Tradition is a touchy topic for several reasons: 1) Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, people view tradition as that which shows us who we are, where we’ve been and where we are going. Tradition is our identity marker. 2) But tradition has a dark side, too. It can be used to alienate others, it can be a good thing that prevents something better from happening.
So we come to a couple of stories in Mark 7:1-30 and we see how Jesus deals with tradition.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)What is going on with these traditions? Are the Pharisees saying these traditions make a person saved? Not particularly. Pharisees would say they are saved by God’s mighty hand and by the covenant, not by their goodness. So what’s the deal?
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"
He replied, "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."
And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' "
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")
He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "
The purity traditions were identity markers. No Old Testament law demanded the Jews to wash their hands and vessels regularly (except for the priests and vessels during temple rituals). These non-essential traditions merely demonstrated the Pharisees (and those with Messianic hopes) were God’s holy people. If you didn’t do these things, then your Jewishness was suspect.
Part of the problem—besides being additional to God’s express command—was the traditions interfered with God’s ultimate purpose for Israel: to be a light to the nations. Israel was to be a people who brought justice, mercy, peace and beauty into the world. But their over-concern with maintaining their identity actually mitigated the demonstration of God’s justice and mercy. The example Jesus uses in this case was their tradition regarding Corban. Here mercy and justice (caring for one’s aged parents) is neglected for the sake of identity (contributing money for the Temple).
Tradition is not evil in and of itself. But when tradition is elevated to a command of God—or elevated to the point that one’s identity as God’s child is questioned there is a problem. When tradition actually prevents God’s justice, mercy, peace and beauty from being demonstrated, there is a problem. When traditional identity markers are used to alienate others, there is a problem. What happens when, due to our traditions and fighting over traditions, the world is unable to see peace, justice, mercy and beauty? What happens when our traditions keep us from our mission: to be light to the nations—to share God’s mercy with all peoples?
Jesus points out the inner workings of a person’s heart are where purity or impurity is found. Purity is not outward markings that identify God’s people—it is whether God’s law is written in our hearts. This is what Jeremiah said when he proclaimed there would come a time when the Spirit would fill God’s people and write his law on their hearts.
Then, to show the disciples what he means, Jesus does something dramatic in Tyre.
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.This woman isn’t just a Gentile. She is Syro-phonecian—a race particularly hated by the Jews for how their ancestors persecuted and oppressed the Jews during the days of Antiochus Epiphanes. No wonder her daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit. This person knows nothing of purity! This person certainly doesn’t deserve to have God’s light shown on her! Even Jesus seems to demonstrate this kind of attitude. But she reveals a heart of humility: a kingdom heart. I can almost imagine Jesus smiling: This is what I mean by a pure heart! And he shows God’s mercy on her.
"First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
"Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter." She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I have to ask myself: am I demonstrating true purity, inward purity? Am I demonstrating God’s mercy, justice, peace, and overflowing love on people thereby showing that I really am one of God’s children? Or do I wrangle and fuss and argue over traditions—thinking that these outward things will show that I am part of God’s people?
Does tradition meet the future here? Are our traditions helping outsiders know God? Or are they keeping people at arm’s length? Are we willing to change traditions—not essentials, but traditions when they don’t help us live up to our calling: to be light to the world—to share God’s mercy with all peoples? What are we saying about ourselves if we are unwilling to change? When the future meets our tradition will we bring the best of both together? Or will there be an explosion?
May you live truly pure before God. May you understand his purity leads to justice, peace, mercy and love. May you live your lives in a way that shines God’s light on those who live in darkness. May you enjoy your traditions, but never be controlled by them.