This sermon is part of the sermon series "Adventures in Missing the Point". See series.
According to Merriam-Webster, tradition is "the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction." We all traditions, don't we? For example, when should Christmas presents be opened—Christmas Eve or Christmas day?
Let's take a look at the first seven verses of Mark chapter 7. Here we'll see what the Pharisees thought about tradition:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)
And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"
And he said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"
The Pharisees believed traditions were more than just good ideas or cherished beliefs. They believed their traditions were of equal authority with Scripture. They believed that God gave both the written Torah (Genesis—Leviticus) and the oral Torah (the traditions of the elders). The oral Torah was divided into six sections and contained laws and traditions about agriculture, festivals, women, civil and criminal law, holy things, and ritual purity. The oral Torah was exactly that, oral, until 200 A.D. when it was codified into what is now known as the Mishnah by Rabbi Judah the Prince.
So, during the time of Jesus, part of being a Pharisee was memorizing these oral traditions verbatim and passing them along faithfully. To the Pharisee, these traditions were just as authoritative as the written Law.
For the last four weeks, we have read about a conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees. They would make an accusation against him and he would teach, usually with a parable. The accusation this week is found verse 5: "Why don't your disciples live according to the 'tradition of the elders'"?
It all began over the issue of hand washing. When you read about this in the New Testament, it has nothing whatsoever to do with hygiene. Interestingly, it wasn't until around the time of the Civil War that people equated dirty hands with germs. The issue with the Pharisees was a symbolic ritual that demonstrated adherence to the oral Torah.
They believed that defilement occurred when an observant Jew knowingly or unknowingly came in contact with something they deemed "unclean." So this ritual cleansing began, as most traditions do, with a worthy motive—to remain undefiled and holy before God. But the ritual itself soon grew increasingly complex—there were even elaborate debates about such things as the position of one's fingers as the water was poured over the hands. In today's focal passage, Jesus and his disciples are attacked for failing to observe this tradition.
In verses 7-9, we see the problem: "You set aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions." What follows are examples of the Pharisees willingness to elevate traditions over truth. The reason we're looking at this in the first place is that we all have our own sacred traditions, and we're not usually real wild about giving up those traditions, are we?
J. I. Packer said, "The question, then, is not whether we have traditions, but whether our traditions conflict with the only absolute standard on these matters: Holy Scripture."
Of course, not everything having to do with tradition is bad. According to Tom Hovestol, traditions give us identity—they tell us who we are. They highlight our roots and tell us where we came from. They externalize our mindset and demonstrate what we believe. They set boundaries for our lifestyle by telling us how to behave.
That begs the question: What's wrong with tradition? There are four important answers that can be gleaned from Jesus' response to the Pharisees.
Tradition can foster external religion.
First, traditions can foster an external (or false) religion. Look at verses 6-8: "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.'"
This is the first recorded incident of Jesus calling the Pharisees "hypocrites," which really means "actors playing a part." Warren Wiersbe writes:
Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that true holiness is a matter of inward affection and attitude and not just outward actions and associations. The pious Pharisees thought they were holy because they obeyed the Law and avoided external defilement. Jesus taught that a person who obeys the Law externally can still break the Law in his heart, and that external "defilement" has little connection with the condition of the inner person.
So the conflict was not only between God's truth and man's tradition, but also between two divergent views of sin and holiness. This confrontation was no incidental skirmish; it got to the very heart of true religious faith."
Traditions have tremendous power over us and come to just seem right to us. They gain a tight grip on our emotions, so we become blind to the hold they have on us. They govern our behavior and, over time, they tend to feel like doctrine. We like traditions and they work for us because we can keep them. They are easier to obey than God's Word. They can be kept by our own diligence, without ever having a relationship with him.
In his book The Present Future, Reggie McNeal writes that what you and I fight to defend is really a "church culture," not biblical Christianity:
The imminent demise under discussion is the collapse of the unique culture in North America that has come to be called "church." This church culture has become confused with biblical Christianity, both inside the church and out. In reality, the church culture in North America is a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview, and lifestyle matches theirs ….
Anytime we major on external acts instead of internal attitudes, we are moving the church toward irrelevance and eventual death. And worse, when we major on externals, we have moved away from the message of Jesus.
Tradition can supersede Scripture.
The second thing that's wrong with tradition is that it can supersede Scripture. Look at verses 9-13:
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."
Corban was a verbal pledge of a future offering. After such an offering was pledged, it could not be given to others, although it could be conveniently used for self. It was kind of like modern day estate planning. Whey I die, this offering goes to the Temple, but it cannot be used to help family members. The main point here is that it was a tradition that had superseded a biblical command.
The Protestant Reformation was in part about the church finding her authority through Scripture alone, which we call sola scriptura. In Catholicism, church traditions were, and in many cases still are, on equal authority with the Bible. Some Protestants like to look down on Catholics for this reason. Yet, while we often give lip service to sola scriptura, in reality we have our own traditions that have every bit as much influence over us as the Bible does. They just aren't as well defined as Catholic tradition!
I seldom if ever hear people get upset and leave a church over genuine doctrinal issues. Even when it's couched as a doctrinal issue, it's usually a cultural bias that has been supported by proof-texting. In fact, an outsider could look at our church practices and argue that we are more dependent on tradition than the Bible in most areas. For example, the Bible does not give us specific instructions on when to meet. Most churches in North America think of "prime-time" as 11 a.m. on Sunday morning. Why? I'll tell you: it's a tradition!
It's also a schedule dictated by dairy cattle. Our ancestors had a cow to milk, and other farm chores to do, and church was scheduled late enough in the morning to get those chores done, then load the family in a wagon and get to church by 11 a.m.
What about Sunday school? Sunday school is just a little over 200 years old. It was started as a means of teaching illiterate children to read and, in the process, teach them the gospel. If you read the literature of the day, Sunday school was highly criticized by the religious leaders. That changed over time until most of us couldn't envision church without Sunday school of some type.
On the other hand, Scripture puts the primary responsibility for a child's spiritual formation on the parent, not the family of faith. The problem is, for several generations now, parents have frequently abdicated responsibility for their children's spiritual development and then blamed the church for not doing enough. The transmission of faith cannot be accomplished in an hour or two a week.
Youth communicator Dawson McCalister has done research that conclusively shows that 90 percent of the high school students in today's youth groups will not be in church by the time they are sophomores in college. The number one reason kids abandon the faith? An inconsistency between the message of the gospel and the behavior in the home they grew up in.
Then there's the altar call. The altar call was first used by an evangelist named Albert Finney just a little over 200 years ago. But for many conservative churches, it has come to be a powerful symbol of…something.
What about the order of our services? Nowhere in the Bible does it say specifically how a worship service is to be conducted. But every time we change the order of things around, regardless of the reason, someone has to write a note and let me know they don't like it.
Similarly, there are no specific styles of preaching mentioned in the Bible, but everyone has their favorite. Preaching has changed dramatically from generation to generation. In fact, Jesus' style of preaching would come under criticism by most conservative Christians today for not having enough "meat."
When hymns first began being sung in church, there was severe disapproval. Before that time, the church had sung the Psalms, usually in Latin. Now these "secular" songs were being introduced and people didn't like it. For example, the words to "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" were written by Martin Luther, but the tune was a popular drinking song from the bars of Germany.
Now, 400 years later, when the church returned to singing the Psalms set to music, people reacted strongly. They claimed they were lightweight, 7-11 songs—insignificant, not nearly as meaty as hymns, even though in many cases the lyrics were right out of the Bible!
What about praying before a meal? If you come over to my house for dinner, and we put the food on the table and I say, "Dig in while it's hot!" and start eating, you'll wonder why I didn't pray first. In fact, you'll most likely draw some negative conclusion about my spiritual maturity. Now, it's a good practice to give thanks before a meal, but we're never commanded to do so in Scripture. It's a tradition.
How about the symbol of the cross? Archeological evidence has never found the cross used as a symbol of the Christian faith until at least 400 years after the Resurrection. It was the Emperor Constantine who made it popular, putting it on the shields of Roman soldiers as an emblem of good luck. But if a church should dare to not use a cross prominently in its architecture, some folks would pop an artery.
Where in the Bible are we commanded to use the cross in our signs, our letterhead, or our architecture? Nowhere. I don't get it. Call me blasphemous, but I don't think the cross is even the best symbol for our faith. The problem is, an empty tomb doesn't make a nice piece of jewelry to hang around your neck.
Now, none of this would be a problem if we just held our traditions personally and said, "I like them." What happens too often is that we set ourselves up as an authority of what is spiritual and what is not and demand that everyone follow our traditions. And the first casualty of this attitude is relationships. We value our traditions over our relationships, and are willing to break the ties of the family of faith when we don't get our way. That's what verses 11 and 12 are all about. You can't neglect relationships on the basis of spiritual traditions
Tradition can twist theological truth.
Traditions can also twist theological truth. Jesus makes this clear in verses 14 and 15: "Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him "unclean" by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him "'unclean." '" Look down at verses 21-23: "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 discussion starts with food, and then moves to a list of serious heart conditions. In the first books of the Old Testament, God gave some very strict guidelines about what foods were "kosher." The advantage of having strict dietary guidelines was that people could look at others and say: "He's not keeping God's rules. He is defiled. I keep God's rules. I must not be defiled."
Jesus states it clearly: Defilement comes from within. In other words, spiritual dirt doesn't come from without, it is manufactured in the human heart.
We've produced rules that are designed to keep us from external defilement. Examples are all the drinking, dancing, card playing rules—if you come from that kind of background. We make sweeping rules about what movies we'll see based on rating, not content, again in an effort to avoid external defilement. Certain types of people are designated as defiling, and we want to protect ourselves from contact with them.
Now, all these might start out as just good sense guidelines, but the problem is that we slowly and subtly twist the truth and come to believe something heretical: that defilement is external, not internal. That is a dangerous twist of truth. It has the same effect as if someone changes a street sign—it sends us places we don't want to go.
In that day it was food. The Pharisees went beyond what God had required. A big issue today for some people is clothing. When we lay out expectations for how people should dress for church and justify it by saying, "They should show respect for God," you're adding to the Law, putting something on people that God doesn't require.
This issue of where defilement comes from goes even further. Last week, we saw that Jesus was severely criticized for associating with people the Pharisees saw as defiled. By their logic, Jesus was therefore defiled. We see this flawed logic even today. We isolate ourselves from people who are different from us.
Again, Reggie McNeal says it best:
Many congregations and church leaders, faced with the collapse of the church culture, have responded by adopting a refuge mentality. This is the perspective reflected in the approach to ministry that withdraws from the culture, that builds the walls higher and thicker, that tries to hang on to what we've got, that hunkers down to wait for the storm to blow over and for things to get back to "normal" so the church can resume its previous place in culture.
Those who hold this perspective frequently lament the loss of cultural support for church values and adopt an "us-them" dichotomous view of the world. Those with a refuge mentality view the world outside the church as the enemy. Their answer is to live inside the bubble in a Christian subculture complete with its own entertainment industry.
As parents, we want to protect our children from harm and teach them to make good choices. We want them to choose good friends and, eventually, spouses. But we need to remember that they carry defilement with them right here, in their heart, every where they go—just like their parents and grandparents. I don't want my kids to grow up isolated from or fearful of the world around them. The Bible does not say, "The fear of the culture is the beginning of wisdom." It says "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom" in Proverbs 1:7.
Two great dangers occur when we equate isolation with purity. One, we fool ourselves into thinking we are now safe from defilement. Two, we lose both awareness of and credibility with our culture—the ones we are supposed to be transforming.
Tradition can stifle effective ministry.
Finally, tradition can stifle effective ministry. Look at verses 17-20:
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.'"
Jesus nailed the Pharisees on two of their traditions. The first was the hand-washing deal, which seems relatively harmless but actually contradicts the truth of Scripture regarding defilement. Second was the food laws of the Old Testament. Jesus declared that they were henceforth superseded. So now you can go out after church and eat anything you like—pork, shrimp, or ostrich!
But if you look at this and begin to apply it, it makes sense that some of our own traditions have become fossilized. Some in fact may actually contradict Scripture. To quote Warren Wiersbe again:
Each new generation must engage in a similar conflict, for human nature is prone to hold on to worn-out, man-made traditions and ignore or disobey the living Word of God. It is true that some traditions are helpful as reminders of our rich heritage, or as "cement" to bind generations, but we must constantly beware lest tradition take the place of truth. It does us good to examine our church traditions in the light of God's Word and to be courageous enough to make changes.
This church has some wonderful family traditions that we need to hang on to. But we need to recognize the difference between tradition and doctrine and not draw a line in the sand over preference.
The Pharisees had made their traditions so rigid, so inaccessible to the average person that they were keeping people away from God. And the same potential exists for latter-day Pharisees like us. The traditions of the church culture can become barriers that keep people away from God. And when they do, we have just been on one more adventure in missing the point.
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).