Message from Sunday
First Reformed Church of Little Falls, NJ
“The Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” “A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him. The Pharisee was amazed to see that Jesus did not first wash before dinner. Jesus said, ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and herbs, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these that you ought to have practiced.’” We continue to walk through our Lenten worship series on “Questions.” And this week, where I have chosen one question that seemed to me to best gather up many, many examples of Jesus resisting and discarding his culture’s hard-line elevation of “tradition,” and living and teaching instead in a way that elevates the true purposes of the Law—those true purposes being God’s love, justice, and good order. The true purposes of God’s Law are love, justice, and good order. So here is the stark difference between Jesus and the religious culture of the day: when it comes to a choice between God’s commands and tradition, the religious culture chooses tradition. But Jesus chooses God’s love and justice.
The two Scripture lessons that we read together today both tell of Jesus’ lack of concern for ritual hand-washing before meals. This is not like your kids playing in the sandbox outside and you call them in for dinner and you telling them to wash their hands—this had nothing to do with dirt or germs. This ritual hand-washing that the Pharisees enact and enforce is, so they think, an embody of God’s Old Testament command to be different and distinct from the pagan populations that surrounded. For instance, Leviticus 22 states that priests, whose food comes from the offerings of the people, must first, before they eat, wash their bodies thoroughly with water, just in case the person who offered the food was unclean. But that was just for priests, and neither the Pharisees nor Jesus were priests—that the Pharisees judge Jesus for not washing before eating a meal in a household shows that they had, over time, changed the law about priests eating the food that had been offered to God into a tradition about all people ritually cleansing before any meal at all.
John Post’s great Glossary article this morning helps us to understand that by Jesus’ time, the many hundreds of traditions that over the centuries had spun out from the Ten Commandments had become hardened, calcified, and elevated above the Commandments. We see that this is obviously true: the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders?” And he says to them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
As I said, the Luke and Matthew lessons for today just concern hand washing, dishwashing, tithing, alms, and Kosher eating. But there are so many more topics and places at which Jesus can be seen shoving hard against the traditions of the elders—a quick survey will show the spectrum of topics. Mark 2: “One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck the heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Why are they doing that which is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus said, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.’” Mark 5: As a crowd presses in on Jesus, a woman who’d had a twelve-year flow of blood and was thereby unclean snuck up behind him and touched his clothes—by rights that would mean that Jesus was now unclean, but instead she becomes clean and is healed.
Luke 13: “Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath, and there appeared a woman who was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Jesus called her over, laid hands on her, and said, ‘Woman, you are set free.’ And the leader of the synagogue became indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath; but Jesus answered him and said, ‘You hypocrite!’” Luke 14: Jesus wonders aloud if the Pharisees would pull a child out of the well it had fallen into on a Saturday, or perhaps they’d just leave it there to die rather than break the sabbath. Luke 15: Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus, and the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And Jesus says, “Darn right! God loves it when sinners change their ways, you should try it sometime.”
We see in the books following the Gospels that Jesus’ followers have watched Jesus closely and have decided that there is no idol of tradition that they will not smash to smithereens if they get a chance: in Acts 8 the disciple Philip baptizes a eunuch in a roadside pond, thereby ending forever the strict tradition of excluding sexual minorities from lives of faith. In Acts 10, the apostle Peter is given a vision in which he sees a sheet suspended by its four corners, and inside the sheet are all sorts of unclean animals—let’s imagine that there are shrimp in there, and lobsters, and clams, and worst of all, pigs—and a voice tells Peter to kill them and eat them, saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” thereby ending the strict tradition of kosher eating for believers. The narrative also helps us to understand that Peter receives this vision because he has been sent by God to preach to the unclean Gentiles, thereby ending the strict tradition of avoiding all interactions with non-Jewish people. In Acts 15, we see the early Church going even further, declaring that new Gentile believers don’t have to undergo circumcision, thereby ending the strict tradition that states that one must convert to Judaism to be embraced into the family of God. In I Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to make up their own minds whether to eat meat that had come onto the market after having been sacrificed to an idol, thereby ending the strict traditions around the total avoidance of all things pagan. And in Romans 14, as we heard earlier, Paul elaborates on this theme of listening to one’s own conscience when it comes to spiritual non-essentials. “Some believe in eating anything,” he writes, “some eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat, for God has welcomed them. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”
“Then Pharisees came to Jesus and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders?’ And Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” And again, “The Pharisee was amazed to see that Jesus did not first wash before dinner. Then Jesus said to him, ‘You clean the outside, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within, and see, everything will be clean for you. Woe to you! You tithe mint and herbs, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced.’”
Friends, we are a part of a long-standing church community, which is in turn part of a long-standing Reformed denomination, which is in turn a part of the Holy Church Universal. Traditions we’ve got. Strict traditions we’ve got. But any tradition is rubbish that demands adherence to itself for its own sake. Any tradition must be broken that is clung to simply because we’re afraid of change, or because we don’t know what else to do, or because “we’ve always done it that way.” Any tradition must be thrown out that does not promote justice and healing, that does not embody the love and welcome of God. I love how Jesus tells the Pharisees to “give for alms those things that are within”—give first as offerings to God and to the church the peace, love, joy, patience, generosity, goodness that is within, or don’t give anything at all. The fresh air of the Holy Spirit is more important than habit; the justice and love of God surpasses any tradition. Let us pray.