"Jesus and Tradition" - Pentecost 15B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
September 2, 2018 at 10:15 AM
Pentecost 15B

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: September 2, 2018 – Pentecost 15B

James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Jesus and Tradition


            At the beginning of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye tells the audience,


In our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word – tradition! Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here is Anatevka we have traditions for everything: how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I'll tell you – I don't know! But it's a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.[1]


            Tradition, at its best, does what Tevye describes. It keeps the community grounded and balanced. For Christian community especially, traditions about how we worship, what we believe, and how we live, at their best, serve the gospel. They keep us rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world. They remind us that life isn’t just about us and our own happiness. They enrich our relationships, both with God and with each other.


            But when tradition is used as a weapon, like the Pharisees and scribes do today, then tradition has become poisonous. Instead of uniting people, it divides them. Tradition becomes a means to judge others. To dismiss them.


            Look at what happens in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples are catching a rare moment of rest. They’ve just come from an extensive tour of Gennesaret and Galilee, preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom and healing the sick as a sign of that Kingdom. They are sharing a meal together. Suddenly, the Pharisees and legal experts pounce. “Aha!” they seem to say. “Your disciples aren’t washing their hands before they eat! Why aren’t they following the traditions of our ancestors, Jesus? Could it be that you all aren’t true Jews like we are? After all, a real Jew would wash his hands!”


            Now, keep in mind that this had nothing to do with why we wash hands today. Many of us wash our hands before eating because Mother told us we’d better do it or we’d get sick. This washing described in the Gospel is about ritual purity. If you read the book of Leviticus (and I know all of you have!), there are rules upon rules for maintaining ritual purity – purity in the sight of God – and what to do when (not if, but when) one becomes ritually impure. Handwashing, notably, isn’t part of Leviticus, but it became a common custom. In Exodus, priests were supposed to ritually wash before ministering in the tabernacle. When the lay Pharisee movement came along, which was alienated from the structures of the temple, they began a tradition in which everyone washed their hands before meals. Why? Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests” according to Exodus 19:6. Therefore, if everyone was a priest in God’s sight, then everyone should conduct her or himself as such. (This should sound awfully familiar to us Lutherans!)


            Again, this shows the innate goodness of tradition. Tradition is a gift of God, from “the Father of lights”, as James tells us. Tradition is also pliable, as the Pharisees originally did with hand-washing. They took something that was just for the priests and gave it to the laity to remind them of who they were. All this is good. And double-edged. Tradition’s innate goodness is why it so easily becomes an idol. Rather than a useful servant, we turn tradition into a brutal tyrant. Jesus is not against tradition. The one who told his disciples that “not a letter nor a stroke of a letter will pass from the law before all these things are fulfilled” could not be anti-tradition. Jesus, rather, is greater than any of our traditions. And he reminds us of what the purpose of tradition is in the first place.


            Which is why Jesus turns the tables on his accusers. Jesus reminds us that it isn’t what goes into us that makes us unclean before God. Rather, it is what comes out of us – evil intentions, thoughts, actions, words – that make us unclean. Ritual purity isn’t the important thing, whether it is washing hands like the Pharisees and scribes, or worshipping with the “correct” communion setting or singing the “good” hymns or doing church the “right” way, like we do. That kind of purity is relatively unimportant. What matters is whether or not our life together as a Christian community is making us into better people. Whether it is forming us more and more into the person God created us to be and adopted us as in our baptism. After all, the good news we are called to proclaim and embody is that Jesus lived, died, and rose for us, to reconcile us to one another and to God. To destroy the powers of sin and death that keep us clinging to tradition as an end in itself rather than a means to love and enjoy God more fully. To wash away all of our sin that keeps us turned in on ourselves. Jesus lives, dies, and rises to make us who bear his name bold, compassionate, self-integrated people who are turned toward a hurting world rather than away from it. When we live into that kind of Christian identity, we live as the redeemed, new people God has already made us to be. And we see tradition as the useful servant in living that life that God made it to be.


So let’s ponder these questions together: What parts of our tradition at Zion Lutheran Church help us live the Christian life, focused on our relationships with God and others? And which parts of our tradition become ends in themselves, keeping us focused solely on ourselves? We are already new people of God. We are already saved by God’s grace alone. What would it be like to live more fully into that identity?


Let us pray.


Lord Jesus, help us to remember that you, not our traditions, are at the center of our faith. Help us to remember that tradition is a tool to live out the gospel. Keep us focused on your word which enlightens and redeems us. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.




[1] Fiddler on the Roof, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, 1964.