Tradition Gone Bad

Mark 7:1-13 / Proper 16B / 26 August 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Tradition is kind of a divisive word today. Are you contemporary or traditional? Oh, you’re one of those “traditional” churches, which means boring, stuffy, ritualistic, with lots of hymns by really old, dead guys. Traditional means “old” to many people. Out of touch. Not in tune with the changing times. Tradition can also mean for some people the things that don’t change. Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions, and don’t you dare change them! You know how it is at family Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone sits in their assigned seats, the same seats they’ve had for the last 30 years or more. Families have traditions. Are you Christmas Eve people or Christmas Day people? And even if you can’t stand turkey, you stomach it for one day out of the year because, hey, it’s Thanksgiving and that’s the tradition.

The military has traditions. Lots of them. The play of taps and the folding of the flag at a veteran’s funeral. The honoring of the dead. War memorials. Ribbons. Stars. Symbols. Sports has traditions. The singing of the national anthem before the game. The 7th inning stretch. Halftime. Some traditions persist even when we forget why we are doing them. Does it matter? We’ve always done it that way before. That’s the language of tradition.

The word “tradition” means something handed on from one person to the next, or from one generation to the next. Like the baton in a relay race where the goal is to hand on that baton cleanly to the next runner. Tradition is a tie to the past. It’s how the past becomes present to us. The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton called tradition the “democracy of the dead.” If all we do is focus on the present moment and have no regard for the past, we are ignoring our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, and all those who came before us. Tradition is fiber out of which the cloth of culture is woven. A people’s culture is preserved by its traditions, and in keeping the traditions, your past becomes your present.

Religion uses tradition. All religions have their traditions – their rites, ceremonies, practices, holy days, feasts, fasts, etc. Christianity is no exception. No matter how “contemporary” you might be, you can’t help but handle the traditions in some way, shape or form. Even the simply act of reading lessons from the Scriptures and preaching on them is a tradition that reaches back to the synagogues. The Bible is a tradition, something handed on from the prophets, apostles, and evangelists and copied and translated by Christians in the past and handed on to us. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the singing and chanting of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are all part of the “tradition.”

You might think of tradition as a vehicle, a means of bringing the past into the present and handing on what is most valuable and important. Imagine going on a car trip through the desert southwest to the Grand Canyon and never looking out the window of the car except at the road in front of you. All you stare at are the dials and dash lights of the car, or if you’re in the backseat, all you do is watch the movie on the drop-down DVD player. And you never see a desert sunrise or sunset or that gorgeous canyon or anything. All your attention is on the vehicle. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Why bother burning the gas? Why bother with a car trip? Why not just sit in the driveway and admire your car?

Now if there’s something wrong with the car, and it occupies all of your attention, that’s another matter. You’re liable to miss a lot of scenery if you’re worried about the engine or the transmission. When I drove out to California the first time with my Ford Maverick packed with my earthly belongings, I developed a rear axle problem in Elko, Nevada. There was a funny clattering noise coming from the back of the car. And even though I was driving through some beautiful mountain country, I didn’t see much of it because I was concerned about that noise coming from the back of my car.

That’s what happens when tradition takes over. When tradition becomes the sum and substance of religion. What happened with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They were steeped in tradition – 613 things to do and not do in order to do the righteousness of God. Washing hands and feet and dishes and cushions, not just for personal hygiene but for ceremonial purity. And like all religious types, they took note who followed the traditions and who didn’t. Who washed their hands and cups and saucers and who didn’t. And they didn’t hesitate to point it out to you too, when you weren’t keeping the traditions. They pointed it out to Jesus when His disciples dared to eat with ceremonially unclean hands. And they expected Jesus’ approval. He’s a rabbi. He needs to get his disciples in line. Peter, wash your hands. You too, James and John. And while you’re at it, clean those pots and pans, you don’t know who touched them.”

But Jesus turns the tables on them and quotes a bit of Isaiah in their direction: This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from. In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.”

When tradition takes over, when the vehicle becomes the thing itself, the doctrine of God becomes the commandments of men. Or as Jesus said, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Here’s a tradition for you. The commandment of God says, “Honor your father and mother,” which also includes taking care of them when they’re old and providing for them. But the tradition of the pharisees said that if you declared a portion of your wealth to be “Korban,” which was like sacrificing it in advance, then you didn’t have to use it to help your parents. And God was supposed to be tickled about this, because the sacrifices were for Him in the end, so how could He possibly not like that?

What’s the big error here? The error is to think that God needs our sacrifices. That’s pagan. The pagans thought that the gods needed to be fed and liquored and kept happy. It doesn’t work that way with God. He doesn’t need or want anything from us but faith. That’s all He wants. Faith. Trust in His Word and promises. “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” He says it over and over again in the OT. Jesus repeated it to these same pharisees. I desire mercy not sacrifice. Mercy directed to the neighbor in need. Mercy to mother and father. Mercy to the broken stranger in the ditch. Mercy to the least and lost and lowly. Mercy to sinners, forgiveness to those who have wronged you, mercy even to those who hate you and revile you and persecute you.

See, it’s not so easy now, is it? Lip service to God. That part’s easy. Just say the right words in God’s direction. But mercy to those God whom has put around you, not so easy. “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Faith toward God, fervent love for one another. That’s what He desires. Faith-full hearts from which flow mercy and love toward others.

When tradition takes over, we become preoccupied with what we are doing for God rather than what God has done and is doing for us. Take worship for example. Worship is not about what we do for God. It’s about what God in Christ is doing for us – forgiving us, washing us, feeding us. His Word, His Baptism, His Body and Blood. It’s not about our making ourselves pure. We can’t. A sinner cannot purify himself from Sin. Cleansing must come from outside, from above, from God, from the Son of God who became our Sin in our flesh and died our death on a cross. That’s the focal point of worship. Not in our hearts, not in ourselves, nor in what we do but in Jesus and what He has done.

The pharisees missed it. With all their religious rules and regulations, with all their ritual washings, with all their traditions, they missed the one needful thing. They missed Jesus. They missed the mercy of God that was theirs in Jesus. They missed the cleansing that all their washings could not work. They missed the most wonderful thing God has ever done, and will ever do, for the world – the sending of His beloved Son in the flesh to be our savior. They were like noisy patrons at a comedy club, so busy talking to each other, they missed the punch line and didn’t understand why everyone around them was laughing. They were so busy with their traditions, with their religious dos and don’ts, they missed the great good news that Christ came to save sinners not saints. That He came to redeem sinners not the redeemable. That He came to raise the dead not the living.

They missed it. And we would have missed it too. We are ever in the same danger. We focus on our hands rather than the hands of God. We focus on our doing rather than God’s doing. We focus on what we think God wants from us rather than what God says He wants from us – mercy not sacrifice. The only sacrifice that matter to Him is the One that Jesus offered in obedience to His Father. The only offering that can be held before God is the offering of Jesus’ life for your life. Prayer, praise, thanksgiving, worship? Sure, God delights to hear from us as any loving Father delights to hear from His children. But we don’t do these things to be pleasing to God; we do them because in Christ we are pleasing to Him.

I like to think that it was no accident or oversight that Jesus’ disciples ate in the presence of the pharisees with unwashed hands. Just to tweak them. Jesus seemed to delight in tweaking the religious in their religion. “Let’s not wash our hands and see what happens. This should be fun.” And I imagine that the disciples just might have been a bit apprehensive about all this. This was, after all, their tradition too. “Are you sure, Jesus? You know, we’ve always done it that way before.” And Jesus says, “Trust me, on this one.” Maybe it happened like that; we don’t know and can’t know from the text we have.

Luther once said famously, “Sin boldly and trust Christ even more boldly,” and you can see how that can be used in all sorts of wrong ways. But Luther said it to someone who was constantly and obsessively worried over his sin, like someone whose hands could not be clean enough and kept scrubbing them until the skin started to crack.

Heard rightly, it’s a statement of freedom and life and salvation. It’s Jesus saying to each of you today, never mind how soiled and messed up your life may be. You know how bad it is, and I know it even better than you do. And there’s no amount of tradition keeping, much less commandment keeping, that is going to make you pure enough to sit at my table. There is nothing you can offer God that is going to make it right again. But come anyway and trust me when I say you are welcome. Never mind all the ways religion tries to lay some sacrificial burden on you, you come to me and my table, and I will welcome you, and feed you, cleanse you, forgive you and save you. The pharisees will cluck their tongues and wag their accusing fingers at you, but you come to me. And I will give you rest.”

In the name of Jesus,