August 29 2021
If you have been in the church for any amount of time at all, you have probably heard many sermons on our Gospel reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, or one of the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. Jesus says, “in vain do these people worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God, and hold to the traditions of men.” Typically, the shape of sermons in response to this passage is to use this story of Jesus coming into conflict with the Pharisees in a dispute over a “tradition” as an opportunity to broadly reject anything that looks or sounds like a “tradition” in the church, at least that is the way it goes in the American Church. Ironically, I have heard most of these sermons in the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, a body of Christians founded upon a great tradition. Like so many of Jesus’ teaching, this passage has fallen victim to church partisanship and arguments, in our own tradition it was the Puritans against the Anglicans who lobbed this verse at one another from their respective foxholes. If you have heard enough sermons treating this passage as a wholesale rejection of any tradition, you would not be mistaken to conclude that the goal of the Christian life is simply to avoid traditions altogether, and that is the path that many churches try to walk.
Hopefully we all recognize that there are a number of problems with this interpretation, we are all blessed to be recipients of a great tradition as Anglicans after all, but a close examination of our passage from Deuteronomy makes the anti-tradition case impossible to hold, “Make them (these teachings) known to your children, and your children’s children.” Of course, we know that this particular tradition is one that comes from God, but it is still true that this passage is nothing less than a call to receive a tradition from God, teach it to our children, and to be formed by this tradition. It is also true that tradition making is simply something that human beings do, like cooking and eating, singing and painting, playing and laughing; traditions are just part of being a human being.
I was in a clergy support group with a Southern Baptist minister who became a good friend, who would often speak with envy of clergy who were fortunate to serve in denominations with great traditions and liturgies that serve as an authority above and beyond the lower-case “T” traditions of his local church. He knew that traditions are just something that we do, like it or not, even though he served in a denomination who have made a tradition of being against traditions. He would often lament that his congregation, a congregation plagued by illnesses caused by obesity and unhealthy habits, held a monthly cake walk to raise funds for their church. Not only did the cake walks not really raise enough money to cover the cost of having the building air-conditioned while they were held, they were actually contributing to the health problems of the congregation, problems which were quite seriously exposed during the coronavirus pandemic. This may sound like a silly example, but here is a tradition which was harming a congregation, resulting in serious consequences, and it would be hard to make the case that a tradition of holding cakewalks is from God.
Traditions are simply part of being human, they cannot be avoided, and typically a church which believes it is free of traditions is really just aping the traditions of the culture around it. The right question to ask about tradition as Christians, then, is not “tradition or no tradition,” but “good traditions vs. bad traditions;” “Christian tradition or not.” Traditions which form us well, and draw us into a deeper life with God because they come from beyond us and above us, or traditions which do not do that because we are their source. Traditions which are established in the great history of human beings living in relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who we know most clearly in Jesus Christ, or traditions which are established by the world.
The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples eat with unwashed hands. A fixation on physical cleanliness is a feature that marks all human religious expression across time and experience, but it is one which Jesus Christ deems superficial at best. One of the most famous non-Bible verses that is often mistakenly attributed to the Bible, or treated like it comes from Scripture, “cleanliness is godliness,” and not only can it not be found in Scripture, it is a phrase which Jesus Christ would reject wholeheartedly.
Jesus has no tolerance for this superficial religiosity of the Pharisees and Scribes, with their outward fixation on physical cleanliness and outward appearances. Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah in regards to the Pharisees and scribes, that they are simply hypocrites, a Greek word which means someone who acts or pretends to be something they are not. The Pharisees and Scribes are people who pretend and appear to be quite pious and religious, but who are in reality a people who honor God with their lips while their hearts are nowhere near God, who worship God in vain because they teach the traditions of human beings as if they were in fact God’s commandments.
To provide a concrete example of exactly the kinds of traditions the Pharisees have established which contradict God’s commandments, Jesus references the practice of giving “Corban,” or money set aside for God and given to the temple, as a tradition that exists in direct contradiction with the 5th commandment to honor your father and your mother. Now, how can something as pious and good as giving money to the Temple be a violation of God’s law? Corban is just the Hebrew word for a gift set aside for God, usually given to the Temple in Jerusalem, but this tradition of setting aside a gift for God had devolved into a practice where young Jews were taking money set aside to care for their aging parents, as a gift to the temple, in order to blackmail or coerce their parents. One commentator does in fact refer to the practice Jesus criticizes as “religious blackmail.”
While we tend to associate the commandment to honor our father and mother with being well-behaved as children, that is the moralizing way we tend to interpret that passage today since hospitals, care facilities, and morgues care for our dying and dead parents, the force of this commandment actually has to do with caring for parents as they enter old age and die, especially when they are no longer “useful” to society. It is the oldest and the youngest among us who are most vulnerable, easily overlooked, least useful, and for that reason most easily disposed of and neglected; but God has always proven himself to be a God who stands against the wicked discarding of human beings simply because they inconvenience us, even after they have died.
So the practice which Jesus criticizes as a violation of God’s commandment is the tradition of giving money to the Temple that was set aside for the care of aging and dying parents often set aside by the parents themselves, but which young Jewish people were using as leverage over their parents to manipulate them. Mom, Dad I do not want to do what you want me to do, so I am going to give this money set aside for your care as “Corban,” a gift to the Lord, so that I might appear pious and righteous while rejecting God’s law, and disrespecting you, unless you wish to change your mind. I will give a gift to God, while refusing to follow God’s true intention for me. The religious leaders of the time said, “amen,” to that, and received these funds with gratitude, God have mercy on leaders in the church today if we ever do a similar thing for the sake of stewardship.
I hope it is easy for us to see why Jesus had to condemn this practice with such vehemence. It is, to put it mildly, a very bad tradition, one which stands in direct contradiction with God. Again, acknowledging the problems with this tradition does not mean that we should reject all traditions, if that were even really an option for us. Traditions shape us, form us, have the potential to draw us deeper into life with God, or further away. Of course, the Church should always be mindful of equating traditions that are not from God with salvation, and repent when she does this; all the while embracing those traditions handed down to the Church and Israel before her for thousands of years by God.
One of the most important books in all of Christian history is a dense little book written by a Bishop and Theologian named Athanasius, about 1,700 years ago, called On the Incarnation. I try to read this every year around Christmas time, or the Feast of the Incarnation, but I bring it up today because one of the newer editions has a preface written by C.S. Lewis, and the purpose of this preface is for Lewis to convince the reader of the value of reading old books, and reading old books on their own terms; which is exactly how Lewis wishes the reader would approach this great ancient work by Athanasius.
Lewis’ main argument in this introduction is that, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books.” Lewis continues that this is “Not, of course,” because “there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” In other words, Lewis acknowledges that books from the past are not helpful because they or their authors were perfect, but because their imperfections were different from our own, so they can stand beyond us and outside of us to critique our own sinful imperfections. Great, historic, ancient traditions have the same effect as old books, if and when we allow them to, and this is one of the great gifts of being in a tradition like Anglicanism.
For all local churches, including St. Peter’s Anglican Church then, a number of questions arise when we come face-to-face with this passage from St. Mark. While it is unlikely, but not impossible, that any of our own traditions so clearly violate God’s law as the giving of Corban, we are still right to question the value of the traditions we hold dear. We are right to ask, where do our own traditions come from? Do they come from us and our own desires, or from beyond us? What do our traditions communicate about who God is, and how do they form our inner lives, the part of us where Jesus says true cleanliness comes from? What do our traditions communicate about the nature and purpose of the Church? Do our traditions communicate that the church is a social gathering place, a place to hang out with like minded people, sort of a religious country club; or do they communicate that the Church, even what we are doing right now, is the very intersection of heaven and earth, a place where we receive God’s grace in Word and Sacrament when we gather together, a place where we encounter God Himself in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit?
Do our traditions tell a story that just a few of us can connect to and draw meaning from, or do they tell the great story of sin and grace; redemption and forgiveness that is told in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ? Many of you likely heard of the tragic and untimely death of a fellow Anglican Priest along with his daughter in a car accident this week, Fr. Thomas Mckenzie. Fr. Mackenzie wrote in his important book on Anglicanism, The Anglican Way, “The Church has two things to offer to the world, Word and Sacrament. These two together are how we proclaim the Gospel.” We are right to ask if our traditions stand in the way of that end, or further it, because this is exactly right. All we have to offer is Word and Sacrament, because that is where Jesus Christ has promised to make himself known to us.
And always we remember that this great tradition of grace in Word and Sacrament is one which is of value because its center and its foundation is Jesus Christ. It is a remarkable thing that Jesus Christ condemns the practices of the leaders of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is only one person, one being, with the authority to do such a thing, and it is God. It is only God who can weigh in so clearly and decisively over and against these destructive and distorted traditions of human beings. Make no mistake about it, in challenging these teachers of Israel, Jesus equates himself with God, he must, so that this scene is one of many that amounts to one step nearer to the cross where Jesus would be killed for claiming that He is God.
So it is good news for us today to remember that this God-man Jesus Christ has come to free us from traditions, patterns of life, and practices which destroy us by violating God’s intention for our lives. Thanks be to God that He has come to us in Jesus Christ, and comes to us still in God’s Word and the breaking of the Bread. Thanks be to God that he has upended our traditions such that we might be freed from ourselves, and established a great tradition of grace, freely given to bring us into a deeper life with God. Amen.