13 Pentecost Proper B18
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 7:1-13 Sermon
August 26, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
2 "To Thy Temple I Repair"
462 "I Love Thy Kingdom Lord"
352 "O Saviour Precious Saviour"
47 "Saviour Again To Thy Dear Name We Raise"
GOD'S COMMANDMENT, OR MAN'S TRADITION?
TEXT (vs. 14-17): 6 And [Jesus] said to [the Scribes and Pharisees], “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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
There's an old story I've heard several times that I'm going to share with you this morning. This young couple hadn't been married very long, and the wife decided she wanted to fix a super nice meal for the two of them. It would be a roast beef dinner with gravy, new potatoes, fresh green beans, carrots, dinner rolls, Caesar salad, and deep-dish apple pie with ice cream.
The dinner wasn't going to be a surprise, because the two of them had been talking all week about it. They went to the supermarket together and bought all of the necessary ingredients. And when the day came, the husband was in the kitchen helping his wife with all of the preparations. You have to remember that they were newly married here, so he wasn't in front of the TV while his wife slaved away in the kitchen. They were working together.
Anyway, the husband knew that his new wife was a good cook. He had eaten meals at her house many times that had been prepared by her and her mother. So he never doubted her culinary skills.
So he watched as his wife took the nice cut of top round beef from the package and set it on the cutting board. Then what she did next really puzzled him. She took out a chef's knife and cut about three inches off the end of the roast and set it aside. Then she put it in the roaster, added the seasonings and water, put the cover on it, and put it into the oven to cook.
Finally the husband could not contain his curiosity any longer. "Honey," he said, "I don't mean to be critical here, but can you tell me why you cut three inches off of the end of the roast before you put it in the roaster?"
The wife stood silent for a moment. Then she replied, "I don't really know. I did it that way because that's the way my mother has always done it."
Well, curiosity was getting the better of her now as well. So she went to the telephone and called her mother to ask her. Surely she could answer the question. So she asked her, "Mum, why do you always cut about three inches off of the end of a beef roast before cooking it?"
Her mother replied, "I'm not really sure either, except that's the way my mother always did it, and she's the one who taught me a lot about cooking."
Now, this puzzled both the mother and daughter, and they decided they had better get a good answer. So they called up grandma. The young wife asked, "Grandma, both mum and I have always cut about three inches off the end of a beef roast before cooking it. I did it because mum did it, and mum did it because you did it. Why do you cut that much off the end of a roast?"
Grandma was silent for a few moments. Then she said, "Oh dear. I always had to cut a bit off the end of a roast because I had a small roaster, and that's the only way I could get it to fit."
Tradition. It's a funny thing, isn't it? In so many areas of life, we do a lot of things simply because they are traditional, and we don't want to break those traditions. Sometimes those traditions are very good and practical. However other times, traditions are nothing more than sentiment; and sometimes they even cross over into superstition.
We're on the brink of a new football season starting up. And if you've lived in Nebraska as long as I have, you are probably aware of many of the traditions that are attached to Husker football. We've heard about the "black shirts," the name given to the first string defense. Do you know why they're called that? Many years ago, one of the assistant coaches went to Lawlor's Sporting Goods to get some different color practice jerseys for the defense. The only color they had in stock at the time was black, and so that's what he bought. Today, being one of the "black shirts" is a badge of honor for a defensive player. That's tradition pure and simple. It's not a bad one, but still it's tradition. And it's one of many traditions connected with Nebraska Football.
If we apply this whole concept of tradition to the Church, we find an almost endless list of them. Some of the traditions are very good, some are questionable at best, and some are downright bad. In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is dealing head-on with tradition that had gotten way out of hand. This was way outside the pale, and had to be addressed in very strong terms.
As the story in our Gospel lesson unfolds, we see Jesus being strongly criticized by the Pharisees. Even some of the Scribes were in on this as well. Jesus was being criticized because his disciples weren't properly washing their hands before they ate. We must understand that this had nothing to do with personal hygiene. This wasn't like mother's orders to her children, "Wash your hands before supper, and use soap!" Then of course the children had to show both the front and back of their hands to pass mother's inspection. This was entirely different.
The Pharisees had established a certain washing ritual that, according to them, had to be followed. This applied to more than just a person's hands too. There was a similar ceremonial washing that was appointed for cups, pots, copper vessels, and dining couches. This ceremonial washing in the Greek is called "baptizo" in our Gospel lesson, which is what we have translated into English as "baptize" and "baptism." When we baptize somebody, it is a ceremonial washing according to God's command, and has God's promise connected with it. That's why "baptize" simply means to "wash," and it is not limited to compete immersion, as some would contend.
However, the ceremonial washing the Pharisees and Scribes were demanding was nothing more than a tradition of men, passed along through the generations. This had no command or promise of God attached to it at all. This was something dreamed up out of the human mind.
This ceremonial washing wasn't the only tradition-based law that existed. During the time of Jesus, some sources indicate that there were 613 separate and distinct Pharisaical laws in existence. Some have estimated that there were even more than that. So why did they exist?
I believe that there are a couple different reasons. First, they felt that God's laws weren't specific enough, so they took it upon themselves to "fill in the blanks," so-to-speak. They used their own intellect and reasoning to contrive all of these "traditions" because they felt that they had a better grasp of things than God did.
The second reason is more covert. These traditions were made to sound like an honorable standard; but in fact, they were anything but honorable. The Pharisees were able to incorporate various loopholes in God's law to make it easier for them to follow. They wanted to make themselves appear to be righteous, and they needed their own standard to at least attempt to make that happen.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus addresses this very thing. Listen to verses 9-13, and I'm going to read from a more simplified translation of the Bible to give you a better idea of what was happening: 9 Then [Jesus] said, “You show great skill in avoiding the commands of God so that you can follow your own teachings! 10 Moses said, ‘You must respect your father and mother.’ He also said, ‘Whoever says anything bad to their father or mother must be killed.’ 11 But you teach that people can say to their father or mother, ‘I have something I could use to help you, but I will not use it for you. I will give it to God.’ 12 You are telling people that they do not have to do anything for their father or mother. 13 So you are teaching that it is not important to do what God said. You think it is more important to follow those traditions you have, which you pass on to others. And you do many things like that.”
Do you see what was happening here? Jesus was using one of those traditions as an example. The tradition taught that if a person set aside money and promised to give it to the temple at a future date, he did not have to use that money to care for his own parents. This is clearly a loophole that allows a person to violate the commandment, "Honor your father and mother," and still appear to be righteous.
Now before you point your finger at those wretched Pharisees for doing this, we aren't that much better. We all have this tendency to soften God's law so that we appear more righteous than we really are. We humans "dumb down" the law like this all the time. We convince ourselves that we are pretty good people simply by softening the law. So we grind off the rough edges a little bit in order to make the law a little easier. Then we can actually keep it. Then we can feel righteous. That's what humans are inclined to do all of the time.
When people do this, they are lying to themselves. God's law doesn't apply to us according to the way we have fashioned it. God's law applies as he has given it, as it is written. If we look at Matthew chapter 5 from the Sermon on the Mount, there are a couple verses for us to consider. In verse 20 Jesus says, "I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." And then in verse 48 he says, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
We can't soften those words at all, or make them fit the way we want them to. If our righteousness and holiness doesn't equal that of God, there is no way we can be saved by works of the law, irrespective of what we do. There are no loopholes here in the least.
God isn't doing this to beat us over the head or make us run away in despair. He does this to show us that we cannot look to ourselves, but to him alone for righteousness. In Romans chapter 7, verse 7 Paul writes: "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'" A sinful person cannot save themselves. That's why our faith in Jesus is so important.
God is using the threat and misery of the law to open the Gospel for us. He does not want us to dwell on the curse of the law, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sinful humanity is in need of a Saviour because of a complete inability for a person to be saved according to what they find within themselves according to their own power. Sinful humanity cannot do anything to add to what Jesus Christ has already done.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 21, Paul makes this point very clearly: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Jesus, that sinless Son of God would bear the burden of all our sins so that we would be saved through nothing more than faith alone. So if Jesus did all this and made the way of heaven so simple and clear, doesn't it seem so foolish to waste time on creating human traditions to create some sort of false righteousness of our own? Why do humans think it is more important to be right in their own eyes, instead of admitting their guilt and looking to Christ alone for forgiveness? Shouldn't the Pharisees, these students of the Scriptures known better? We know the answer only too well.
This morning, I began by talking about a very foolish tradition that had been handed down through three generations, which involved cutting a few inches off the end of a beef roast. Out of ignorance, they just blindly followed something they thought was right, but wasn't. Tradition blocked out all semblance of common sense.
But there are traditions in the Church that are very good. As Lutherans, we have come to appreciate many of these. For example, the liturgy, or order of worship that we use is called the Common Service of 1888. This came into being because there were many different liturgies in existence. The Germans had theirs, the Swedes had theirs, the Norwegians and Danes had theirs, the Finns had theirs, and there were others too. In English-speaking America, a strong need existed for a liturgy that could successfully be used throughout America, irrespective of the ethnicity. Therefore, a group of people drew upon all these various traditions, and arrived at the service we are using today. There are about half a dozen different settings, or melodies of this service that I can think of right off the top of my head. There are also a variety of different liturgies apart from the Common Service, Matins and Vespers being just a couple of these. These are all traditions in the Church.
But don't think this was some innovation of the last several hundred years. You will find many identical features in our service that date all the way back to the first couple centuries of Christianity. One of the oldest parts is the Apostles' Creed that came out of the old Roman Church. All of these are good traditions.
When a tradition brings us face-to-face with our Saviour, then it serves a very noble purpose indeed. We confess our sins, we are forgiven, we praise God for what he has done, we hear what he has to say to us, and we come to him in prayer. All of these things are the way we worship God in spirit and in truth.
There's an old joke that asks the question, "How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer is five; one to change the light bulb, and the other four to talk about how good the old one was. That's the way to look at our appreciation for tradition in a more humorous light.
We do appreciate tradition and what it does for us. Our traditions aren't to be foolish or meaningless ones, like chopping a few inches off a roast beef for no good reason. We also don't equate tradition on the same plane as Biblical doctrine as some churches do. We cannot put words into God's mouth, or otherwise say, "Thus saith the Lord" where he has not spoken.
But when we glorify God in our worship and in our lives, then we are doing things according to the way he wants us to. And when we look at tradition as a rich heritage and unify our hearts and voices in the same way as the saints of old, then we have something to treasure. In all things, whether it is an old tradition or a new song, we give glory to God alone through our Saviour Jesus Christ.