“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’” — Mark 7:8
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The lectionary reading shifts to the Gospel of Mark this week. We find some Pharisees and scribes coming in search of Jesus. It’s not entirely clear why they are coming. Are they simply curious? Do they want to find out if there is truth behind the stories of powerful teaching and healing? Are they eager to find Godly wisdom? Are their plans more negative from the beginning? Do they arrive planning to discredit this upstart? It’s difficult to say, but it is clear that once these leaders arrive on the scene they are appalled at what they find.The disciples are flaunting the regulations handed down by generations of religious leaders. They are eating with ritually unclean hands. If you want to learn about the importance of cleanliness in the kitchen you should hang-out with my wife Christine. We run through soap like it’s no one’s business. She grimaces at cooking shows where raw meat is moved from surface to surface and the audience never sees proper clean-up or regular hand-washing. We had a cookout at our home several weeks ago and one of our guests asked me why I kept washing my hands. I had to explain the rules about hand washing in our house are not set by me. Are the pharisees doing the same thing here? Are they concerned about the health of the folks eating dinner? Nope. Their statements show that they are concerned with the breaking of tradition.Not only are they concerned with tradition being flaunted and not health concerns, but did you notice what kind of tradition? The pharisees do not accuse the disciples of breaking God’s law, but of flaunting human tradition. Jesus responds strongly by quoting Isaiah 29:13. He rejects their reliance upon ritualized human tradition as a marker of devotion to God. When Jesus names them hypocrites, he is deeply concerned about their professed faith and leadership as it compares to the right following of God.
Jesus then teaches in the two follow-up verses (14-15 & 21-23) about what the people should be on the look out for. He instructs them to focus not on what is external to their bodies, but to focus on the direction of their hearts. This teaching would have been shocking for the pharisees to hear. The idea that our spiritual lives are impacted more by how we choose to live and govern our passions than by some traditional ritual around food seems easy to grasp for us. Of course, intentional sin as described in verses 21 and 22 are more dangerous, and we must be aware of the things our hearts and souls are drawn to that cause us stumble. But there is a more pertinent lesson here. What human traditions have we let get in our way of worshipping God? Are there things about the way that we live as a community of faith that an outsider who walked up on Sunday morning (or at an event during the week) would be shunned for? The low-hanging fruit would be unintentional dress codes, particular local language, parking lot manners, and knowing the order of events. But I’m sure there are more.
The awareness Jesus is calling us to is not easy. Taking a hard introspective look at our rituals and decoding which ones are merely human can be a painful task, on par with taking a look at our insides and being aware of what comes out of us.