I suspect that most here today have seen in whole or in part a presentation of Fiddler on the Roof. There is a part of the play and movie in which the central character, Tevye, (Tev-e-ya) spoke of traditions. He said, “Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka (Anna-tef-ka) we have traditions for everything...how to eat, how to sleep, even, 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."
Traditions. What are they? The dictionary says that traditions are “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.” Everyone has a set of traditions. Growing up we had traditions for major holidays. For Christmas, I remember a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve and opening our stockings in bed on Christmas morning. In theology, a tradition is a little different. A tradition is “a doctrine, a set of beliefs taught by the church, believed to have divine authority, coming from God, but [There is always a but.] which is not found in the Scriptures.” What might be some of these traditions of the broader Christian Church not found in Scripture? Those traditions include the observance of Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Advent, and Christmas just to name a few. Strictly speaking, none of these cherished traditional observances have a specific foundation in Scripture. This is why some Christian groups do not observe any of these practices. Today, Baptists tend to pick and choose which traditions they want to follow, of course, in their own way.
Traditions in church may or may not be helpful in our faith journey. How can traditions be harmful? Our friend Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof shared with us the danger of traditions when he said, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do." Traditions become very harmful when they replace the authority of God and God’s Word. Traditions become harmful to our faith walk when we follow our traditions and not Scripture as the guide for our behavior and conduct. Traditions become harmful when the tradition themselves and not Scripture serve as the basis for our ethics, our Christian Ethics.
Traditions was one of the things that Jesus fought against all throughout his public ministry. In Jesus’ day, there were two major camps of tradition among Judaism. There were the traditions of the Pharisees and the traditions of the Sadducees. These groups had divergent beliefs. The Sadducees, primarily the keepers of the Temple practices, believed only in the words of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The Torah, the written word, was binding on their beliefs and practices. All other religious writings by the prophets and others while perhaps of interest to the Sadducees were not binding. The Pharisees believed that the Torah, Psalms, and words of the prophets were part of the God’s Word as well as how those words had been practiced as conveyed through oral tradition. There in lay a significant difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees. What Scripture to follow? What oral tradition to follow as though it was Scripture? And, most importantly, who gets to decide what oral tradition is and how it is to be followed?
The Roman historian, Josephus, reported that the Pharisees had great influence over the common people who respected their piety and gave great credibility to their words. The Sadducees did not enjoy such popularity with the masses and only had influence over the rich. This gave each sect a unique adherent constituency, the Pharisees with the multitudes and the Sadducees with the wealthy.
Over time, the Pharisees and Sadducees each courted the favor of the king seeking a power advantage over the other group. At one point in their history, the Pharisees fell from favor with the king of Israel who then crucified 800 Pharisees in front of their families. In Jesus’ day, the Sadducees and Pharisees had come to a balance of power, each holding to their own traditions, and having a combined ruling council of Pharisees and Sadducees called the Sanhedrin to resolve any differences peaceably. We will have a little more to say about the Sanhedrin later.
So, into the tension of power over traditions, Jesus entered the scene with the gospel message, with miraculous healings, and a growing following of people. Earlier today we witnessed the clash, seemingly a simple clash, with Jesus and traditions when we read from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7. Mark wrote, “1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law [Sadducees?] who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his [Jesus’] disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
6 He [Jesus] replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:1-8).
A seemingly simple and minor infraction of a common tradition held by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, the ceremonial cleansing of one’s hands before eating, led to an indictment by Jesus that, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” In Jesus’ view, the Pharisees and Sadducees, leaders of the people, had done as Isaiah had prophesied and Tevye sang about, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Jesus had pointed out that the heart of the conflict between Him and the Pharisees and the Sadducees was and would be, “Who should be worshipped God or man? Whose word should be followed, God or man? Would our ethics or public and private behaviors be derived from Scripture or human tradition?”
I think in many ways Jesus would point out to us that the very same conflict today. Is our life going to be informed and be based on the holy ground of the voice of God or will our life be based on the shifting sands of the voice of human tradition?
Jesus was blunt about what He thought of the Pharisees and Sadducees for following their traditions over words of Scripture. Jesus called them [the Pharisees and Sadducees] hypocrites. To be clear, hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. The Pharisees and Sadducees claimed the moral standard of being upright and holding to God’s word but they practiced their beliefs without regard to what Scripture said. In fact, Jesus was accusing the Pharisees and Sadducees of following their own traditions in public to gain the praise of other men. To this Jesus said, when people seek the praise of other people, then they will receive no reward from God. Jesus, in calling the Pharisees and Sadducees hypocrites, took these two groups who coexisted with uneasy tension, and managed to unite them with a common and intense hatred of Jesus.
I have no doubt that Jesus understood his words would infuriated the Pharisees and Sadducees. But Jesus needed to tell the truth because Jesus could do nothing but tell the truth. Yet, Jesus was still willing to teach the Pharisees and Sadducees the error of their ways so that they might repent. Jesus taught the Pharisees and Sadducees not by parable but with plain language. Jesus said, “9 You [Pharisees and Sadducees] have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you [Pharisees and Sadducees] say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you [Pharisees and Sadducees] have handed down. And you [Pharisees and Sadducees] do many things like that” (Mark 7:9-13).
What is Jesus talking about here? First, we need to know that there was a Jewish tradition of taking something and declaring your intent to make that thing, be it an animal, a vegetable, or precious metal as a religious gift, a Corban, reserved for God. Once reserved to God under this tradition, then the giver could not be released from that commitment even if that asset was needed to care for one’s aging or sick parents. Jesus pointed out that this tradition, however good it seemed on the surface to devote something to God, conflicted with God’s command that children honor their mothers and their fathers. Jesus said, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] do many things like that” (Mark 7:13). Simply, the Pharisees and Sadducees were turning the Word of God upside down and substituting their own traditions for what God desired of them.
What then are we to do with Jesus’ teaching as we seek to follow proper Christian Ethics? I think there are three things we must be willing to do.
First, we must subject our behaviors to examination to ensure we know why we are doing them and that they are consistent with Scripture. Allow me to illustrate with an example outside of church. Shortly after I was promoted to a supervisory position in the federal government, a member of my staff brought a letter to me to sign. The letter granted government approval of a plan presented by a contractor. I said to the staff member, “Why are we doing this? Why are we approving this request?” She replied to me, “This is the way we have always done it.” I said to the staff member again, “Why are we doing this?” She replied to me, “This is what your predecessor wanted us to do.” I said to the staff member again, “Why are we doing this?” Looking a bit frustrated with me, she thought for a moment, and then said, “I have no idea.” I said to her, “Good answer. How about we find out together what we should be doing?”
We need to be willing to submit our personal decisions to act or to not act against the Word of God. “Why am I doing what I am doing? Why am I not doing what I am not doing? What is my motivation to act the way I am acting? Am I acting this way to be praised by others? Am I not acting in the way God wants me to act because I am seeking to escape the scorn of others?” If we want to live a life that flourishes with God and follows Christian Ethics, then we need to know what Jesus said and what Jesus did.
Second, corporately, as a church, when we meet for worship, we are doing two very different things at the same time. In one context, we are organizing ourselves into action, song, prayer, and listening to renew and enrich our lives with a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We want worship to be a wonderful and meaningful experience. We want to be challenged and we want to be uplifted. The assembling of the body of Christ into the public setting should be a cause for joy. That is first purpose of worship.
However, at the same time we are seeking to uplift the faithful we are also organizing ourselves into action, song, prayer, and listening for those people who do not usually attend worship. We ask of ourselves, “How do we include those seeking the joy of worship into the family rather than exclude them? The Pharisees and Sadducees thought Jesus’ disciples should be excluded from dining because their hands were not ceremonially clean. These groups used their traditions to keep the things [people] they believed were impure from contaminating that which had been made holy. Holiness does not work that way. Jesus touched the leper, and the leper was made clean, Jesus was not made sick. Holiness works the same way. Holiness transforms whatever it touches. We must ensure that our traditions, or behaviors, as a church are not stumbling blocks to those seeking God’s grace. That is our second purpose when we worship.
Finally, we should be able to see from this short passage that Jesus stood out from the crowd. But why did he stand out? Did Jesus stand out because of what said? In part, yes, he did. Did Jesus stand out because of what he did? In part, yes, he did. But I think the thing that cause Jesus to stand out head and shoulders above all others was that Jesus lived out the word of God in both what he said and what he did. Jesus was accused of being many things. He was called mentally ill, demon possessed, a heretic, a blasphemer, a rebel, and a revolutionary. But no one ever called Jesus a hypocrite. Jesus did as he said he would do. Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors seeking to transform their lives and make them holy. Jesus visited with the Pharisees and Sadducees answering questions in the hopes of making their lives holy. Jesus raised up those who were troubled to lead them to holiness, and he humbled those who were proud to lead them to holiness. Do we stand out from the world around us? Do people hear our words and see our deeds and give the glory to God?
Sadly though, the traditions of the man and not the Word of God were too attractive to Pharisees and Sadducees. These groups feared Jesus’ popularity and self-testimony
that he was the Messiah and the Son of God. And so, the Sanhedrin, the best and brightest of both the Pharisees and Sadducees met not to resolve differences between them. Instead, the Sanhedrin met in unity to confront Jesus for his beliefs. The verdict of the Sanhedrin was Jesus believed what He said, acted accordingly, and gave weight only to the Word of God. This the Pharisees and Sadducees could not accept and so they set in motion their desire to kill Jesus and end the conflict. But. There is always a but. But God chose to show the Pharisees, the Sadducees, as well as Jesus’ followers that holiness cannot be corrupted. God chose to raise Jesus from the dead demonstrating Jesus was who he said he was and that the traditions of men were nothing but vanity before God.
Friends, let us not be found vain before God. Let us live out God’s word, standing out in the world because we follow Jesus in word and in deed. Let others see that God’s Word is the holy ground upon which we stand and that God through Jesus Christ has made our hands holy giving grace to others by what we do in Jesus’ name. Amen and Amen.