(watch here: https://youtu.be/wHfvFog0QvA)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him [Jesus], 2they 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; 4and 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.) 5So 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?’ 6He 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; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
9Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
In reflecting on Jesus’ frustration over the Pharisees clinging to their traditions instead of appreciating fellowship shared among friends, I’m reminded of the one about four friends who decided they wanted to create a new tradition among them. As luck would have it, all four of these friends had birthdays within the same week. Rather than celebrate each birthday separately, they decided to combine the celebrations into one, big celebration at a fancy restaurant in town. Every ten years they’d get together for the big celebration. So the first time, when they turned 50, they had a discussion about where to go. One of the friends chimed in first. “Let’s go to the Thai Orchid, I heard they have really good food.” “No no, we should go to the Bengal restaurant, the service there is excellent,” replied another of the friends. The third friend interrupted, “We should go to the Waterfront restaurant. I heard they have amazing pizza.” “Guys, guys, guys…we absolutely HAVE to go to the Tropical Fountain. The waitresses there are pretty…well, you know what I mean,” snarked the fourth friend. They all agreed that quality waitresses were of the utmost importance so they decided to go to the Tropical Fountain and they indeed had a jolly good time. Well, ten years passed and when the friends turned 60 they again discussed where to celebrate the tradition. One of the friends quickly suggested, “We should go to the Tropical Fountain, guys. They have outstanding wine there!” They didn’t even argue about it and went to the Tropical Fountain and had a jolly good time. Another ten years passed and when the friends turned 70 they discussed where to go once again. “I believe we should go to the ‘Tropical Fountain,” said one of the friends. “The view on the sea at sunset is strikingly beautiful!” They all agreed and went to the Tropical Fountain and had a jolly good time. When they turned 80, they wanted to honor the tradition yet again. One of the friends proposed, “fellas, we should go to the Tropical Fountain. They have wheelchair access.” Again, not a single argument and they went off to the Tropical Fountain and had a jolly good time. At 90, the friends came together for presumably the last hoorah they’d share together. Where at? “Hey, I think we should go check out the Tropical Fountain…we’ve never been there before!”
Aren’t traditions the funniest things in life?! They have such bizarre origins and they can develop into some pretty strange habits over time. Those old guys had their reasons to get together every ten years and their reasoning for gathering at the Tropical Fountain changed with each decade until finally their memories failed and there was no real justification for meeting at the Tropical Fountain. It just happened to be where they met in the prior 4 decades! The so-called “tradition” had no real meaning other than as just another occasion for four friends to get together. Traditions and their meanings behind them change over time. That’s because traditions are so deeply interconnected with memories and memories are so malleable and ever-changing. Traditions begin with a certain people in a certain time. Someone did something for a very specific reason at a very specific time and it bettered their life or the lives of those around them so they continued to do it along with everyone around them. Pretty soon people forget why they’re clinging to a tradition other than to simply honor those from the past.
Just look at the Pharisees in today’s reading. We know they are the ones in the Bible who clung to the laws of Jesus’ time as the key to righteousness and rightful living. If they adhered to the laws of the land, then they would please God the most and their lives would have little to no difficulty. Now laws are built on traditions when lives in the past were improved by certain behaviors and interactions. Laws help to structure our interactions with each other here in this world. We need laws to live in right relationship with each other and the world around us. And we can’t have laws without traditions, without the stories that help justify them. The Pharisees in our reading for today were frustrated with the disciples for sharing a meal with Jesus without first washing their hands. Now there wasn’t a law that commanded people to wash their hands prior to meals but the culture of the day strongly encouraged it because of tradition. Now what was the source of the tradition? Recall that the ancestry of the Israelites were a nomadic people. They were constantly exposed to unclean and foreign elements that threatened to sicken or kill them. Washing hands limited such exposure and encouraged healthy living. Washing of hands helped the larger community stay healthier. But the Pharisees weren’t concerned with the larger community. They were only concerned about themselves and their own health. Jesus knew this about them and he called them on their hypocrisy. They claimed to be servants of the people when in reality they only served themselves. They believed the laws were there to protect them from others, to isolate them from others, not help them live better with others. The Pharisees didn’t want to live well with others. They wanted to live self-righteously and arrogantly over others. Hence, their fixation with the laws and the traditions that helped create them.
At the root of all the cleansing laws and traditions is an important teaching. We are called to serve each other and help better the lives of those around us. After all, traditions begin with a person or group of people doing something or behaving in a way that betters the lives of those around them. Traditions are simply repeated good behavior or actions. We cling to traditions not because they help us live selfishly but rather selflessly. Jesus gives a list of evil behaviors: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deciet, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. These all have their root in not honoring Jesus’ command to love one another…not serving each other. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slave to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:13-14) This is so very important! We need to love and serve each other! We have traditions and laws to help us do this and only this!
The Pharisees didn’t understand the purpose of laws and traditions. In all that we say and do, let us seek to fulfill Jesus’ two great commandments: to love God with all our hearts and to love each other as he loves us. Let us not use laws or traditions to isolate ourselves from each other or build ourselves up with self-righteousness. Let us heed the wisdom of Hebrews that advises, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (13:16) Isn’t that what we are meant to do…please God? Let us serve him and each other with utmost fervor. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.