Defiled by Traditions? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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, thus observing the tradition of the elders;and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live 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.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

                Traditions can be helpful. They help preserve and pass on important information that helps define one’s identity and purpose. Tradition is a bit like the genetic code, which passes on useful information that help form a person’s biology and identity. It’s the nature part of the nature vs. nurture debate. Unfortunately genetic material can get corrupted (mutated), causing immense problems such as hereditary diseases.

When tradition, like the genetic code, gets corrupted problems arise. I have long liked the contrast that Jaroslav Pelikan lays out between tradition and traditionalism. He famously declared that “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Tradition helps us know where we came from, but traditionalism fossilizes what was so that the life of faith comes to a standstill. It freezes us in time, even as life moves onward. That can have devastating effects on a congregation and on the life of faith. In other words, death takes hold.

Jesus often finds himself at odds with the religious establishment, both the official and unofficial establishment. The Pharisees are not the official religious leaders, but they see themselves as guardians of the faith. In seeking to guard the faith, which is a worthy effort, they end up becoming traditionalists. They fall into the trap of being legalists. When you become a legalist the traditions and the laws become ends in themselves and not a means toward growing in one’s faith. Jesus honors the laws and traditions, but he sees them as the means to an end and not the end. People have more importance than rituals and regulations.
So, when the Pharisees object to the disciples failing to wash their hands before they eat, they’re not operating as an arm of the local health department. This isn’t about hygiene. It’s about ritual. Mark suggests that the Jewish people washed their hands before eating, but while priests were directed to do this, and Pharisees were known to apply priestly rules to themselves, it’s not clear that all Jews washed their hands before eating.  The Pharisees were concerned about boundary issues. They were known to adopt for themselves the rules and regulations that were supposed to be applied to the priests. Jacob Neusner writes of the Pharisaic view of eating:

They [the Pharisees] therefore held one must eat his secular food, that is, ordinary, everyday meals, in a state of purity as if one were a Temple priest. The Pharisees thus arrogated to themselves-and to all Jews equally-the the status of the Temple priests and did the things which priests must do on account of that status. The table of every Jew in his home was seen to be like the table of the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple. [Quoted in Dennis E. Smith. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Kindle Locations 2175-2177). Kindle Edition.]
The decision of the lectionary creators to focus our attention on this part of the discussion in Mark 7 (omitting the question of corban) reminds us that table fellowship stands at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Table fellowship served as a means of defining social boundaries and social bonds. Who you ate with (and how you ate) helped define your place in society. That the Pharisees sought to follow the rules that applied to the priests suggests that they saw themselves as religious leaders. To eat with those who failed to follow the rules, would cause them great social harm. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He’s hailed as a religious leader, but he doesn’t follow the rules. After all, Jesus was known to eat with sinners and tax collectors—people on the religious fringes.

Jesus’ dining practices suggest that he was interested in inclusion rather than exclusion. Therefore, the traditional rules didn’t seem to apply. Jesus isn’t concerned with proper etiquette either. It was the relationships that mattered, not the rituals. Thus, in his mind, placing human traditions above divine tradition was a problem.

This is really a question of ritual – whether they’re doing things according the traditions. Jesus responds with a word from Isaiah, suggesting that his opponents are more concerned about externals than what goes on in the heart. They are, you might say, religious without being spiritual. They know how to do things correctly, but Jesus suggests that their hearts aren’t in the right place.

                 And so we come to the point of this conversation. The heart is the source of good and evil. When the heart is corrupt, then from it comes all manner of evil:  “fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” As William Placher points out in his commentary on Mark, when you look at this list and make a few word changes, what you encounter here is Jesus’ reiteration of the second table of the Ten Commandments. These are the commandments, along with the one relating to corban (honoring father and mother), that relate to our relationships with one another. Placher writes:

Worry about your own attitudes and behavior, not how you might look to others if they see you associating with the wrong people. There are no “Wrong people” when it comes to those Christians should care about. [Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 103].
We have a problem, as church, when we place doctrines and regulations above people. In my own Disciples tradition, the founders—the Campbells and Barton Stone—were concerned that creeds such as the Westminster Confession were human traditions that divided rather than united. They were concerned about relationships, especially when it came to the Table and who could approach it. They rejected the idea that church leaders could judge the heart and determine who might come to the table and who should stay away.

                What matters is what is in the heart, not the rules and regulations (including local church bylaws). If I understand the message of Jesus, it is of one of inclusion. We see this play out in his Table fellowship. The issue dividing Jesus from the Pharisees wasn’t theology. It was a view of God’s mission. For the Pharisees the issue was boundaries. For Jesus it was relationships. How often are we concerned about boundaries at the expense of relationships?

                I think we can make too much of the distinction between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right behavior). What we believe about God is important. My sense is that our vision of God will be reflected in our behavior. If we understand Jesus to be the revelation of God (incarnation) then the way in which he conducted himself with others should give us direction as to how we act. Jesus was concerned about the heart not the stomach. It is from heart that evil and good arise, and so it is the heart that requires our attention. Jesus valued tradition but rejected traditionalism. He was ready to eat with Pharisees, but also with sinners and tax collectors. He was concerned about the heart, not our hygiene!


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