Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Imagine if someone who’s not Lutheran and is unfamiliar with our traditional liturgy walks into our congregation, has never heard of or seen a children’s message before, and says this tradition of ours is blasphemy because it’s unbiblical. This would shock us, even offend us! We would not think of removing the children’s message from our liturgical practice! This is simply part of our tradition, and we have discerned that it is good Christian practice to proclaim the Gospel to little children in this particular way.
Traditional practices are powerful for those involved because they tend to be permanent, accepted by all involved, and considered indisputable. In the culture of first-century Galilee, which we read about in our gospel text today, Jewish traditions about defilement and purity were just as deeply imbedded in their culture as our traditions with the children’s message and catechism class are.
Imagine our own shock, too, when we walk into a church of another denomination and discover there is no children’s message, no catechism classes, no benediction at the end of the service, and so on. Imagine, too, the Jews’ shock when they noticed some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they ate. Not only was this disgusting in their view, but it was also fundamentally unJewish. After all, the Jewish peoples are to be the one clean people of God in the world—the people who worship the One True God and who are acceptable to God, which is remembered in their ritual washing much as our making the sign of the cross is a reminder of our Baptism.
The issue in our Gospel text is not that the ritual washing of hands for hygienic purposes and religious purity is inherently bad. No, it is as Jesus says, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition” [vv. 8-9]. Again, the issue was not the tradition. The issue was leaving God’s commandment and holding to—or trusting in—their manmade tradition, and at the same time rejecting God’s commandment in order to establish their traditions. Let’s take a closer look at the text.
Malady: Placing Human Tradition over God’s Word
It is important, first of all, to know why Jesus was addressing this issue with the Pharisees. Jesus is about to begin His mission to the Gentiles, that is, non-Jewish peoples. We see this in the immediate context.
Just before this opposition from the Pharisees, Jesus healed a lot of sick people at Gennesaret, which was a Gentile region. After Jesus is finished dealing with the Pharisees here, He goes to another Gentile region called Tyre and Sidon and recognises the faith of a Syrophoenician woman and also heals her daughter, both of whom were Gentiles. This is important because the Pharisees counted Gentiles as unclean, impure people because they were not the chosen people of God to be clean and holy.
This is most interesting because it is not Jesus who brings up the issue of purity, but the Pharisees. They noticed that “some of Jesus’ disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” So, they asked Jesus. “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” [v. 5]?
Jesus does an interesting thing here. He changes the subject. He focuses not on the concept of tradition itself—or even the handwashing—but a particular tradition of theirs they were practicing wrongly.
The tradition of handwashing they had didn’t really come from the Torah, or the Law. It was required of the priests in the Law, but not for the entire people of Israel. So, where did this tradition come from? As Lutherans, much as we understand the Christian Church to be the priesthood of all believers, the Pharisees similarly understood all Israel to be a priestly community—according to the tradition of the elders—so they encouraged all Jews to wash their hands as a sign of their purity as part of God’s chosen holy people.
This can’t be bad, right? After all, some of us Lutherans make the sign of the cross to remember our Baptism. How is that any different?
Again, Jesus was not calling out tradition as being bad in and of itself; He called out a particular tradition, and it wasn’t even the tradition of handwashing! He tells the Pharisees they reject the commandment, not commandments, of God in order to establish their own tradition. What commandment is He talking about? Well, He says it; it’s the fourth commandment, “Honour thy father and mother.”
The Pharisees were breaking this commandment in a particular tradition. Jesus explains their rejection of this commandment when He says, “But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother” [vv. 11-12].
There’s a weird word here we’re not familiar with: Corban. Fortunately, Mark explains what this word means: given to God. Corban was a Jewish tradition of consecrating something—or setting something aside—as a gift to be used for God and never to be used for other people. The particular tradition Jesus called out was parents requiring their children to use their inheritance only for God and never to care for their parents.
That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? That sound righteous and pious, right? Surely, setting aside our large inheritance for God is righteous and pious!
Not so. As Jesus says, if children cannot use the sums of their inheritance to care for their parents, they cannot keep the fourth commandment, “Honour thy father and mother.” Thus, they placed human tradition over God’s Word. And Jesus says they do many other things like this [v. 13]!
Means: God Shapes and Forms our Traditions
At this point, we see Jesus doesn’t even address the original matter! At least not yet. The Pharisees asked why some of Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands, and Jesus completely changes the subject by pointing out their blasphemy in another tradition, and accuses them of more blasphemy in other traditions.
Later on, Jesus does address the issue of defilement, but never the handwashing. Why doesn’t Jesus address the handwashing ritual? Probably because He sees nothing wrong with it. The text says only some of Jesus’ disciples weren’t washing their hands, which means others were. Obviously, it was of no concern for Jesus.
I’m going to use a theological term to explain this, so please bear with me. We call this adiaphora, which is a term meaning: things neither forbidden nor commanded by Scripture, or things Scripture is silent on. The word tradition is another important word to understand. In Greek, the word for “tradition” means to be “handed down.” So, traditions are things that are “handed down” from one person to another.
Regarding adiaphora, God has given us logical minds to discern what is helpful and harmful when Scripture isn’t clear on some things. Yet even though Scripture isn’t precise on certain matters, we can nevertheless use the Scriptures to discern what might be helpful or not. This is precisely what we have done with our traditions. So, let’s consider some of our own traditions in the Lutheran Church.
I’ve mentioned making the sign of the cross a couple times already. Doing this gesture—this tradition or ritual—is not commanded by Scripture, and neither does it forbid it. Yet we have deemed it good Christian practice to remember our Baptism by making the sign of the cross, particularly what God has promised to us in our Baptism: the forgiveness of all our sins and the inheritance of eternal life in Christ Jesus. We do this most often when we hear “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in the Divine Service because we were baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I didn’t grow up Lutheran, so I never knew what the purpose of making the sign of the cross was. It wasn’t until I became Lutheran that I learnt it’s done to remember what God has done in my Baptism. This tradition was handed down to me, and I choose to practice it because it comforts my mind and spirit to remember what God has done and promised in my Baptism. We don’t require this of every Lutheran and we leave it up to the conscience of the individual, so it remains a helpful tradition.
We also have the tradition of catechism class to begin teaching our children the Scriptures and our Lutheran faith. We do this because we know we have been commanded to teach God’s Word to our children and our children’s children, which we will actually read about in next week’s Old Testament reading in Deuteronomy 4[:9]. We also have Paul’s affirmation of this commandment when he says to “bring [our children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” [Ephesians 6:4].
We have Scripture’s command to teach our children the Word of God, but it is silent on how we are to go about this. So, with Martin Luther’s guidance, the Lutheran Church constructed catechism class to begin teaching our children and our children’s children at a young age, which has been handed down throughout the rest of the Lutheran Church in all its history. This is why we have the Small and Large Catechisms. The Small Catechism was originally written for families to go through together in their homes, and the Large Catechism for the pastor to go through with his parishioners.
We even have traditions outside the Church, such as traditions with family and friends. When I was a kid, before my parents divorced, we had a couple of fun Christmas traditions. How many of you have heard of the board game Trouble? (For those of you who may not be familiar with it, all you need to know is that in the centre of the diamond-shaped board game is a transparent bubble with a single six-sided die in it, and you press down the bubble, release it, and it makes a fun popping sound and tosses the die.)
Every Christmas, my dad would assign each of us a number—me, each of my two siblings, and my mom and dad. Whoever’s number came up, either one of my parents or one of us would grab a present for that person (which my dad systematically numbered) and hand it to the person. This tradition taught me and my siblings how to be patient, to have joy in each other’s joy, and not to be selfish. God used my father’s vocation as father to create this tradition and teach us important contents of character, and this tradition is something I desire to hand down to my own kids someday.
I’m sure all of you here today can think of traditions in your own family, jobs, and friends. We know tradition is good. Tradition is fun a lot of the times. But we must be careful not to make the traditions we create into a commandment of God, lest we actually end up rejecting God’s commandments.
Consider catechism again. As a Lutheran congregation, we require that potential members of the church go through catechism in order to become a member of the LCMS. This is a wonderful tradition we have. But if someone decides to attend a Baptist church instead, it would be wrong of us to say, “Well that person’s not a true Christian because they didn’t go through Lutheran catechism and they’re not really saved because they’re not Lutheran.” This would be a violation of the 8th commandment, which forbids we give false testimony against our neighbour.
That person would, in fact, be a true Christian because it is not their status as a Lutheran that saves them but their justification by faith in Jesus Christ. It is God who judges the heart, not us. It is Jesus who saves, not Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or the Wesleyan brothers, or any other human being.
We have good, human traditions in the Lutheran Church and our own congregation. Making the sign of the cross is good because by it you remember God has forgiven you all your sins and has promised you the inheritance of eternal life. Potlucks are good because we get to gather as beloved children of God to love and uplift one another. Catechism in church and the home is good because we live in a country where we are able to teach our children God’s Word without threat of death. The traditions we share with our family and friends are good because they are ways in which we share our love and joy with one another, which God certainly delights in.
Even more, God has given us divine traditions: the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. God has given us the divine tradition of the Office of Holy Ministry, where we send qualified men to seminary to learn God’s Word and be called by a congregation so they may proclaim the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins and rightly administer the Sacraments for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus selected His apostles for holy ministry and handed down to them the tradition—or responsibility—to do the same by selecting pastors for the churches they would start, which was eventually handed down to the church to select their own pastors, which we still practice in our Church today. I myself am going through this exact tradition as a seminarian.
God has also given us the divine traditions of the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Absolution. Jesus instituted each of these sacraments for you and handed them down to the apostles, who then handed down the Sacraments to the Church, and we still do this today.
Beyond our human traditions for Christian discipline and fellowship, you have the divine traditions of the Word and Sacraments to receive the forgiveness of all your sins, one of which we shall all partake together momentarily.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.