Summary: Ordinary Proper 16: Christ came to set us free from blind traditionalism. His liberating Spirit frees our hearts to serve Him and the neighbor out of a spirit of love and forgiveness.
There’s a story about how in 1903 the Russian Czar noticed a sentry posted on the Kremlin grounds for no apparent reason. When he inquired, he discovered that in 1776 Catherine the Great found on that very spot the first flower of spring. She ordered that a sentry be posted there so that no one trampled that flower. So - a sentry was dutifully posted on that spot for the next 127 years! Some traditions die hard. (Adapted from Leadership, Summer, 1989, p. 43.)
Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the great minds of modern Christianity wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of those now dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living.” Now Pelikan was not knocking tradition. In fact, he was a staunch supporter of tradition. What he was knocking was a blind adherence to traditions by simply going through the motions without a heart commitment.
In today’s Gospel Lesson, we find such a situation. About 500 years before Jesus was born, a group of people emerged whose interest was the letter of the law. As time passed, they evolved a detailed code of 613 rules that regulated Jewish life down to the smallest details. They redefined God’s decrees according to their own way of thinking and demanded that everybody live accordingly. They accused anybody who didn’t follow these rules of not honoring God. By the time of Jesus – this had turned into traditionalism gone amuck.
For example, they developed a very elaborate hand-washing law. Before they ate, 1½ egg-shells of water had to be poured over the hands. But this couldn’t happen in just any manner. It had to be done just so. The hands were held with the finger-tips upwards. The 1½ eggshells of water was then poured over them until it ran down the wrists. Each palm was then cleansed with the fist of the other. Then, the hands were held with the fingertips pointing downwards. Water was poured on them from the wrists downwards so that ran off at the fingertips. Now, mind you, this was not a matter of hygiene. It was a matter of ritual. It had to be done even if a person’s hands were spotless. You see, to them it was needed in order to please God. Not to do it exactly this way was sin. (Adapted from a sermon by Tim Zingale, SermonCentral.com).
So when the Pharisees and Scribes saw that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before they sat down to eat, they went berserk. They blamed Jesus! “You are not teaching your disciples to honor God like our ancestors did.” Their target was Jesus and by saying this they implied that Jesus was not from God.
Now let me ask you a question: What’s the real problem with the position that the Pharisees and Scribes took? I mean, what’s wrong with wanting to honor tradition? And today – given what we know about H1N1 flu viruses – it even seems that hand washing is not such a bad thing!
The real problem was a heart problem. You see, their laws and traditions had become more important than what God was doing through Christ. Man’s laws were placed over God’s. And that is tantamount to calling God a liar. At the end of the day, people were being misled and souls put in danger by man’s traditions. Because of this, Jesus spoke strong words of condemnation to the Pharisees. He called them hypocrites; whitewashed sepulchers; and listen to these two verses:
• "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to…” (Mat 23.13)
• "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are…” (Mat 23.15)
Pretty harsh, don’t you think? You see, the traditionalism and legalism of the Pharisees was costing people their very souls! And Jesus called them on it. He said, “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.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7.6-8)
Jesus said this about the Pharisees of his time, but it isn’t unusual to find the spirit of the Pharisees alive and well to this very day and age. A Congressman addressing House of Representatives was heard to say: “Never before have I heard such ill-informed, wimpy, back-stabbing drivel as that just uttered by my respected colleague, the distinguished gentleman from Ohio.” (E.E. Smith in the Wall Street Journal)