When responding to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus quotes from the written tradition, that is, the Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 29:13 and Moses in Exodus 20:12a and Leviticus 20:9). The Jewish rulers of his day took that written tradition very seriously, but they also took their oral tradition seriously. The oral tradition consisted of interpretations of the written tradition intended to help the people obey God’s Law to the letter. In today’s story the Jerusalem scribes are again questioning Jesus. The last time they questioned him, they accused him of being demon possessed (Mk 3:22-30). We can assume they are still antagonistic and that there’s a sinister undertone in the story. In other words, this story is more than a simple discussion about purity codes concerning food and eating.
Mark includes a parenthetical explanation of the Jewish purity codes for his mostly Gentile readers. His explanation is of the oral not the written tradition. Mark assumes all readers, Jew and Gentile, then and now, are familiar with the written tradition (the Old Testament).
Prepare to listen. Be still and silent. Pray: Help me, O Lord, receive your words in my heart and hear them with my ears so that I can speak them to others. (from Ezekiel 3:10-11)
Read Mark 7:1-13
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6 He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ 9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)--12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
“Tradition” is good, sings Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, “because of our tradition, everybody knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Sadly, in contemporary culture tradition is often viewed negatively, as though it will make us dull and lifeless. Jesus doesn’t agree with this view! He too believed tradition is good, except when it isn’t! He attacks, not tradition (he upholds the written tradition, Scripture) but the Pharisees and scribes’ oral traditions that sought to find ways to get around a written law they didn’t like. And then they dared to believe this made them holy and better than the average Jew. Because Jesus, whom everyone called ‘Rabbi’, didn’t teach their oral traditions, the Pharisees and Jerusalem scribes accuse him: ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’
Jesus’ response is a no-nonsense, in-your-face retort: ‘you hypocrites!’ It seems Jesus had little patience with hypocrisy and was bold in calling it out. He unequivocally accused them of being the very people the prophet Isaiah warned about: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ To prove this, Jesus illustrated the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, referring to one of their oral traditions that ‘allowed’ them to disobey the 5th commandment: Honor your father and mother (Ex 20:12). Jesus wasn’t attacking the purity code itself, but the Pharisees ideological foundations. They used the oral traditions to get around the written tradition.
We too have our ‘oral’ traditions, that is our different interpretations of Scripture. The thing is, they’re just that—interpretations, not God’s words. We too need to sort out where our oral traditions (our interpretations) have led to distorting the words of God to suit our present circumstances.
‘Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’ (Jeremiah 6:16). Tradition is essential.
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Lord, help me discern between the traditions that are good, that lead to rest for my soul, and the traditions that turn me into a restless hypocrite. For the sake of your name, Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world with Jesus’s respect for the good traditions.