“This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” Isaiah 29:13.
“”You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Mark 7:1-13
Tradition. You can almost hear Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof belting that word out at the top of his lungs, clinging to it with all his might as his little world is coming unraveled. Tradition. The things handed down from the generations before, like a baton in a relay race. Tradition. Singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the 7th inning stretch. Singing the “Star Spangled Banner” before a sporting event. Tradition — the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas tree or you fill in the blanks and don’t you dare try and change any of them!
Traditions are important. They serve as a vehicle, a way to carry something from one generation to the next. In one sense, the Bible is a tradition, the apostolic tradition preserved in the church and handed down to us over the centuries. The Lord’s Supper is a tradition, as St. Paul himself says, received from the Lord by Paul and handed on to the Corinthians and recorded in holy Scripture. The Gospels are a tradition, the written record of the words and deeds of Jesus preserved from the recollections of the apostles. Similarly Baptism and Absolution are traditions handed down from Christ to His Church. These are the Lord’s traditions, and so we need to be careful when we read this saying of Jesus that we don’t throw out the traditional baby with the religious bathwater. There is a difference. These are the mandates, the commands of God, NOT the traditions of men.
There are manmade traditions too, and they aren’t necessarily bad either. The creeds and confessions of the church are that kind of tradition, tested by time, proven by adversity, forged in the fire of controversy. We’d be foolish to discard the creeds and confessions simply because they were man’s work rather than God’s work. This is what God’s Word stirs up in men; it prompts us to confess what we have heard and believed.
Our hymns and liturgy are a tradition too, handed on from our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers and mothers, some things going all the way back to the first century of the church We’re not the first ones to believe the Gospel of Jesus. We are not the first baptized believers to walk the face of this earth. We stand in solidarity with two thousand years of believers, many of whom risked the necks and gave their lives confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. We dishonor them when we cast aside what they fought so hard to hand on to us, like that treasured piece of jewelry or antique chest that has come down in the family. It may not even go with your decor and taste, but you keep it because you’re family and it’s something entrusted to you. It’s a stewardship, caring for something bigger than you are, which is why you take care of that clunky broach or that beat up piece of furniture.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” Those are very wise words that far too often go unheeded in our society that is decidedly “non-traditional” when it comes to what we believe. We vote, but our vote excludes those who have come before us. Tradition ensures that they have a voice too.
That’s the good side of tradition, and needs to be born in mind. Christianity from the beginning was very traditional in the sense that it kept the rhythms and customs of the synagogue, the Sabbath table, the Passover. The Reformation likewise did not start with a blank piece of paper, but reformed what had been received, which is the duty of every generation, that is, to take up the tradition handed them and make it their own.
There are dangers to every tradition. One is that we make tradition into a museum or even a mausoleum, a collection of dead and dusty things that people come to look at and maybe admire but never pick up and use. Tradition for tradition’s sake, a monument to the phrase: “We’ve always done it that way before.”
Tradition can be a hiding place when we are afraid. When “change and decay” are all around us and the whole world seems to falling apart in front of our eyes, it seems like a safe place to duck behind the old and familiar. It’s nostalgic, like going home and sleeping in your childhood bed when you can’t handle the adult world.
Tradition can also lead us away from God and His will to save when it comes unbuckled from His mercy and we try to run the tradition instead of God. That’s what happened with the Pharisaic tradition that Jesus encountered in this morning’s Gospel. It began with an observation: Jesus’ disciples were careless about washing their hands and utensils. The tradition was that you did not eat until you ritually washed (the word used in Mark is baptized) your hands, and not only your hands, but also your cups and pots and cooking vessels and even the cushions you sat on. This wasn’t simply good hygiene, the way your mother reminded you to wash you hands before supper. This was “religious hygiene,” the attempt to be pure by our own doing, by inventing our own washing.
It’s curious that ritual washing is a part of nearly every religion. Whenever people get religious, some sort of religious bath is involved. I think there is a strong, deep down notion that we need to be cleansed, not simply on the outside but especially on the inside. There is this deep notion that we are unclean and that is unacceptable to God. The question is, what bath will do it? A bath instituted by men or one instituted by God? And you already know the answer to that.
Tradition run bad becomes “religion” in all the worst senses of that word — the ways we use to bargain with and manipulate God to do our bidding, the ways we try to bring God down to our level on our terms rather than on His terms. Everything from creeds to cultus to codes of conduct can become “religious” in all the wrong ways in the hands of our self-centered old Adam. Even our most cherished traditions, can, like Aaron’s budded staff, turn into an idol and a stumbling block.
“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the traditions of men.” That’s a harsh indictment of religious Israel. They honored God with their lips, but their heart was far from me.” And we do the same thing. We honor God with moving lips, but our hearts are somewhere else — at work, at play, at brunch, on the golf course, at the beach. We treat the divine service much like fans at Dodger stadium — arrive late, leave early. Put in our time, do our religious duties. But our hearts are far from the Lord, even on Sunday morning. We sing our hymns, we say our lines in the liturgy, we say all the right and good words, but those wandering, hardened, unbelieving, ungrateful hearts of ours are always roaming somewhere else. That’s the reality of our sinful hearts, and we use our traditions to build a stone wall around those hearts so that no one, including God can get to them.
The Pharisees had an interesting religious tradition. If you devoted your entire investment portfolio and savings account to God, declared it to be “Corban,” then you were off the hook for supporting your aging parents. How do you like that tradition? Putting a coat of religious shellac on dishonoring father and mother. We roll our eyes and sign, and yet we do the same thing. We look for some way to apply a little religious varnish to dress up our sin, whether it’s our sins of sexuality or justifying some petty theft at work or making excuses for our gossip, lies, slanders, outbursts of anger, divisiveness, rudeness, pettiness.
And whenever we use “religion” and “tradition” to justify our actions before God, we have slipped into a subtle form of idolatry where the lips are close to God, dripping with religious words, but our hearts are all wound up in ourselves.
The commandment of God is “repent.” Come to a new mind, a new way of thinking, a new you. Be baptized. Be washed with the washing God Himself established for your cleansing, the washing that joins you to the death of Jesus and delivers you from sin and death to forgiveness and life. Eat His Body, drink His Blood, as He bids you in HIs own testament. Hear His words of forgiveness and life and salvation. Trust Him. Trust the promises in His blood. Trust the promise of life and salvation He gives to you.
Sometimes we need to lose our “religion” in order to gain Christ. St. Paul said as much in his letter to the Philippians: If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
That is the sound of a man who lost his religion – everything that he had grown up with and held so fondly he counted as nothing more the dung – and in the end he gained Christ, and wasn’t about to go back again. The surpassing worth of knowing Christ. That’s what our faith is about. It’s not about dancing some religious purity dance. It’s about being found in Christ, being rescued from ourselves and our self-made religions, having a righteousness that is not our own but Christ’s perfect, seamless righteousness, HIs perfection, His holiness. It’s about living lives in freedom from fear, from condemnation, from judgment, knowing and believing that in Christ you are declared righteous before God.
In Christ, you actually do keep the commandment of God, and in Christ you are free to hold the traditions of men loosely, joyfully, with the dead, open hand of faith in Jesus. You see, it’s not a matter of washed hands and cups and saucers, but of cleansed baptized hearts, what only God can do for you.
Thanks be to Jesus!
In the name of Jesus,