Summary: Those who would serve the interests of God can do so by giving expression to joy in their lives. Those who feel God’s love have much to offer the hurting and disconnected in our world.
We all have certain core traditions and beliefs that are important to us. They make us who we are, they define our own behaviours and the way we think other people should behave. That is what lies behind the Gospel passage from Mark that we heard a few minutes ago.
As usual, the Pharisees and Jesus were having a difference of opinion. The Pharisees were upset because Jesus and his disciples did not take part in the Jewish hand-washing ritual before they ate. To the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples committed a “sin”.
The Pharisees were not the only people who get upset when traditions are not followed. We get upset when people do not follow our “traditions”. We sometimes have to part with our traditions, and that is not always easy for us to accept. That is one reason why in recent years some congregations have left the Anglican Church of Canada. They were not able to accept changes such as the introduction of the Book of Alternative Services or the blessing of same-sex unions. To them, the status quo is the only way to go.
I know how hard it can be to depart from tradition or the old way of doing things. For example, many of you know that I work part-time as the bookkeeper for the local Roman Catholic Church. That church has recently received a new priest, and with him has come a new and different way of doing things, just like it was for our own parish when our rector arrived in 2008 with his way of doing things.
Another example is the tradition that people who go to church have to wear their very best clothes. I can tell you that it is BUNK! Just look around at the people sitting next to you. Some are dressed up, but some are wearing casual, everyday clothes. Some also believe that ministers have to wear clerical suits and collars all of the time, even under their robes on Sunday morning. Well folks, I hate to disappoint you, but I know a lot of ministers who don’t even wear a suit and tie, let alone a clerical suit and collar. Even I don’t wear my “Sunday Best’ clothes under my robes all of the time, especially during the warm summer weather.
We must not think that the Pharisees are completely bad. They were dedicated to obeying and pleasing God, and that desire led to distinctive practices such as kosher food and circumcision. These practices helped them to keep their identity as God’s chosen people in a pagan world. Their traditions grew out of a need to keep their identity.
Even though the Jewish law was quite detailed, it left room for interpretation in many cases. The Pharisees used their desire to obey God to create rules to clarify the law in these situations. Over time these rules became so hard and fast that they became a surrogate law that the Jewish leaders regarded as being equal to Scripture. They lost sight of the difference between God’s law and their opinion. Jesus said that this was their sin. Jesus did not condemn all tradition. He only condemned those traditions that were elevated to sacred status. The church is responsible for preserving tradition, but it must make a clear distinction between essential scriptural teachings and non-essential traditions.
When he responded to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus went right to the heart of the issue. The Pharisees wanted to hold on to human tradition at all costs when they should have been more concerned with teaching God’s deeper requirements of love, compassion and justice. God is more concerned with a spiritual cleansing and purifying. If our hearts have been purified, our prayer and behaviour will be in line with what God wants. If we act out of good hearts we will know how to behave even if we don’t know the exact rule for a particular situation.
While a sense of tradition is desirable and necessary at times, a problem occurs when tradition is substituted for true worship or true faith. When the actions associated with our traditions become more important than the meaning of the traditions, we can get sidetracked. The Pharisees were more concerned with strict observance of Jewish laws than they were about true faith in God. The Pharisees were concerned about keeping God’s people distinct and keeping them from becoming assimilated with the larger culture. This effort to be distinct included rigid observance of rules, but the observance of rules covered up their lack of inward love and devotion. They were concerned about not letting germs and pollution go into their bodies, but Jesus said that they and we should be more concerned about the filth that comes out of our mouths-lying, cheating, etc. The Pharisees were concerned about the letter of the law including their rules and regulations, but Jesus emphasized the spirit of the law. We must beware of Christian leaders who appear to be very religious by their actions, but who are really glorifying themselves instead of glorifying God. We should never honour anyone above God. Only he is truly worthy of our praise.