Chapter 9. Tradition!
Please read Mark 7:1-23
Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best-loved musicals of all time; and it features some of the best-loved songs. It tells the story of life in a Jewish community in rural Russia a century ago. The hero is Tevye, the village milkman; and the story revolves round his struggle to defend his family life and his own identity at a time when the Russian authorities are persecuting the Jews, revolution is in the air and everything seems to be changing. Everything Tevye knows so well, everything that always seemed to be so firmly fixed, is shifting before his eyes. Appearing at intervals through the film is the mysterious character of the fiddler, standing on the roof and playing a sad tune on his violin. The fiddler represents all that is constant, all that keeps the family going: he stands for tradition. The opening song of the musical is called ‘Tradition’; and the family members one by one sing out the role they play in the traditional Jewish family. But on every side, tradition is being threatened – and the question is, how will Tevye respond to the challenge? In the story, Tevye’s three oldest daughters in turn want to get married – each, in turn, to a more unsuitable man than the one before – and we follow the painful struggle which he faces in each case.
Fiddler on the Roof is fiction, but the power of tradition is not. When Jesus walked on the earth he lived among a people who clung to their traditions with a tenacity which would have put Tevye to shame. These people too feel that all they hold dear is under threat. Their treasured Jewish culture is being swamped by the rising tide of Greek influence; their national independence has been stolen from them by the Roman Empire; and now some wandering preacher and his bedraggled band of followers are stirring up even more trouble away in the north by saying that their cherished tradition doesn’t even matter! The first half of Mark 7 is all about Jesus’ response to tradition. As we begin ch 7, we find Jesus in fierce dispute with his opponents once more. Whatever they may have heard about his amazing miracles, what bothers them is that Jesus and his disciples seem to have no regard for the tradition that lies at the heart of their own religious system. Already they have been infuriated by the way he hangs around with outcasts, people no respectable Jew would be seen dead with (2:15-16). They have been thoroughly offended by the fact that his followers don’t observe the ritual fasts as they should (2:18). As for the way Jesus plays fast and loose with the rules about the Sabbath! In ch 3 we saw that was the issue that made his enemies seriously begin to think ‘this man simply has to go’. He has no respect for their tradition – a word which appears five or six times in this passage
The problem with tradition
Now the inspection team sent by the religious authorities in Jerusalem are back (v.1). They gather round Jesus, on the lookout for anything unorthodox. They soon spot the fact that Jesus’ band of disciples are not washing properly before they eat (v.2). In vv.3-4 Mark gives us a careful explanation of what this is all about. The fact that Mark goes to the trouble of explaining these Jewish practices supports the view that he is writing for Gentiles – Matthew, who is writing for Jews, omits this explanation entirely (the equivalent passage is in Matthew 15). The key point is that this washing is not part of the Law which God gave; so how has it come about that the Pharisees insist on it? The Law of Moses stipulated that the priests had to wash their hands and feet before they approached the Tabernacle and the presence of God: it was one of the signs of ritual cleanness. But then people thought: well, the whole nation ought to behave like priests, because God has called us all to show the world what he is like. So bit by bit, committed Jews began to adopt ritual washing before their daily prayers. The next step was to say: We don’t want one rule for our worship and one rule for the rest of life, so we should wash before all our meals as well. That way our whole life will be holy and pleasing to God. Mark also explains that there are many other ‘washing’ traditions as well, no doubt following on from the ritual cleaning of vessels used in the Temple – the idea being that you should wash your own pots and pans in just the same way.
In fact, when you think of it like that, you can understand the sense of it. There is always a logic to tradition, if you go back far enough! Mark describes two kinds of washing here. One is in v.3: they did this before meals. Literally the expression is: they wash with the fist. It probably means they would hold an open fist under a stream of water and quickly rub over the front and back of the hand. But then if you had been buying meat in the market (v.4), you would submerge your hands in water to purify yourself from anything unclean you’d encountered there. It is all perfectly reasonable. In such ways, little by little, a huge body of tradition grew up around the original teachings of the Law – traditions passed down by the elders of the community, passed down by word of mouth until eventually, some time after this, it was all written down in the Talmud. These are traditions which the Pharisees not only follow obsessively themselves but also impose on others, because they believe that only through these traditions will God smile on them and the nation survive and prosper. So it is no wonder that they feel threatened by Jesus when they find out that he doesn’t ask his disciples to follow these precious ‘traditions of the elders’. They demand to know why (v.5). The whole point of these rules is to make completely sure that God’s Law is properly obeyed – and surely that is what religion is all about, isn’t it – scrupulously obeying the rules, both what is written down in the book and what all the wise experts have added to it?
But Jesus’ answer is devastating (vv.6-8). Jesus is picking up what was said centuries before by one of their greatest prophets, who condemned his people for the utter emptiness of the religion they pursued (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus says: Isaiah was talking about you. Yes, you can get all the words right; you know how to perform the right ceremonies, the right rituals – but where are your hearts? The truth is that you are not really following God at all. You long ago gave up caring about the true commands of God – these traditions have taken their place. By the way, see how Jesus doesn’t use their respectful expression ‘tradition of the elders’. He simply calls it ‘the tradition of men’ (v.8) or ‘your tradition’ (v.9).
Having answered their accusation, Jesus now he goes onto the attack. It is not just that you hide God’s true priorities under a great mound of invented tradition, he says; you actually play one command off against another so that people can’t follow the Law even when they want to. This is what vv.9-13 are about. In the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Law, it says: ‘Honour your father and mother’ (Exodus 20:12). Of course, in these times there are no pensions or benefit systems, so ‘honouring your parents’ involves the full responsibility of looking after them in old age, housing, feeding, clothing, medical care and generally paying all the bills. But clever legal minds have spotted a potential loophole for escaping that responsibility. It involves a technical term called Corban – an Aramaic word meaning a gift irrevocably devoted to God. If you have some property, or some savings, which rightfully you should use to support your ageing parents, you can declare that property Corban, removing it from the sphere of everyday use, and devote it to God – which in practice probably means to the Temple. The really clever part is that you don’t actually have to hand it over at once. It has the label Corban on it and so it’s no longer available for normal use, like keeping a roof over your parents’ head. You can keep it.
Now suppose you have second thoughts. You realise you’ve been hasty and you want to do what is right by your parents after all. No, say the Pharisees, you can’t do that. You’ve made a vow – and the Law says, a vow is a vow. That property is Corban: you can’t ‘honour your father or mother’ with that! Now this legal argument has become yet another tradition, which just makes people’s lives harder. Worse than that, this time the Pharisees have not just buried the original command, they have made it impossible to keep. Jesus’ closing verdict is that this isn’t even an isolated case – he says ‘You do many things like that’ (v.13).
We might wonder what this has to do with us in the twenty-first century – this remote world of religious experts, of tradition passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next? The answer is that it has a great deal to do with us. Many religions are still like this now. Orthodox Jews still operate this way today – through the Talmud and other traditions which expand, interpret and ultimately bury the Law of God. But on a larger scale, this is also the way that Islam works. Islam is based on the Qur’an, believed to consist of the precise words given by God to Mohammed. After the Qur’an came the Hadiths – the traditions built up and collected by successive generations of Muslim scholars. Islam has thus become a highly complex system of regulations, practices and traditions which are all designed to ensure that if you follow them, you will truly be pleasing God. If you trace the traditions all the way back, there is probably an explanation for every one of them. Muslims too have ritual washings before prayer – in fact they are much more tightly defined than what the Pharisees taught in Jesus’ time. The detailed rules for fasting during Ramadan are phenomenally complex – who is exempt from the fast, what exactly invalidates the fast – and so on.
The fact is that traditions give us a comfort zone. If you ask someone who has converted to Islam why they have done that, they will often tell you that Islam offers a system. It tells you exactly what to do in every situation: a structure to fit into; an exact time and place to pray; an exact calculation of how much money to give: in short, precise measurements of godliness. You can always tell exactly how well you are doing. Isn’t that appealing – isn’t that attractive – isn’t that safe? As it was for the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, tradition becomes a security blanket. All that matters is that you keep to the tradition, keep to the rules, and all will be well.
Even closer to home, this is the way that many so-called Christians live their lives. Perhaps their parents brought them up to be religious, to try their best and keep the rules? For them, going to church is about looking right, going through the right motions. Then whatever happens the rest of the week, at least they have been in church, ticked the box one more time, kept the tradition. But what does Jesus say? ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; and they worship me in vain’ (vv.6-7). In other words, their lives are nothing more than outward show. If we have no genuine, live engagement with God, then we have completely missed the point – just as the Pharisees did in the time of Jesus. We are truly following God only if he has our hearts.
Inside or outside?
Jesus still hasn’t fully answered his opponents’ question (v.5). Why doesn’t Jesus enforce any of these rules? Has he anything better to put in their place – any better fix for the human problem? In vv.14-23, Jesus answers that question at a deeper level. It would seem that the delegation of Pharisees have managed to tackle Jesus more or less alone so far. But now he’s had enough of arguing with them and calls the crowd together (v.14). At this stage in his ministry the crowds are never far away. He picks up the theme by telling them something that comes over as a riddle (vv.14-15). When Jesus says, Listen and understand, it’s a signal that something really important is coming. But it’s a difficult saying. The first part they can possibly understand. But what does Jesus mean by ‘what comes out of him makes him unclean’? They are left to wonder, because he will say no more to the crowd for today
He begins by explaining the first part of the riddle (vv.18b-19). By ‘his heart’, of course, Jesus doesn’t mean the organ that pumps the blood round your system. The ‘heart’ was thought of as the centre of your personality – what today we would probably talk about as our mind. Jesus is saying, It’s not what you eat that causes the problem. After all, food doesn’t affect your mind, it only affects your stomach and then it ends up in the toilet or latrine – that’s what he actually says! In the final analysis, what you eat has got nothing whatsoever to do with the state of your heart and mind. So, says Jesus, what you eat can neither destroy nor preserve your relationship with God. If your heart is far away, eating from the approved list is not going to help.
Having said that, Jesus then goes on to explain the second half of his riddle (vv.20-23). The list covers most of the Ten Commandments. What makes you unclean in God’s sight is not anything you might consume – the problem that needs fixing is what is already inside you, the sin that comes from your heart. So Jesus is saying: That, my friends, is why I don’t insist that we go through the Pharisees’ washing routine.
What does this mean for us? There are three important points to get hold of. The first is: You can eat what you like! Mark has added a note at the end of v.19, and from a Jewish point of view this is absolutely explosive: ‘Jesus declared all foods “clean”’. This is not what Jesus says at the time: it is what the Church concludes later on. Mark is saying: When we thought through the implications of what Jesus said that day, we realised this meant that all foods are acceptable. Remember that Mark is almost certainly getting his information from Peter, who is there with Jesus in the house. If you know your New Testament, you will remember that it takes Peter a very long time to learn this lesson. In Acts 10:9-20, the Lord sends him a vision of all kinds of unclean animals lowered down from heaven in a sheet and a voice telling him to eat them. Peter protests that he never touches anything unclean. It takes three times before Peter gets the point. It is fine to eat the unclean food: it is fine to invite the unclean Gentiles into the house. But a few years later, up the coast at Antioch, Peter gets it wrong again, as we read in Galatians 2:11-21. This time the problem is that he lets the strict Jews intimidate him to the point where he withdraws from the unclean Gentiles. It’s Paul who has to put him right. Later, perhaps another fifteen years on, Peter sits with Mark in Rome, talking about the past, remembering all that the Lord Jesus said and did when he was on earth. I imagine him at this point with a broad smile on his face, looking back and saying: yes, that’s what Jesus really meant. Write it down, Mark, so that others will catch on quicker than I did. Jesus declared all foods clean, that’s it! And have another of these excellent ham sandwiches!
Yes, there are times for avoiding some foods, if it would cause too much offence to someone with a sensitive conscience; and yes, for the sake of your health or the health of the planet you might want to go easy on the steak – but basically, as a follower of Jesus, you are free to eat and drink what you want. Pork, alcohol, shellfish, snake, black pudding, sheep’s eyeballs – whatever – enjoy!
The second point is: the rules about uncleanness are finished. The Jews were clearly told in the Law of Moses that there were many animals they mustn’t eat because they were unclean; and with the animals they could eat, they must drain the blood out first. That was the beginning of the kosher rules. So if Jesus has declared that all foods are clean, it must mean that this part of the Law has done its job and no longer applies. You may never have worried about the Old Testament ban on eating shellfish – but people do want to ask: How do we know that those parts of the Law don’t apply to us? This is the answer. The laws about what was clean and unclean were there to teach God’s people a vital lesson, a symbol of the fundamental truth that to come into God’s presence you have to be pure, because he himself is holy and pure. So God set up this system to teach them about holiness, purity and cleanness. The Pharisees hijacked that system and made it into a heavy weight to hang round people’s necks, but the basic idea was there in the Law and for good reason. Now, with Jesus’ arrival on the scene, none of that is needed any more. Just as all the animal sacrifices point forward to the death of the real sacrifice, the Lord Jesus himself, so all the teaching about ‘clean and unclean’ points to the cleanness on the inside that only Jesus can give us. So when Jesus arrives, no more sacrifices are needed and no more kosher laws either. The rules about uncleanness are finished.
The third point is the most important: what matters is the inside. Look again at this list in vv.21-23. Notice how Jesus makes no distinction between thoughts and actions. Whatever flows from the heart, from your mind, is what matters. Can any of us say we are not guilty of any of these? Don’t we recognise all too clearly that Jesus’ picture of the corrupted heart is horribly accurate, horribly true to our own personal experience? The Pharisees thought being unclean is about trivial things that you do or don’t do. But the point that leaps out here is that everyone is unclean. Jesus hasn’t reduced the demand for purity, he’s raised it. He has raised the bar so high that everyone misses it. Nothing we can do to this old, hardened, rebellious heart does any real good. Washing obviously didn’t; but nor do any of the hopeless attempts that people make today. They are all useless fixes, attacking the wrong problem, as pointless as trying to repair a broken-down car by giving it a respray. Confronted with this truth, we have very few options. We can ignore the problem and hope it will go away – and that is what many people do, whether their drug is the kind you inject, drink or smoke or the kind you look at on a screen. All these are ways of escape from the grim reality of the sin-ridden, screwed-up human heart. Or we can admit that we are hopelessly broken and the only solution is a complete replacement. The only way to deal with what’s on the inside is a new heart. That is our desperate need; and that is what Jesus came to give.