Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost -- Proper 17B (8/30/2009)

The Traditions of the Elders

Lessons:     Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9     Psalm 15     James 1:17-27     St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23     Semicontinuous Series:         Song of Solomon 2:8-13         Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9

Prayer of the Day:     O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

7:1 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." 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." 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."

St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

"Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?" That was the question directed to Jesus by the Pharisees and some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem to spend time with Jesus. It was not a point of curiosity - it was a direct attack on Jesus' ministry, theology, and life.

The tradition of the elders played a significant role in the life of God's people during the first century (as it had for many years, and as it has ever since). Those traditions ruled every aspect of a faithful Jew's life. Each family relationship, social commitment, religious behavior, economic decision, political action, and personal value was shaped by the traditions of the elders. These traditions determined how one prepared a meal, how one worshipped God, and how one decided whether or not to greet a stranger. These traditions were instrumental in directing Jewish people to God, and protecting the faithful from the unhealthy (and ungodly) influences that surrounded them. The traditions had become the hallmark of faithful life in those days, and good religious people spent enormous amounts of energy following them.

That's why the actions of Jesus and his followers were so troubling. They seemed to fly in the face of these traditions. Jesus ate without engaging in the ceremonial washings proscribed for the faithful. He spent time with those who were unclean (and who would render him "unclean" by touching him). He forgave sinners. He healed on the Sabbath. His actions ran counter to many principles that God's people had come to assume as unquestionable. It infuriated his opponents, and in this week's Gospel lesson they confronted him directly.

Jesus wasn't primarily concerned with the traditions of the elders. As he made clear, he was far more concerned with the character of the believer's heart. And he was quite aware of the fact that many people who paid regular attention to the traditions of the elders seemed to have hearts that were dark and far from God. Agreeing with many of the prophets who came before him, Jesus taught that God is not pleased with religious behavior and the traditions of human faith communities. Instead, God is pleased with hearts that yearn for God, and desire to live in a godly manner.

So what do we, members (or at least acquaintances) of a "traditional Christian denomination," learn from this lesson? Are we to reject our Lutheran traditions? Are we to consider any who won't to be hypocrites? That is not what Jesus would ask of us. Instead, he would ask of us: "Which of your traditions continues to strengthen your faith in God, and deepen your trust in God's promises?" As we identify those traditions that are still helpful, we identify those traditions to which we will hold. But he also would ask of us: "Which of your traditions no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended?" As we identify those traditions that are no longer helpful, we identify traditions that need to be either rejected or modified, so that they once again touch us in the way they were intended to.

That is what it means to be a church within a reforming movement. We Lutherans call Martin Luther and his 16th Century colleagues "reformers." But we don't presume that their work reformed the church. We realize that they began a reformation, that must continue in every generation, so that our traditions remain faithful to the God whose spirit helped them come to be.

May we have the faith and the courage to do so. And may our reforming efforts help the church of our day to be strong and faithful and true. Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week's Gospel:

  1. What religious traditions did Jesus seem to ignore in the Gospels?
  2. Why were some disturbed by his actions?
  3. What did Jesus want most for his followers?

Connecting with This Week's Gospel:

  1. What traditions in my faith community continue to be helpful for our faith lives?
  2. What traditions in my faith community might better be set aside, and considered no longer useful?
  3. How might I most faithfully discern which traditions to uphold, and which to set aside (or reform)?