Prayer of Invocation: Creator God, giver of life and love, open our hearts to your call, that we might hear your voice and rise to follow you. We give you thanks for the gift of this life and pledge to live this gift with with service and gratitude. Guide us to respond to the needs of the least of these- the widows, the orphans, and the aliens, the tired and the weary, the lost and the lonely, in the name of Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Creator Spirit, come to us, open our hearts and minds, so that we may hear the Word of life and be renewed by your power, for you live and reign with the Father and the Son, now and forever. Amen.
I hope you recognized the song that Barbara and Bill just sang so beautifully for us. It’s from the popular Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Its plot is fairly simple. Two Eastern European peasants Tevye (the husband) and Golda (the wife) and their three daughters have been recently displaced in their lives largely because of the war that is going on around them. In the musical, the song Tradition is repeated every time some crucial event, like a wedding, a betrothal, or even dinner, is taking place in the family or in the community. The husband Tevye begins with Well, I’ll tell you.....and then he goes on to explain that there have always been certain traditions in the village and that these traditions are important because they keep the village in balance. At the end of each explanation, he asks rhetorically, How did this particular tradition get started? Then he answers his own question: I don’t know. But it’s tradition!
Like the villagers in Fiddler on the Roof, the scribes and the Pharisees are really just trying to keep their community in balance with their rules and traditions, which they had been following for a long time. The written Torah had been given to them by Moses and the oral Torah had been developed by faithful rabbis over hundreds of years. Every aspect of human life and human interaction was covered by the law. Their traditions also helped them determine, they thought, who was faithful and who was not, who would receive God’s blessing and who was outside God’s circle of grace. The Pharisees criticize the behavior of Jesus’ disciples who fail to perform ritual hand washing before eating suggesting that they must also have broken with God.
The Pharisees were not priests, but rather lay people, who adopted priestly standards for themselves. They get demonized in Scripture because of their failure to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ, but they were not bad people. They made bad decisions. They took their faith seriously they tried to please God by following all the rules; they tithed everything, even the spices they put in their food. They ate every meal in a state of purity, just like the priests in the temple, because they thought of their homes as temples. To the Pharisees, these were not empty traditions and rituals; they constituted the foundation, which kept their spiritual lives in balance. It must have been very painful for them to watch Jesus’ disciples eat without washing their hands.
But Jesus turns their judgmental question into an accusation of his own: You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. Using the words of Isaiah, Jesus accuses them of only paying lip- service to God. The Greek word Jesus uses – hypocritai “hypocrites” – is a term used to describe stage actors, who assume an identity and play a part, to please other people. So Jesus is saying that when we get so concerned about tradition, the how of it, and forget about the core of our faith, the why of it, we have lost our way. Jesus faults the Pharisees for their observance of outward signs and rituals rather than inward truth.
Jesus accuses the Pharisees of losing sight of the internal – what is going on inside the person – because they are so busy judging a person’s goodness and faithfulness based on appearances. Just in case they missed his point the first time, Jesus goes on to remind them that it’s not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile but what is on the inside.
To be sure, traditions and rules, or a faith community or a society, are not necessarily bad. The holiness code of the Pharisees had at its heart the good of society. The washing of hands before a meal is a good thing to do. The prohibition against the eating of pork probably at its heart is the prevention of disease and death through trichinosis. But unexamined traditions and practices can say don’t worry about us....we’re OK......Look over there at those people -----who aren’t like us. They’re not OK.
Every group wants traditions because they establish the identity of the group, and building community is not a bad thing. Traditions are also a connection with the past. Someone once made the comment; Traditionsexist,sothedeadmayvote. But think about a baby learning to walk or a gymnast on a balance beam. Keeping one’s balance requires constant vigilance. If we are using tradition to escape the questions, to hide our fears, or to distance ourselves from people who aren’t like us, then we are cutting ourselves off from God’s activity within us and within our community.
Do you always sit in the same pew? Do you get upset if the Apostles’ Creed is not part of the service? Has the Prayer of Confession become so rote that you don’t pay attention to the words anymore? Can you hear the praise of God if the music doesn’t come out of the Presbyterian Hymnal and isn’t played on the organ or piano?
It’s a good thing to come to church every week and to participate actively in the life of the church. It’s a good thing to tithe, for example. Most of us would say that a person who tithes and participates regularly in the life of the church is probably a pretty devout Christian. Churches like those sorts of people. But Jesus doesn’t say that. If we are tithing because it’s a rule and not because we are giving to God in gratitude, then legalism, the strict interpretation of the rules, has become an obstacle to our faith, just as the legalism of hand-washing became an obstacle to the faith of the Pharisees. God would rather you just keep your money.
Jesus made people new from the inside out. He transformed the heart. Jesus was far less interested in the observance of rules, which restrain human impulses from the outside, than he was in the heart, which restrained itself. The real challenge of the Gospel is to the human heart. Traditions are established by human beings and by religious communities. We have to be careful that the good news of the Gospel – that God has come among us as Jesus Christ – doesn’t get lost.
Jesus always chose community over separation, involvement over purity, and service over ritual and tradition. He says I am not afraid of getting dirty, welcome to my table, whoever you are. Take. Eat. This is my body given for you.