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God's Commandments or Human Tradition?


The story is told of two boys who were good friends. One was a Catholic and the other was a Baptist. Because they were good friends, they decided to attend each other’s churches on two consecutive Sundays, with their parents’ approval.

On the first Sunday, the Baptist boy visited the Catholic Church. Just before they sat down, the Catholic boy genuflected. “What’s that mean?” the Baptist asked. All through the mass, the Baptist boy wanted to know what this and that meant, and the little Catholic boy explained everything very nicely.

The next Sunday it was the Catholic boy’s turn to visit the Baptist church. When they walked in the building, an usher handed them a printed bulletin. The little Catholic boy had never seen anything like that before in his whole life because his Catholic parish did not have bulletins. “What’s that mean?” he asked. His Baptist friend carefully explained. When the preacher stepped into the pulpit, he carefully opened his Bible, and conspicuously took off his watch and laid it on the pulpit. “What’s that mean?” the Catholic boy asked. And the Baptist boy replied, “Not a darn thing!”[1]

Whether we are Catholic or Protestant, or whatever, we all have different traditions, some of them meaningful and some meaningless. Jesus addresses the issue of tradition in this next section of Mark’s Gospel. Listen for God’s Word to you from Mark 7:1-13….

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,[a] thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;[b] and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.[c]) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live[d] according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God[e])— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
I believe this text raises a very important question: What do we put first in our lives: God’s commandments or human tradition?

The Pharisees and the scribes were coming from Jerusalem to check Jesus out, presumably to find something wrong with his ministry, probably because they felt threatened by him. Picking a fight, they asked, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

First century Jewish readers of this Gospel would have no need of an explanation about the tradition of the elders. The fact that Mark explains this suggests that he is writing primarily to Gentiles. The Pharisees had many oral traditions that they followed. Ever since the time of Ezra, after the Babylonian exile, certain teachers among the Jews had developed an elaborate oral tradition, supposedly to help God’s people apply the Torah, the Law, in their everyday lives. For example, it was not enough to know that God commanded his people to rest on the Sabbath. The teachers asked, “Well, what exactly constitutes work?” Then they formulated their answers to this. As we have already seen in Mark’s Gospel, picking up one’s mat and walking a certain distance could constitute work in the view of the oral tradition of the elders.

What the Pharisees focus on here is the tradition regarding hand washing. This tradition did not have to do with physical hygiene, but rather with ceremonial, ritual, cleanliness. Furthermore, as I have already suggested, this tradition of the elders was handed on orally for many years. It was not actually written down until long after the time of Jesus, but it was well known by all the Jews even if it was not written down.

William Barclay explains the ritual of hand-washing in this way….

Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way. The hands, to begin with, had to be free of any coating of sand or mortar or gravel or any such substance. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars, so that it itself was clean in the ceremonial sense and so that it might be certain that it had been used for no other purpose, and that nothing had fallen into it or had been mixed with it. First, the hands were held with finger tips pointing upwards; water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was one quarter of a log, which is equal to one and a half egg-shells full of water. While the hands were still wet each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. That is what the phrase about using the fist means; the fist of one hand was rubbed into the palm and against the surface of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but that water was now unclean because it had touched unclean hands. So, next, the hands had to be held with finer tips pointing downwards and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the finger tips. After all that had been done the hands were clean.

To fail to do this was in Jewish eyes, not to be guilty of bad manners, not to be dirty in the health sense, but to be unclean in the sight of God. The man who ate with unclean hands was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. To omit so to wash the hands was to become liable to poverty and destruction. Bread eaten with unclean hands was not better than excrement. A Rabbi who once omitted the ceremony was buried in excommunication. Another Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, used the water given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking and in the end nearly perished of thirst, because he was determined to observe the fules of cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst.

That to the Pharisaic and Scribal Jew was religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, and regulations like that which they considered to be the essence of the service of God. Ethical religion was buried under a mass of taboos and rules.

So how did Jesus respond to the Pharisees on this point? First, he called them hypocrites. A hypocrite was a play-actor, a two-faced person. A hypocrite was one who wore a mask. He looked one way on the outside, but was different behind the mask. Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “No man can for any considerable time wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.”

Jesus quoted to the Pharisees from the prophet Isaiah,

            This people honors me with their lips,
            but their hearts are far from me;
            in vain do they worship me,
            teaching human precepts as doctrines.

Jesus summed up his whole message to the Pharisees by saying: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Just to drive his point home, Jesus gave another example of how the Pharisees set human tradition over the commandments of God. Jesus mentions the word “Corban,” which means something offered to God. According to the tradition of the elders, the moment the word “Corban” was pronounced over something, it was dedicated to God and could not be used for any other purpose.

Now, saying that something is dedicated to God seems like a good thing. However, some people were using this tradition of the elders very cleverly to get out of their obligations to others. Jesus uses the example of the person who says “Corban” over his financial resources to get out of having to help his parents. To Jesus’ mind, this was simply wrong. Love of God could not be opposed to love of other human beings. The two go together. Again, the problem of the Pharisees was that they were putting their human tradition before God’s commandments; they were allowing human ideas to dictate their course in life, rather than allowing God to guide them.

Of course, this was not a problem simply for the Pharisees. It has been a perennial problem in religious circles. The Reformation started because Martin Luther thought the Catholic Church was elevating human tradition over God’s word. But we Protestants have had our problems as well. Do we not have human traditions that sometimes take precedence over God? It is of course easier for us to recognize this in others than it is to recognize this in ourselves. I think of the fundamentalist who says, “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew, and I don’t dance with girls who do!” Presbyterian tradition, enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms also comes to mind. The Puritans became the Pharisees of the 17th century. It was not enough for them to say that God wants us to keep the Sabbath. They believed they needed to spell things out further. Thus, Presbyterians have, at times, been caught in legalism from the 17th century down to today.

Terry Fullam tells this story about tradition….

I’m thinking of a small-town church in upstate New York. They’d had a rector in that church for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young priest. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.

Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I have a feeling that there’s something wrong.”

The man said, “Well, Father, that’s true. I hate to say it, but it’s the way you do the Communion service.”

“The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s not so much what you do as what you leave out.”

“I don’t think I leave out anything from the Communion service.”

“Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous rector administered the chalic and wine to the people, he’d always go over and touch the radiator. And then, he would—”

“Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition.”

So the younger man called the former rector. He said, “I haven’t even been here a month, and I’m in trouble.”

“In trouble? Why?”

“Well, it’s something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?”

“Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn’t shock them.”

For over thirty-five years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, “The Church of the Holy Radiator.”

That’s a ludicrous example, but often it’s nothing more profound than that. Traditions get started, and people endure traditions for a long time. They mix it up with practical obedience to the living God.[2]

I wonder, which is more important to us: human tradition or God’s commands? Furthermore, what do we need to do to put God back in the driver’s seat of our lives?



[1] Justin Wilson and Howard Cacobs, Cajun Humor (Pelican Press, 1984); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky, preachingtoday.com
[2] Terry Fullam, “Worship: What We’re Doing, and Why,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 102

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