Tradition’s Dangerous Power

Mark 7:1,5 “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed… So the Pharisees and the teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”     

Tradition is a concept that has served our world well throughout centuries of time. Traditions, little rituals or ways of doing things handed down from one generation to another have a way of pulling people together across the generation gaps; uniting families, communities, even nations; connecting people to each other in a world where we often feel alone. Traditions can be vehicles for passing on our most cherished beliefs, teaching what has real value and importance, and expressing our love for each other. Christians have even used them to help preserve and pass on the gospel.

But like all good things that God has given us, tradition can be twisted and abused into a force for evil. Some people refashion seemingly harmless traditions into weapons of division or tools to reinforce some of mankind’s very worst ideas.

The tradition in question in our lesson is the Jewish tradition of washing your hands before you eat. “What’s wrong with that?” we might ask. My mother would have been upset if we came to the table with unwashed hands, too. She considered it bad hygiene. With all the concern going around about Coronavirus, we are bombarded by reminders to wash our hands frequently.

But the concerns of the Pharisees were not hygienic. “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders” (Verse 3). This hand washing was not about a clean body, but a clean soul. God had demanded that the Jews be particularly careful about their contacts with certain animals and things if they were going to be his people. Touch the wrong thing and you were ceremonially unclean. Put the wrong food in your mouth and you were ceremonially unclean. Then there were complicated purification rituals you had to perform to become clean again.

To prevent this kind of thing, the rabbis developed traditions as safeguards. Soup went through a strainer before you ate it. That way you could remove any insects that might have accidently fallen in, since eating them would make you unclean. Hands went under the water before you ate. That way any unclean thing you might have contacted while you were out didn’t end up in your mouth and make your whole body “unclean.”

Those might have seemed like reasonable precautions. The problem is, God never even suggested them. But for the Pharisees, these “traditions” became even more important than the laws that God did give, the laws these traditions were supposed to help protect.

Now we see the dangerous power of tradition beginning to work. It gave these Jewish traditionalists an inflated sense of pride. It made them feel superior to people who failed to follow their tradition. Instead of loving their less traditional neighbor, they looked at him with an air of contempt. At best, the tradition-breaking disciples of Jesus were regarded with suspicion. At worst, it meant the Pharisees rejected them as outright sinners. Such is the power of tradition to turn me against my neighbor for no good reason.

As useful as traditions may be, they don’t generally have the force of God’s word behind them. They certainly aren’t a reason to criticize or suspect someone who doesn’t share them. One of us wears his best clothes on Sunday morning, because worship is special, and he puts on his best for God. If he is going to dress up to attend a wedding, if he is going to dress up to attend an awards ceremony, he is certainly going to dress up to appear before his God on Sunday morning and receive his saving gifts.

Another person comes more casually dressed in “street clothes,” because Jesus receives each one, “just as I am, without one plea,” because “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are, my glorious dress.” If, as Isaiah says, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags, I’m certainly not going to impress the Lord with my clothes.

Either way, let’s be glad that my neighbor worships God, and hears the gospel of grace while he is here. If I am irked that my neighbor doesn’t do something that God never commanded, then tradition has wielded its dangerous power to turn me against my neighbor.

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