Matthew 15: 1-3, 10-20
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition 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?
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
Tradition is an essential part of human experience. It tells us where we have been and allows us to come into situations already knowing something about the world around us. The scientists who came before us allow us to know the specific density of water without having to rediscover it, the farmers who planted before us let us know how long it will take for our squash to come in. In more abstract ways, thinkers like Camus and Kierkegaard give us language to describe those moments when life feels overwhelming or absurd, preachers who have compiled their own views and readings of scripture give us a continual place to return to and center our own readings.
Tradition is that thing which stretches back into the past and come to us as something both ancient and new. Our interpretations of the past are only as old as we are. If, for example, a family gathers together and reads the same book, even within a group of people with similar and often overlapping life experiences, they will likely conclude different things about the text. The grandparents who inherited one set of traditions, the parents another set based off of and adapting those traditions, and the children taking them in and beginning to form their own as they make their way in the world.
Tradition is more than a thing we think, or a thing that we do, it is an integral part of who we are. To break with the past is to remove ourselves from the lessons that were hard fought by those who came before us. It is a liberative action that cuts the chains of obligation, but one that also removes all benefits from our life that we may have received from those traditions. It is the corpus of teachings which is handed down to us, it is the collective actions we all undertake as second nature, it is something that transcends and aligns us as individuals and that unites us as something more than just atoms in the void. Custom, creed, culture – all are part of tradition.
So why is it that Jesus suddenly tells us not to be concerned with the traditions of humanity? With the teachings of the elders? What is it about the injunctions put in place of old that were abhorrent to the message Jesus was preaching?
Sometimes the Church takes this verse to mean that a fresh expression of faith is the only appropriate one. We must, this mindset goes, do away with the perspectives of the past and charge forward into something new. Hymns must be abandoned for more engaging music. Scripture must be morphed into more engaging forms, ones that are more easily consumed in short, small bursts. Decorum associated with paraphernalia of the church, respect for altars and premises, done away with alongside our stodgy sacramentalism. This perspective sees Christianity as bursting out of Judaism with no precedents, it motivates much of modern non-denominationalism, and in its extremes is extremely dangerous.
The first danger of this iconoclasm toward the traditions of the church is that it is fundamentally a false iconoclasm. As we discussed above, traditions are simply who we are as a person. If we took a moment and asked each one of us how we define something as simple as
Church, none of us would give an answer which is not based on how we were brought up. The same is true about any topic in scripture, even with the same text before us, even read without embellishment, we would come to different conclusions based on our background. Thus, under the cover of being, “back to the Bible,” or “objective,” we hide bias and prejudice under a screen of minimalism. This breaking with tradition also lets us lose the lessons of the past, loss of ritual makes us lose a sense of the sacred, and breaking with the traditions that led to Christianity’s formation allows us to image ourselves standing alone. We are no longer the offshoot of an ancient Jewish sect, no longer part of the larger makeup of God’s creation, but exceptional members of a select few removed from all contexts.
There is another extreme, one that more directly is criticized in the text and one that reveals that the problems highlighted above are universal. Those who cling to tradition at the expense of new insights into God, those who claim that the past alone held the truth about God and God’s creation – a crime more common among those of us in the mainline and evangelical traditions – they too fall into traps. As we stated earlier, traditions are never any older than our own reading of those traditions. A church that practices the Anglican rite of baptism, or who reads the Eucharistic liturgy directly from the Didache will interpret the words of the rite differently than their authors will have, will view the water and the cup and the bread differently than they would have.
The naivete about our own bias in reading tradition is met with the authority that we are given in claiming tradition over all other sources of inspiration and revelation. There are those who privilege the traditions of the Church and the historical views of scripture over the scripture itself. It is something that overtakes even the most well meaning of interpretations we may hold. To pull from our Genesis study, which has delved into some of the ways tradition has overcome our perspective on scripture, I have a few questions from the opening chapters of Genesis for you all.
Who was the snake in the Garden? What fruit was eaten in the Garden? Who did God blame for having eaten the forbidden fruit? When did different languages develop according to Genesis? If our answers are, “the Devil,” “an Apple,” “Eve,” and, “The Tower of Babel,” then we must accept that we are reading through a particular lens. The text itself tells us nothing of the snake other than it is an animal, nothing of the fruit except that it was good to eat, nothing of blame except that all involved parties placed it upon one another, and Genesis gives two separate accounts of how human language became a multiplicity. These traditions, built up from the text, are not necessarily harmful – whether the snake was or was not the Devil only has minimal impact on salvation history. However, some of the above, like placing Eve as the primary perpetrator of the sin in the Garden, has had long lasting effects.
The above accounts of extremes – those who cling to a dead and rote religion that flounders in tradition and those who reject anything and everything that is not in the here and now – are largely caricatures. Few, if any people, could really be grouped exclusively in either camp. We all have our hills we will die on, some of them more rooted in an actual need to stand strong, and others built up on our own proclivities. The key issue is whether or not the things we cling to are helpful or hurtful, whether we are willing to adapt to new situations that our traditions may not speak to, or that are spoken of in a framework we can no longer hold to. Conversely, are we willing to defend our traditions that are non-negotiable with grace and peace being at the forefront of our discussion, and are we willing to admit when our non-negotiables and God’s are not the same.
Our scripture this week offers us an example of where a break from tradition is absolutely necessary. The Pharisees are repulsed by Jesus’ insistence that his disciples not wash their hands before they eat. The exact rule that was being followed here is unclear, but clearly the Pharisees believed a person could become ritually impure through materials on their hands being transferred to the food they ate. Jesus rejected this, food is food, it all ends up in the same place. What really matters, Jesus says, is that a person becomes holy inwardly, that they are transformed first in their heart and then their actions will show as evidence of their sacredness, not the other way around.
The Pharisees had not outright denied scripture, but by focusing on tradition they were able to distract and obfuscate human moral development, they had made a matter of the heart an issue of the stomach. Think of how often we forget to be good people because we are so bent on being “Good Christians,” it is an evil close at hand for all of us.
This scripture is especially apt for us today, because we understand that, while food indeed will not make us unclean, washing our hands is important. We have been brought to our knees by a pandemic in part because we, as a people, are bad at washing them. We read this scripture with that in mind, ritual purity and post-germ theory health practices mean washing our hands before meals now is indeed acceptable, not a vain teaching of the “elders.”
When we acknowledge that difference, we are not altering scripture or its message, but engaging freshly with the tradition handed down to us. The teaching of Christ, interacting with the work of nineteenth century scientists, to have us know that we are only made pure by our hearts, by our deeds and not the food we eat, but that we must maintain health through hygiene. We have not thrown out Jesus’ teaching, we have not adapted it to any great degree, but we have allowed ourselves to acknowledge and understand it in our own modern framework of our worldviews and culture.
We are all of us between the extremes of iconoclasm and stuffy traditionalism, as is Jesus I believe. However, we do not find ourselves ever in the exact middle between them. As with all things, at times we must be more married to tradition than newness – the Trinity for example is a doctrine we should be more rooted in tradition with than most. However, other views will focus on nuance above tradition – take for example our latest celebration of communion, prepackaged and passed out ahead of service, not from one loaf and cup, but all the same the body and blood of Christ for us. Every situation demands different approaches to how we understand tradition’s role in our life.
Tradition must be enlivened by the Spirit of God to be efficacious, and the Spirit is truly in the here and now. Let us look for the Spirit in all things, past, present, and future, and let us find God’s will for us across time and space – discerning what must be made new and what must be drawn up out of the past.