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A Time When Jesus Goes from Preaching to Meddling

Jesus said to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And He continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside [rejecting] the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:8-9)


How do we? ... How do I? ...

set aside Your commands in order to keep our/my own traditions?

If,as You say later (in Mark 12) that what’s most important

is the command

to love

You with all my being


to love

my neighbor as I do myself ...

And, if the “new command” to love is critical ...

that is to “love one another” (John 13:34f; 15:12)...


How do I set aside the command to love

for the sake of my own tradition(s)?

How does keeping to

the Reformed tradition,

the Presbyterian tradition,

the Evangelical tradition,

the American tradition, ... and so on


or even over-rule Your commands –

especially the command “to love”?



While reflecting more on what Jesus says and I kept asking the question “How do we? ... How do I set aside God’s command in order to observe a human tradition?” ... I came across observations about the text in Mark made by David E. Garland, a Professor of Christian Scriptures and Dean of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor. I found professor Garland’s reflections to be a helpful word and a call for greater faithfulness by the church. Here are some of his comments in an edited form.

The following is based on comments from David E. Garland, NIV Application Commentary on Mark~

Notice that Jesus does not reject tradition as such. Societies need traditions to function. He recognized that we need wineskins—forms and traditions—to hold the wine; otherwise, we’ll be standing in a puddle of juice.

Rather, what He warned about were wineskins that become old and brittle and no longer serve their intended purpose. Traditions become evil when they run counter to God’s purposes expressed in the ethical commands of how to relate to others. Traditions become dangerous when we’re blind to how they undermine God’s commands. Traditions become corrupt when we become more devoted to upholding them than obeying God’s direct commands. As Pelikan astutely puts it: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984, 650).

One may compare tradition to the shell of the blue crab. To live and grow it must shed its shell from time to time. Until it creates a new shell, the crab is extremely vulnerable. But if the shell becomes so strong and rigid that the crab cannot escape, that is the shell in which it dies. Losing traditions that make one feel safe and comfortable can cause great anxiety. But hanging on to traditions so that one becomes “hard-shelled” is fatal.

With 20/20 spiritual hindsight we easily see how the Pharisees’ tradition thwarted God’s will and strangled faith; and so quickly dismiss their traditions as a silly fixation on matters of no consequence. Yet, we must ask ourselves: What are the Christian affinities with the Pharisees’ traditions of the elders?

(1) Christian communities also have an oral tradition that fills the gaps and directs them on what they should and should not do. For example, someone may ask: Should we tithe on gross income or net income? Do we need to tithe the produce from the garden? Must our entire tithe to go to the church? Should a church accept a tithe from lottery winnings? The answers usually don’t come from explicit passages in Scripture but from a tradition that tries to honor God’s requirements and make things definite so we know what we are to do and when we have done it. But we court danger when we treat decisions on such matters as sacrosanct and apply them rigidly.

(2) Christian communities will also stress one thing or another to reinforce their identity over against others. Sometimes the stress will be on a particular practice; sometimes, a distinctive doctrine. In holding to this tradition, we want to make clear that we’re this kind of people and not like “them” (whoever “them” may be). The danger lurks that we may turn our distinctiveness and purity into an idol that supersedes the word of God.

Many years ago a seminary professor was challenged on his teaching of a particular belief. He overwhelmed his critic with passage after passage from the Scripture to support his point. The critic refused to yield, however. In frustration the critic exclaimed, “That may be Bible, but it’s not Baptist!”

Maintaining our heritage can be valuable as we seek to be faithful to our vision of the truth. Insisting on doctrinal purity to fend off corruption from outside is not ignoble. Yet we must guard against the pitfall of the Pharisees, who drew the circle so narrowly that they excluded 99 percent of the human race. Christian communities may erect barriers so high and so thick to preserve their theological virtue that they cannot reach others. The outward signs of obedience in Jesus’ day—keeping the Sabbath, observing food laws and circumcision, washing hands—became the badges that marked those who were “in.” These same badges were used to bar others from the circle of God’s grace and acceptance.

Yet, Jesus’ whole ministry challenged the categorization of persons and things into pure and impure. The law of clean and unclean establishes boundaries, and the Pharisees set themselves up as the border guards. Keep lepers, sinners, and those with a flux out; follow Sabbath rules and wash hands before eating clean food. They defended a certain kind of community and order. Jesus overstepped the boundaries by attacking their purity regulations and by claiming that true uncleanness is a moral, not a ritual, deficiency.

(3) Christian traditions also have parallels with the elders’ concern for details. Things are to be done in a certain way. All sorts of disputes have broken out in church history and local churches over what are perceived to be violations of those ways. Baptism is to be done in a certain way. Celebration of the Eucharist is to follow certain patterns. Music appropriate for worship must have a particular sound.

As followers of Jesus, we must guard against the danger of becoming so focused on the details that we develop tunnel vision and miss the grand design. We can easily become enmeshed in technicalities and in minutia while ignoring the weightier commands of the law—the broad and inexhaustible principles, such as the exercise of justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23–28).

For instance, most Christians today do not believe that food is subject to religious defilement. Many eat pork sausage and cheeseburgers (a forbidden mixture of meat and dairy foods) without any moral qualms and may only worry about high cholesterol, chemical additives, and the destruction of rain forests to raise cattle to stock fast-food restaurants. Yet the issue of impurity, so vital to the Pharisees, is not irrelevant to contemporary life. Purity has to do with the way one orders and classifies persons, things, and times. Purity regulations label persons, objects, and places as pure or polluted, fit or unfit, as susceptible to impurity or as a cause of impurity.

While many today may not think that they worry about such notions, the basic idea behind purity laws is something with which we are familiar: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” We judge something “impure” when it seems out of place. Impurity arises when “the wrong thingappears in the wrong placeat the wrong time.” For example, many enjoy firecrackers exploding on the Fourth of July. These same people, however, would regard setting off firecrackers during the Lord’s Supper as reprehensible. We therefore have clear ideas about what is pure and impure, whether we are fully conscious of them or not. The universal aversion to dirt, disease, and death governs these concerns. What one regards as “dirt” can take many forms. The danger lurks that one can develop a defensive religious posture and become all-consumed in keeping out the dirt.

Many engage in heated religious arguments over what they regard to be life and death issues that to the outside world and to the average Christian are much ado about nothing. The root issue has to do with what one considers proper or pure (which becomes one’s sacred tradition) and improper or impure. Jonathan Swift satirized this pettiness in the Lilliputians’ war over whether an egg should be cracked at the big end or at the little end. Garrison Keillor does the same when he describes his religious heritage. He says in his Lake Wobegon Daysthat he came from an “exclusive” group that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure: “We made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on all the details of the Faith.” Unfortunately, he writes, the firebrand founders “turned their guns on each other.”

‘Scholarly to the core and perfect literalists every one, they set to arguing over points that, to any outsider, would have seemed very minor indeed but which to them were crucial to the Faith, including the question: if Believer Ais associated with BelieverBwho has somehow associated himself with Cwho holds a False Doctrine, must Dbreak off association with A, even though Adoes not hold the Doctrine, to avoid the taint?

The correct answer is: Yes. Some …, however, felt that Dshould only speak with Aand urge him to break-off with B. The [ones] who felt otherwise promptly broke off with them (Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days(New York: Viking, 1985), 105).

Many may recognize this caricature in their own religious traditions. It results in a church devoted to turning Christianity into an unassailable fortress by building impregnable walls to keep the pure in and the impure out. The concern for purity directly affects evangelism. This closed system, more often than not, shuts one off from fellow human beings and from real fellowship with God.

Roy Pearson comments that God meant for the church to get mixed up in messes and with people who have messed up their lives.

It is a fact too long neglected that the church has in common with the chimney sweep that it cannot do its job in comfortable surroundings or with clean hands. In this sense, cleanliness is not next to godliness: dirt is. Dirt, pain, sorrow, prejudice, injustice, and treachery (Roy Pearson, “The Unangelic Mission of the Church,” Congregations21 (July/August 1995): 25).

Jesus is like those who want to run the church for those who do not yet attend. How do we include them into the family rather than exclude them? His teaching had a direct impact on Christian missionary practice when Paul advised the Corinthians to eat whatever was set before them (1 Cor. 10:27) and told the Romans “that no food is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14). Quit judging others (14:4, 10, 13). Quit putting stumbling blocks in their way (14:13). Learn to live in harmony (15:5) and build up one another (14:19)rather than walls of separation. We can imagine how we would respond if guests turn up their noses at the food we offered them because it somehow did not meet their religious standards. What if their rejection of our food also implied that we were somehow impure, somehow untouchable? It would hardly dispose us to hear their message. In applying this passage, we should ask ourselves, “Are there subtle and not so subtle ways in which we communicate to others that they are ‘dirty’ and unfit for contact with us? How does it hinder our ability to evangelize them?”

The issues at stake here also have to do with question of religious identity. They raise the question: What is appropriate to mark us off as the people of God from others who are not, and what is inappropriate? A danger lurks in drawing no boundaries at all so that we have no identity over against pagan culture. Purity concerns are boundary markers. One can see from Jesus’ reproach of the Pharisees’ tradition, however, that boundaries drawn too tightly choke out love. Worldliness excludes God from our lives, but we must be careful not to exclude the worldly from the love of God. One writer confesses:

God does not always respect the boundaries we create and carefully protect. Drawing lines in the theological sand may serve our purposes; separating good guys from bad guys and can be helpful, because it is hard to know that you’re on the inside unless you know who is on the outside. But God has a studied disregard for anxieties of this sort. Prodigal grace keeps spilling over into alien territory (Donald W. McCullough, “Serving a Wild Free God,” Christianity Today39 (Apr. 3, 1995): 17).

It is so easy for religious people to obey all the regulations and believe all the correct doctrines in a perfunctory way, but their heart is not in it. They may also concentrate on executing religious actions that certify their external purity while totally neglecting issues of inner purity. Hypocrites may themselves that they have done all that God requires by doing this or that with the greatest of care. They play by the rules but allow them to run roughshod over others. How many times do Christians ignore the vices in the list and concentrate on minor pieties? They wind up with a religion that affects only the hands but that never touches the heart. The church needs reminding again that it can be correct in outward form and theology but not have the spirit of Christ. Goodness comes from inner purity, a life transformed within, rather than from the pure observance of rules and doctrine.

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