TRADITION OR ADDITION?
- Traditions are a problem when they add to the Word of God
- Traditions are a blessing when they proclaim the Word of God
Text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Church traditions can be sensitive matters. A pastor arrived at his new congregation. After two months of leading worship, two different members wrote letters to the chairman of the congregation complaining that the pastor was not conducting the service properly. What was the pastor’s crime? He followed the hymnal’s directions when he directed the congregation to stand and sit. Previously, the congregation sat through sections where the hymnal suggested that the people stand. One of the letters also complained that the pastor was facing the wrong direction when he spoke the Creed. For those “crimes,” the chairman received letters of complaint about the new pastor. That’s a real story. As I said, church traditions can be sensitive matters!
The situation I just described is hardly unique to our time. The Gospel for today records an incident in which Jesus received harsh criticism because his followers did not observe some of the common traditions of the Jews. But this incident, and the way Jesus dealt with the incident, has something to say about the whole matter of traditions in the church. Are traditions a valuable aspect of church life, or are traditions really additions to God’s will? Today’s Gospel will help us understand that traditions are a problem when they add to the Word of God, but traditions can be blessings when they proclaim the Word of God.
Living in the ultra-sanitized, germ-conscience society that we are in, we might misunderstand the issue in the Gospel for today. It sounds like Jesus and his religious opponents, the Pharisees, merely had a debate about hand-washing. But washing one’s hands was only the surface issue. This was actually a matter about tradition. “The Pharisees and some of 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. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)”
You might loosely call the practice of washing your hands before a meal a “tradition,” but for the Pharisees and most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, that was a tradition with a capital “T.” A series of 613 laws regulating daily life developed among the Jews centuries before Jesus was on the scene. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, another religious group of Jesus’ day, debated as to whether or not these laws were binding. A famous Jewish historian named Josephus mentions in his writings that the Sadducees thought that the only binding laws were those written in the Old Testament Scriptures, but the Pharisees thought otherwise, and most of the population agreed with the Pharisees. So this was hardly a matter about hygiene. For most Jews, this tradition was understood as a matter of “right” versus “wrong.”
Since the Pharisees constantly and stringently held to this custom, and since they believed it to have moral force, you can understand why they asked Jesus what they did. “So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with “unclean” hands?’” Notice that the question was not, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” but “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders?” Just the way they asked the question shows you the degree to which they had elevated these human customs.
And the way Jesus answered the question shows you the degree to which this had become a problem. “He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” Obviously this wasn’t a new problem in Jesus’ day either, because Isaiah made the same observation about many of the people of his day some 700 years earlier. But Jesus’ biggest indictment came in verse eight. “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” I like the way the English Standard Version and the New King James Version translate the second half this verse: “[You are] teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The English sounds a little clumsy, but Jesus’ criticism comes through a bit more clearly. The real problem is that they taught obedience to human traditions as if they were divinely commanded. Their traditions were a real problem because they treated traditions like additions to the Word of God.
There have been times throughout church history when human traditions became a major problem because they were essentially added to the Word of God. That kind of thinking can be found here and there in the church at large, but I don’t sense a major movement among Lutherans to elevate tradition to the same authoritative level as Scripture. One major reason for the existence of the Lutheran Church is because the Reformers responded to the church’s all-too-frequent practice of treating traditions like Scripture.
But that doesn’t mean we are immune from making our own tradition-additions to God’s Word. Lutheran or not, we still have a sinful nature that loves to make its own laws and decrees and commandments. That was the sin of our first parents—adding their own “exception clause” to God’s command to not eat from the one tree in the middle of their garden-home. And that is a tradition that our sinful nature loves to constantly hold on to. Your political party and views do not make you a better person before God. Your organized and prioritized schedule does not give you license to look down on others. Your well-behaved children do not merit you a “perfect parent” award. Your church attendance and attempts to be nice to the people you like does not make up for a dormant devotional life and for failures to live up to your faith when it is inconvenient. Inside every one of us is a little Pharisee who loves to elevate his or her own status before God because of some human standard we have set for ourselves and mentally morphed into a divine dictum. But to that inner Pharisee Jesus says, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And then the warning from today’s Second Lesson (Revelation 22:16-21) comes to mind: “If anyone adds anything to [these words], God will add to him the plagues described in this book.”
Was Jesus against traditions? If this reading was all we considered, we might wonder if Jesus was anti-tradition. But if we look at Jesus’ entire ministry, we will come to a different conclusion. There is an incident in Luke 4:16-21, where Jesus is the “guest preacher” in the local synagogue. And as he reads and preaches to the people, he observes the traditions of the synagogue – reading the appointed lesson, handling the scroll, standing to read the lesson, and sitting to preach. If Jesus were simply anti-tradition, he probably would have thrown out the standard order of worship and just done his own thing. The fact that he observed the synagogue tradition suggests that traditions themselves were not the problem.
If we look at the rest of the Gospel for today, we also sense that tradition itself was not the problem. Jesus transitions the discussion to a proper perspective. The real matter is not whether or not someone was ceremonially unclean, but spiritually unclean. “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him “unclean” by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.”’” And Jesus goes on to explain what he means when he talks about the things that come out of people to make them unclean. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” After listening to a rather comprehensive list of sin like that, Jesus’ audience should have figured out that all the ceremonial hand washing in the world could not undo the spiritual uncleanness that infected their hearts.
After listening to Jesus’ words, we should also realize that all the sanitized rationalizations we could come up with cannot undo the spiritual uncleanness that infects our hearts. But if there was anyone who understood that well, it was Jesus. The entire reason Jesus entered into our world in the first place was not to be a rigid traditionalist or a radical tradition-breaker, but to be our Redeemer and Savior. The entire reason Jesus came into our world was to take up the uncleanness of our hearts and the sin that comes out of our hearts – everything Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel and more. The entire reason Jesus came into our world was to take all that sin and filth and uncleanness and wash it away in the blood that he shed on the cross.
As harsh as Jesus’ criticisms are in today’s Gospel, his grace and love are even sweeter. Jesus alone could take our sin up on himself, and he did. Jesus alone could lay down his innocent life as the payment for our sin, and he did. Jesus alone could end the war between us and God and bring us his peace, and he has. Jesus alone could undo the power of death by his resurrection, and he has. Jesus alone could make you the promise of eternal life through faith in him and his Word, and he has. What a beautiful message to hear! What a beautiful message to proclaim! What a beautiful message to celebrate!
We hear and proclaim and celebrate that gospel message every week in worship. And now that Jesus has given us a new perspective on tradition, doesn’t it make sense that we proclaim and celebrate the good news of Jesus’ forgiving love by the traditions we observe? If traditions are our ways to express what’s important, what better reason could there be to establish gospel-proclaiming traditions in worship!
What a wonderful reminder of the new life Jesus gives us when we hand a baptismal candle to the parents of a newly baptized infant after lighting theat candle from the paschal candle. What an appropriate way to show our respect for Jesus when we stand each week as the Gospel is read, the reading that contains the very words and works of Jesus. What a vivid way to communicate the real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament than to see these elements raised or to see the sign of the cross made over them, and then to receive them from such beautiful vessels. The list could certainly go on, but I hope the point is clear. Our church traditions can be a great blessing when they faithfully proclaim the Word of God and the grace of Christ.
I have a document in my computer that describes the way a typical Sunday service is conducted here at Gloria Dei. I forward that document to guest preachers so that they know what people here are used to. Even though I hope that there will be some continuity between a guest preacher and me, I don’t expect that everything will be in lock-step liturgical harmony when someone else fills the pulpit for me. But I also know that guest preachers like to know what congregations are used to during worship. With that knowledge, guest preachers can respect a church’s traditions when they fill in for a pastor who is out of town on a given Sunday.
Maybe that’s a good way for all of us to look at tradition. Respect for tradition is good. Elevating tradition to the level of God’s Word is not. Following traditions that express Christ’s gospel and demonstrate why the gospel is so important to us is good. Following traditions because that’s just the way things are done around here is not. Traditions ought not become additions to God’s Word. Traditions, whether ancient or relatively new, are simply another way for us to proclaim Christ and him crucified to all who have gathered in his house. That’s a message that’s worth proclaiming in Word, Sacrament, song, and even tradition! Amen.
Another sermon by Pastor Strey on this same text is available at this link.