jesus. I bring you a new commandment to add to the summary of the law. Love one another as I love you.
The story is told of an old man who said, “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I found I could not do that, so I tried to change my community. I found I could not do that, so I tried to change my family. I found I could not do that, so I decided to let God change me.” The strange thing is, God did change that man, and as a result, the world was changed. It became a better place.
Jesus is changing hearts today, at the price of his cross. He waits for us there. Amen.