Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)
August 26, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
[Jesus] said to [the 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; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men."
Mark 7:6-8 (ESV)
One of my favorite quotations about tradition comes from the 1960s musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is about a Jewish community living in czarist Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, trying their best to keep their traditions amid all of the changes that are going on around them. Tevye, the main character, explains how important the various traditions are and then he goes on to say: “You may ask: How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” As useful as any particular tradition may be, it can become nothing more than a meaningless routine if no one remembers how or why it became a tradition to begin with. Many traditions had very practical beginnings but are no longer relevant or useful. I can’t help but to think of that every time the siren at the Elfinwild fire house goes off!
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the guardians and protectors of the religious traditions of the Jews—or at least that’s how they saw themselves. They saw their role as being extremely important, especially since their people were now subjects of a pagan and increasingly secular empire. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, had no appreciation for the history and religion of the Jews. They were far too sophisticated for that kind of superstition. So the Pharisees made it their business to see that the chosen people of God, who had been called out slavery in Egypt, remained aloof from the world around them. They did this by dictating to the Jewish people many traditions by which they could retain their integrity as the chosen people of God. As we examine this morning one of our Savior’s famous conflicts with the Pharisees, let’s bear in mind what Jesus is condemning here and what He is not.
If we look at the entirety of the New Testament it becomes clear that in this passage Jesus is not condemning tradition in and of itself. On the contrary, our Lord had the greatest respect for the traditions of His people. Throughout the Gospels we find Him often worshiping and teaching in various local synagogues and at the temple in Jerusalem. The problem with the Pharisees was that for them, traditions had become something much more than they were ever intended to be. Instead of being helpful tools to aid the people of God in worshiping their Creator, they had become the object of worship themselves. Take the Third Commandment, for example. The Sabbath law was intended to ensure that God's people would be in the Word. But the Pharisees transformed it into a list of regulations that had nothing at all to do with the Word: things like how many steps a person could take on the Sabbath day or whether or not performing physical labor to help someone in need was a violation of the commandment. Traditions are good if they help us to focus on God and His Word, but they can easily become a distraction from God and His Word.
Jesus spoke with great respect about the position and even some of the teachings of the Pharisees. What He took exception to was their hypocrisy. Listen to what He said on another occasion: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger" (Matthew 23:2). While they rightly instructed the people with various traditions to help them worship, they themselves had lost sight of the very purpose of those traditions. To cite an old and perhaps overused proverb: "They couldn't see the forest for the trees."
What Jesus was really condemning in these verses is idolatry. The First Commandment is the first because it exposes the origin of all sin. At the root of sin is a desire to dethrone the true God in favor of something else--and, more often than not, that something else is us. In the garden Adam and Eve rebelled against their Creator because they wanted to be their own god. The ancient people of God grumbled in the wilderness because they thought that they could manage their pilgrimage to promised land better than God could. The incarnate Son of God, who is "the Way and the Truth and the Life" (John 4:6) was rejected because His contemporaries saw other things (perhaps themselves) as the embodiment of these blessings. And who can deny that in our culture today the truth of God's Word is cast aside because the "great thinkers" among us are always thought to know better? Jesus' closing statement to the Pharisees in our text says it all: "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." They thought that the traditions that they had created were far superior to what God had revealed in His Word.
This idolatry is manifested in the fact that people often choose to worship the creature rather than the Creator. The reason for this is simple: They cannot see the Creator but they can see the creature. That doesn't mean that the creature is bad. On the contrary, the creature is supposed to be a testimony to the greatness of the Creator. We see the greatness of the unseen God in the things that are seen. The crucifix that stands on our altar and hangs around my neck is a very vivid reminder to me of what my Savior did for me on Calvary's cross. It helps me to focus on that sacrifice of redeeming love. But if I ever get to the point where I can't think about Christ's atonement for my sin without it, then it has become an idol to me--a false god. This is the kind of thing that Jesus is addressing in this morning's text. The God who we worship is not aloof from the world, enclosed in some ceremonial corner of our lives; He is at work among us and in us and through us.
A number of years ago Pastor Roosevelt Gray, the executive director of LCMS Black Ministry, spoke at one of our district pastors' conferences. He said something that was very interesting and also relevant to what Jesus is saying in this text. Pastor Gray told us: "Jesus doesn't get locked up in the sanctuary from Monday through Saturday, just waiting for you to show up again next Sunday." The blessings that our God bestows upon us and the worship that He inspires in us doesn't take place just here. The blessings of the Gospel surround us each and every day and through these blessings His Spirit moves us to respond with genuine worship as we serve our God by serving our neighbor. Because He is the One who inspires it and makes it happen, we know that all of our worship, no matter how lacking it may be, is acceptable in His sight and brings glory to His holy name. He is pleased with us and with our worship not because of what we do but because of what He has done for us in Christ and continues to do for others in and through us.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.