1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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.) 5 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?” 6 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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) — 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” 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.” 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.”
(Mark 7:1-23, NRSV)
Four weeks ago I answered a knock on my door. There were two young men there holding a light-weight rope attached to a cow. With big smiles on their faces, they handed the rope to me and said congratulations. I had received my first cow. He was a present from the family of one of my students who had succeeded in achieving reasonably high marks on his senior theses.
In the French system, which Rwanda follows, every student is required to present a senior thesis before graduation. Though the theses usually only run between 50 and 90 pages, this is a major undertaking for the students because they have to be publicly defended. There is a panel of three judges who give their comments and pose questions to the student. It can be a humiliating experience if the judges don't like the thesis; and this is made even worse because the student usually invites his family, friends, pastor and others. In any event, one of my students did fairly well in his defense, and his family was so happy about it that they decided to give me a cow as a present.
Giving cows to people is a long-standing Rwandan tradition, and
it's considered a truly special and meaningful event. To Rwandans
cows represent prosperity, success, happiness, status, even
beauty. One professor at the National University of Rwanda told
me that he had made his studies at Cambridge University, and that
one of his Rwandan friends there had fallen in love with a British
student. Full of the passion of romance and with absolute
sincerity, he looked into her pretty face and said,
have eyes like a cow! This was meant as a compliment though
it was not taken as such. Sometimes, it seems, the traditions of
one culture do not mesh well with the sensibilities of another.
When I received the cow, I put it in the backyard thinking that it could eat the grass there and be happy. But the cow was not happy. It didn't want to be in the backyard; it wanted to be with me. So it kept coming to the front door where it could look through the glass window there and moo for me to let it in. I also have to say that in Rwanda young cows have only two responsibilities: to reproduce themselves and produce fertilizer for the fields. This cow, in the few days that it was with me, worked at the latter responsibility with prodigious results, making my entire courtyard like a minefield to be carefully negotiated. Traditions, it seems, can be lovely things in and of themselves, but sometimes they don't achieve the ends for which they are designed.
The Pharisees and Tradition
The story that we read this morning in Mark chapter 7 is also about traditions that have gone awry. By the first century, Judaism had become a religion of traditions. There were traditions concerning most aspects of life: birth, marriage, burial, worship, types of food to eat and not eat, and washing rituals. It was the hand-washing rituals that were the initial cause for the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Jews placed great importance on the difference between being clean and unclean. This was only distantly concerned with the idea of physical cleanliness.
They were actually only concerned with ceremonial cleanness — the state in which a person might rightly come before God in worship or prayer. A person could become unclean in any number of ways: touching a dead body, having an issue of blood, drinking from a vessel that was unclean in a ceremonial sense. A person could be unclean simply by touching another person who was unclean. A person might unknowingly become unclean by passing through the market or down a busy street and inadvertently brushing up against a ritually unclean person. Even touching the dust that a Gentile had touched would make a Jew unclean.
Hence, the Jewish religion had an elaborate system of washing rituals that it had worked out over a long period of time. The rituals for hand washing could be particularly elaborate. Before a meal a person must wash his hands, using a prescribed minimal amount of water — an eggshell and a half of water. He began with the hands held up and allowed the water to run down the hands and off the wrists. It had to run off the wrists because it was now unclean. Then the ritual was repeated with the hands pointed downward. And finally each hand was cleaned by being rubbed with the fist of the other hand.
It has been said that great quarrels often arise from small occasions but never from small causes. The American Revolution started out as a conflict over a minor tax on tea — a largely symbolic tax. The symbol that rallied the French in their revolution was the Bastille, though there were only a handful of prisoners in it at the time. Likewise, hand washing among the Jews was largely a symbolic matter that raised a much larger issue. Between Jesus and the traditionalists two totally different views could be seen to clash head-on, and the result, in the long run, was a religious revolution. For the Jews, the essence of religion was tradition. By following tradition, one honored God and earned a right relationship with him. For Jesus, tradition was not necessarily a bad thing. But more important than tradition were the commands of God. When these two clashed, human traditions had to give way before the commands of God.
Jesus gave the example from the oral tradition of pronouncing
Corban. This meant that the
something in question was now dedicated to God. In
effect, this part of the oral tradition could be used as a sly way
to avoid the filial responsibilities of the fifth commandment.
When property might have been used to support an aging mother,
instead it was declared Corban and so put off limits to her.
Jesus sums up the reality of this kind of religion:
have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the
tradition of men.
What was worse, according to Jesus, was that the traditions of the
Jews had made religion an external thing. Instead of being a
means to an end, the traditions had become an end in themselves.
The result was simply legalism — a soul-killing kind of
religion. Jesus aptly quotes the prophet Isaiah to this effect:
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. Hence their adherence to tradition had
led to an empty form of religion.
Tradition and the Reformation
This issue is not limited to the confrontation between Jesus and
the Pharisees. At the time of the Reformation Luther believed
that a conflict between God's written word and practices and ideas
based on the oral tradition of the church had arisen again.
Luther was taunted with the jibe: Have all the theologians and
churchmen for a thousand years been wrong and you alone are right?
And so at the great governmental assembly known as the Diet of
Worms Luther declared that if the conflict were between human
traditions and the word of God he would stand with the word of
Here I stand, he famously said.
cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen. But Luther was not
against tradition per se. In fact, Luther loved the wholesome
traditions of the church. If you attend a Lutheran service today,
you will find it to be very similar to the Catholic mass. Luther
believed that the church should retain all of its traditions
except those that were clearly opposed to the Scriptures.
Presbyterians and Congregationalists (such as the United Church of Christ) are in the Calvinist tradition. Calvin did not agree with Luther on this point. Calvin didn't think that human traditions should have any part in the church. He scrapped everything of the Catholic past and started over again, saying that nothing should be done in the church unless it has a scriptural warrant. The result is what you see around you: no statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus; no stained-glass windows; no crucifix; no elaborately prescribed church liturgy. In many ways Calvin was an extremist in his anti-traditionalism. And yet we Calvinists today have our traditions, traditions in fact of which we're very fond. What would Calvin say about our traditions? What would Jesus say?
The need to see our traditions in the right light is underscored by the fate of a certain machine that we all know about — typewriters. A few years ago I was wandering around London and decided to take the tour of Churchill's famous war office. It's just one level below street level so that it would be protected from German bombs. You can see where Churchill's staff slept, their work-spaces, the authentic office furniture. The things that caught my eye were the antique mechanical typewriters. Typewriters have become so much a thing of the past that I wondered if children walking through in the future would know what they were.
The transition from typewriters to computers occurred in most of our lifetimes. I learned to type on a mechanical typewriter in the sixth grade. I used electric typewriters in high school and college. In graduate school I used a large boxy computer that had very little memory capacity and would be too slow today for the Internet. And since school I've been using mostly laptop computers.
There was a famous Harvard study made of the old Corona Typewriter Company. This is a company that began in the 19th century and produced excellent typewriters that many of us were using not so long ago. But the company did not make the transition from typewriters to computers, and so sometime in the 1980's it went out of business. According to the study, the company continued to make excellent typewriters up to the end. In fact, it continued to perfect its product, making minor improvements until it finally went out of business. But why didn't it begin to make computers? The company, according to the study, believed that it was in the typewriter business. But this was not actually so. Actually it was in the communication business. People wanted its product as long as it was the best means of communication. When this was no longer the case, they switched to computers.
I think that there is a lesson here for churches. Sometimes we think that we are in the church business, and so we make all sorts of improvements in the way that we do church — we tweak the tradition. But we are not really in the church business. Actually we are in the worshiping and serving God business. The outward forms that this may take can change radically, and we will still be in the worship-ping and serving God business. We can see this as we look through the whole history of the church at all the different types of worship and service that have gone on. And we can see it today at all the different types of worship and service that are taking place this morning in Maryland and around the world.
An Application for the United Parish of Bowie
I did not choose the Scripture passage this morning from thin air. It's one of the three choices given on the liturgical calendar for this day, and I chose this particular one because I thought that it was highly appropriate for the United Parish of Bowie at this time. The months ahead are going to be a time of transition, of decision-making, of difficult choices between a variety of positive goods. And there will probably be a few unexpected bumps along the way, which is actually quite normal. In any event, I'm not sure at this time what path or paths the church should take. Having just arrived here, I'm hardly in a position to recommend anything. But I am pretty sure what the church should not do.
We should not be like the ancient Jews who confused their religious tradition for a living faith in God. In that case we would be subject to Jesus's harsh remonstrance: we worship with our lips, but our hearts are far from him. We should not, as the church has done in many ages, insist that there is only one proper way to do things. After all we are the inheritors of a Calvinist tradition that is itself anti-traditionalist. Wouldn't it be ironic then if we, of all people, insisted on maintaining a tradition that had outworn its usefulness? We should certainly be wary of producing better and better typewriters in an age of computers. That is to say, we should not keep trying to perfect something if it has become passé. And, we should be careful not to allow a large rift between our church culture and the general culture. Or, to put it more colorfully, we should not be giving cows to college professors.
To put it positively, we should remember that though Christianity has been around for nearly two thousand years it is still something new in the world; it is still something that has yet to be exhausted. Glancing through the concordance of the just the New Testament, it's wonderful to see how many times the world new appears. We are a church of new wine and new wineskins. We are a people who speak in new tongues. We have been given a new covenant. We are new creations. We are to put on a new self. There is a new and living way open to us. We have been given a new birth. And we will yet see a new heaven and a new earth.
As the church sets about the business of selecting and installing a new pastor, it is entering a period when it will be more open to change than in any other. When I think about the possibilities of the United Parish of Bowie, I'm excited. I don't know what God is going to do with us or what He wants us to do. But I'm looking forward to discerning with you in the coming months what new things God may have for us.
I don't want to be misunderstood, so let me state my view as simply as I can: We should respect and even cherish our traditions, but we should not allow ourselves to be imprisoned by them. Rather, let's be open to new things. Let's dream dreams. Let's be visionaries. Let's trust that the God of Jesus Christ will be with us in all things as we thoughtfully, prayerfully and diligently seek his will for this community of faith. Above all, let's move together through this process as a truly Christian community — loving one another, respecting one another, listening to one another, and forgiving one another when necessary.
The foregoing was Rev. Michael Parker's first sermon as interim pastor of United Parish of Bowie, September 3, 2006
© 2006 Michael T. Parker