It is clear, I think, that this Gospel text is a denouncement by Jesus of the way many Jewish religious leaders in his day used their religious faith in harmful, life-diminishing ways. That much is obvious.
However, this is a text, in my judgment, that has been too often misread and misapplied. Some Christians use this text to draw, in my opinion, an inappropriate distinction between scripture and tradition. They generally lock on to verse 8 where Jesus is purported as saying, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” They argue that human tradition is bad, while the commandment of God, which they tend to identify as scripture as a whole is good. So they make this rigid distinction between tradition and scripture
The problem with that explanation is that the mention of “human tradition” in verse 8 is not a reference to all tradition. It’s a reference to the particular way these Jewish leaders were interpreting and applying that tradition. Scripture itself is part of that tradition. The Bible doesn’t stand apart from, separate from Christian tradition. It is part of that tradition. An important part, for sure, but a part nonetheless. Big difference.
In biblical usage, the word “tradition” simply means “that which is handed on.” In first Corinthians 15 Paul says that the death and resurrection of Christ is part of the tradition that was handed on to him, which he passed on to the Corinthians. Paul tells the church at Thessalonica to hold fast to the Christian traditions which he taught them. Our Bible is part of the Christian tradition. It is not separate from it.
The contrast in this text in Mark 7 is not between scripture and tradition. Scripture is a part of the tradition. The contrast here is between a healthy, liberating use of the tradition and an unhealthy, harmful use of the tradition. Our traditions are intended to be a means by which we do the will of God, but unfortunately they can devolve into a means by which we subvert the will of God. That’s what was going in this passage. The Jewish leaders were using their tradition in a negative way to actually subvert the will of God.
Sometimes we practice our Christian traditions in ways that are not necessarily harmful or helpful. They are just mechanical and don’t really impact us or influence on a deeper level. There was once a Chinese holy man who was very poor and lived in a remote part of China. As poor as he was, he understood that worship involves some sacrifice on our part. Food was his scarcest commodity, so every day before his quiet time of prayer and meditation he put a dish of butter up on the windowsill as an offering to God. One day his cat came in and ate the butter. To remedy this, he began to tie the cat to the bedpost each day before his time of worship. In time this man was so revered for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshiped as he worshipped. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers placed an offering of butter on the windowsill during their time of worship. And furthermore, each one had a cat and tied the cat to the bedpost during their time of worship. It was all part of the tradition. We can become so glued to the tradition, that the tradition loses its meaning and impact. It’s not really hurtful or harmful, but it’s not all that helpful or beneficial either. However, the mere mechanical observance of a second-hand Christian tradition may actually insulate us and prevent us from having any authentic personal experience of God ourselves. Christian tradition was never intended to be static, but dynamic, and always evolving.
Sometimes the way we use our Christian tradition can be destructive or even deadly. Charles Kimbell, was at one time and maybe still is, a professor of religion at Wake Forrest University. He wrote a book several years ago entitled, When Religion Becomes Evil. In his opening paragraph he says, “Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth. Throughout history religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths. The record of history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews.” That’s true isn’t it? We have seen many examples of this in history. The civil rights movement led by Dr. King was born out of a transformative Christian faith that drew upon our rich Christian tradition of restorative (social) justice and activism.
But Kimbell goes on to say, “At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior. It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless true to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history." And that is equally true isn’t it? Our religious traditions can be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world.
In our text today the Jewish leaders are upset with Jesus and his disciples because they observe that Jesus’ disciples were not keeping the “tradition of the elders.” In particular, they mention the traditions pertaining to eating food from the market and the washing of hands. In their view, the failure of Jesus and his followers to observe these traditions defiled them. It made them unholy or sinful. In response to their judgment, Jesus offers a judgment of his own. He draws upon a passage in the book of Isaiah which talks about the hearts of God’s worshipers being far removed from God and about worshiping God in vain. He applies that to his critics here.
So assuming that Jesus is right in his assessment of the Jewish leaders, here we might ask: So why is the worship of these Jewish leaders vain? Why is their worship empty and futile? Why does their worship express how far or distant their hearts are from God? It is this: These religious leaders were using their religious tradition in ways that were opposite of what God intended. They were using their tradition – their scriptures, their interpretations, their laws and customs to regulate access to God. They set themselves up as gatekeepers and they used their tradition to monitor and control access to God. They made themselves judges of what was holy and unholy, acceptable and unacceptable, righteous and sinful, pure and defiled. And you know as well as I do that this same use of religious tradition abounds today in any number of Christian contexts.
I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time he and his wife attended a victory party after a University of Georgia football game. They didn’t know anyone there except the couple with whom they were in attendance. It was held in a beautiful home in a suburb of Atlanta – restored Victorian, high ceilings, adorned with expensive furnishings. A lot of people were there, says Fred, maybe thirty-five or so, mostly in their thirties, forties, and early fifties. They were all decked out in clothing that said, “How about them Dawgs?”
There was an attractive woman present – a little too bejeweled and overdressed according to Fred. And just as Fred and his wife were getting to know folks and getting into the spirit of the party, this woman suddenly rang out with, “I think we should all sing the Doxology.” And before they could even vote says Fred, she started in. She and a handful of her friends sang with gusto the doxology at a Georgia football victory party. Fred says some stood around and counted their shoelaces. Some tried to find a place to set their drinks down. Fred said it was very awkward time.
When they finished singing the woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker, but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.” Someone spoke up, “You really believe that?” She said, “Of course I do. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask, ask for in my name, and I’ll give it to you.’ So I said, ‘Jesus, I want to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus. I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” And for an exclamation point she added, “I’m not ashamed to just say it anywhere, because Jesus told us to shout it from the housetops.” You to have admit, that’s an innovative use of Christian tradition don’t you think?
Fred along with some of the others retreated to the kitchen and tried to refocus on the game. They started to relive and talk about the game. When the hostess came into the kitchen carrying a plate of little sandwiches, things got quiet for few moments. Then one of the men said to Fred, “Do you think that woman was drunk?” Fred said, “Well, I don’t know. We just moved to Georgia last year. I was glad Georgia won, but I’m not feverish about it.” The hostess overheard this conversation and broke in and said, “If she doesn’t shut her blankety mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.” Fred said that it wasn’t like him to speak up, but he asked the hostess, “Are you a Christian?” She said, “Yes, but I don’t believe in just shouting it everywhere.” I get that, don’t you? I have to admit I get a bit irritated when I see a Quarterback giving God the glory after he throws a touchdown pass. I wonder if he is going to be giving God the glory on their next possession when he gets sacked for a fifteen yard loss and can barely lift himself up after a big old defensive lineman had just squished him on the turf?
We tend to be amused at such abuse and misuse of the Christian tradition, but we do the same thing. We just do it in more sophisticated and subtle ways. We use our tradition to support and defend our biases. We use our tradition to manage God and others. We use our tradition to determine who is saved or unsaved, who is in or out, who is excluded or included. We use our tradition to determine who is blessed and who is cursed. We use our tradition in ways that make us judges over God and over others. We have all done it, but hopefully we don’t do it now as much as we used to.
How we use our tradition really comes down to what is in our hearts. What is in our hearts is what matters. It’s what determines whether our faith, our tradition is a transforming reality in our lives, or a means we use to defend our biases, cater to our ego, and control God and others.
Obviously, because of the slant of our text, Jesus emphasizes the injustice and evil that finds its source in our hearts. . . . But the same can be said of that which is good, just, kind, gracious, and loving. Good works begin with a good heart. In the little parable of the trees Jesus tells, the tree represents the heart. A good tree produces good fruit; a bad tree produces bad fruit.
I love the story a mother tells about her three year old daughter who had this dialogue going on with her pediatrician. As the doctor is examining her ears he asks, "Will I find Big Bird in here?" The little girl says, "No." Then before examining her throat the doctor asks, "Will I find Cookie Monster in here?" Again, she says, "No." Finally, listening to her heart he asks, "Will I find Barney in here?" The little girl looks him directly in the eye and says, "No. Jesus is in my heart, Barney is on my underwear." I love the way my wife talks to our grandkids about Jesus. Whenever they do something kind or gracious or thoughtful, or when they are patient and generous and take care of one another, she tells them they are filled with Jesus. “You are filled with Jesus,” today, she says. I really like that explanation and what it teaches them about Jesus. I just wish they would be filled with Jesus a little more often.
What fills our hearts? That’s what really matters because that’s the heart of the matter. What’s in our hearts determines how we read and apply scripture and how we make use of our Christian tradition. Are we ego driven or love driven? Are we using our faith tradition to grow in love of God and love of neighbor? Or are we using it to manage God and control others? To make us look good or feel special while we treat with disdain and contempt those who believe differently, look differently, and act differently than we do? Are we using our faith tradition to value, welcome, and affirm others? Or are we using it to exclude, marginalize, and reject others? Do we use our faith tradition to claim a chosenness that others don’t have, that we reserve for ourselves and our group that breeds pride and entitlement? Or do we see in our faith tradition an unconditionally loving God who has chosen all of us, the only difference being that there are some who know it and have claimed it, while others are still unaware of how loved and chosen they are? All of this, sisters and brothers – how we imagine God, how we treat others, how much we care about what is right and good and just and loving – all of this is ultimately determined by what is in our hearts. So may our hearts be more and more filled with the love of Jesus.
Gracious God, help us to see that being Christian, living within the Christian tradition, is no automatic guarantee that we are going to be like Christ. Help us to see that we can be just like the religious leaders in our text today, and use our tradition in hurtful, selfish, controlling, and demeaning ways. Show us what is in our hearts and give us the desire, the will, and the determination, to open our hearts to your Spirit so that your love, the love of Christ, might fill us and overflow into all that we say and do, and all that we are and are becoming.