Some of my favorite pictures from my toddler years are those of me cleaning beside my mom and dad. I’m not sure how many young ones grow up with Little Tykes vacuum cleaners, but it was certainly a staple of my childhood. Even as I grew older I would have bursts where all I wanted to do was clean. My roommates in seminary loved that I insisted on cleaning every week so they wouldn’t have to worry about it. I like cleanliness.
There is an old saying that goes something to the effect of “cleanliness is next to godliness”, and as can be the case from time to time, some folks think that this saying is scriptural, even though it is not. What Jesus reminds us in today’s scripture lesson is that it isn’t always about being clean, but it is about living in a way that honors God.
We are now in the second week of our sermon series about finding pieces of scripture that speak to us in the rapid pace of the Gospel of Mark. Last week we focused on Jesus calling even the most unlikely of folks to follow him and how we need to be forming relationships with folks outside of the Church in order to share the Good News.
This week, we again find Jesus in a conversation between his disciples and the religious leaders of the day. The topic before them - cleanliness. In ancient times, religious leaders had two things that they held in balance. The first was the written word of Scripture. In order to be a religious leader, you had to go through years of studying the Scriptures. But they also had the oral tradition. Remember for quite a length of time, the Scripture wasn’t written down like it is today, and certainly folks didn’t have Scripture lying around their homes, like we do today. Instead, you got to know the word of God as it was handed down - hearing the stories of the faith about Noah, Abraham, Moses and so many others in homes and around campfires. It was how faith was taught - not by reading but by hearing.
Something that emerged through holding oral tradition and written Scripture together was a tradition - practical applications of what had been taught. We see a great example of this in today’s scripture lesson - as the religious leaders were talking about throughly washing hands before eating, washing food items from the market before you eat them, and washing the things you eat from and with. How this probably emerged was from the scripture around ritual cleaning, which often existed to prevent the spread of disease, and traditions emerged to help keep people clean around things like food.
Often the religious leaders get a bad rap for forming traditions, but let’s be honest, Church, we’ve done it as well. Traditions often are reflections of what we value as congregations. One congregation I served had several traditions around patriotic holidays. Does the Bible say anything specific about this? No. Because it wasn’t really on the Bible’s radar. But the congregation interpreted scripture about praying for our leaders and had traditions emerge including what songs were sung at what times of the year and who was invited to preach on the Fourth of July weekend. That was their tradition for their particular context that emerged from their interpretation of scripture.
Jesus’s problem today is not with tradition itself. The problem emerges when we forget a.) where our traditions come from and b.) try to make traditions as important as scripture. In the words of Jesus “you abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition.” Ouch.
One of the questions I ask the most when arriving at a new church is “why?” Why can be very informative because it helps me understand what each church does for special services, but it also gets to the root of why we do the things we do. What our traditions are and what they mean to us.
Jesus skips right past the why question with the religious leaders, but I think the intent is the same. He wants them to think through why they have so many traditions around washing and cleanliness. But he also wants to point out a much deeper heart issue in their life - they have made the tradition as important as the Scripture. They focused so much on the rules around how to do something, they had forgotten the why.
This scripture passage is found right between two massive feeding events that happen in the Gospel of Mark - on the one side the feeding of the 5,000 and on the other the feeding of the 4,000. As we saw last week who you ate with really mattered in ancient culture, and we can assume that the religious leaders aren’t happy. So they are trying to catch the disciples slipping up so they can start to get the disciples (and Jesus) to act the way they want them to act. But Jesus sees right through that and calls they hypocrites - actors or pretenders, those who are going through the motions but have forgotten the intention.
Let’s be honest, most traditions grow out of good intentions. It’s a human expression of an important value. But we cannot let our human traditions become more important to us then God! Sometimes our social customs become barriers to God’s intentions and then we have a real problem. In the Church world I call this the issue of “we’ve always done it that way.” Powerful words that we sometimes use as a barrier when God is calling us to do something new or we don’t particularly want to live into the Word of God. It becomes a lot easier to fall back on tradition then to ask the hard questions about why we have the tradition in the first place and if our tradition still honors God the best way we know how.
Jesus is taking this idea of clean and unclean and uses to it to teach those around him that it isn’t what’s outside that can make us unclean so much as what is inside - our heart and our intentions. He is essentially asking is your heart more focused on keeping the status quo or honoring God, because sometimes you can’t do both.
Brothers and sisters the same question can be asked of us - are we more focused on not changing and keeping our traditions or honoring God? Sometimes there are wonderful moments when we can do both, but sometimes God is calling us to set our traditions aside in order to live into the mission of the Kingdom of God in our current context. Is the intention of our heart to truly follow God wherever God is leading? Or are we so caught up in the way that we do things, that we are missing the very presence of God?
Hear me out, friends, traditions can be good things. But when we pour more time and energy into keeping our traditions then spreading the Word of God we are missing the point. When more of our resources go into maintaining the way we like things then listening to to the voice of God, we miss the point. When it is more about the way we’ve always done things then honoring God, right here and now, we are missing the point. Let us be known as the church the follows the Spirit and listens to God’s promptings. Let us be known, above, all as people who honor God.