When Tradition Becomes an Obstacle

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

During my first year in seminary, we took a trip to Naperville, Illinois during spring break so that we could attend the baptism of my nephew and serve as his godparents.  He was being baptized at a large Lutheran congregation that my sister and her husband had joined because it had some great programs for their kids and it was fairly close to their new house, and they liked the pastor.  

The baptism was scheduled to happen during Sunday morning worship, but the pastor had asked that we meet on Saturday afternoon so he could talk us through how things would go during the service.  He had us walk through the service, talked very briefly about the meaning and importance of baptism, then turned to Meri and me and informed us that, unfortunately, we wouldn’t be allowed to receive communion.  See, this was a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation—LCMS—and we are the other kind of Lutherans,  Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—ELCA.   

The LCMS has a rule that only LCMS members may receive communion in their churches.  That’s their tradition.  Some LCMS congregations or pastors are not rigorous about enforcing this rule, but some take it very seriously.  Some, in fact, will only allow members of their own congregation to receive communion, just to be sure they’re conforming to the rule.  

Their reasoning for this rule is based on chapter 11 of First Corinthians where St. Paul talks about eating the bread and taking the cup in an unworthy manner.  “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body,” he writes, “eat and drink judgment against themselves.”[1]  Based on their interpretation of this one scripture, the LCMS has decided that the only way to be certain that no one is receiving communion in “an unworthy manner” is to only commune people they have vetted by means of membership.  The end result of this is that they end up excluding a lot of people from the table of fellowship.  

The irony here is that these verses they reference come at the end of a section where Saint Paul has been chastising the Corinthians because not only have they neglected to make the sacrament of bread and wine the centerpiece of their agape feast, but some people are going hungry while others feast on what they’ve brought with them.  People who have plenty are not sharing with those who have nothing.  Some are being excluded at the feast of inclusion, and that is what Saint Paul is talking about when he says that some are failing to discern the body of Christ.  Yes, Christ is present in, with, and under the bread and wine, but in a more substantial way, the body of Christ is all those who gather to share at the table.  Saint Paul makes that crystal clear in the next chapter when he writes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”[2]  

My point in all this is not to pick on the LCMS.  They’re not the only church body with an exclusionary practice of communion, and critiquing denominations is a game where no one wins.  My point is that sometimes tradition gets in the way of inclusion and participation.  Sometimes traditions become an obstacles.

That’s the issue here in the 7th chapter of Mark when Jesus once again is confronted by the Pharisees and scribes.  They ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  The tradition in question here is that the disciples did not practice ritual hand washing before eating.

Now in Exodus 30:18, there are Levitical instructions for the priests and Levites to wash their hands and feet before going into the tabernacle for worship.  Other than that there is no mention in all of the Tanakh about washing one’s hands or feet or pots and pans.  

Somewhere along the way, the Pharisees took this instruction that was intended only for the priests and Levites and only for going into the place of worship, and made a rule out of it for everybody every day before every meal.  It became their tradition.  Based on what we know now about germs, it’s actually a good rule.  A healthy rule.  Washing your hands is a good idea.  It’s a good way to reduce bacteria.  But the Pharisees and scribes didn’t know that.  They didn’t know anything about bacteria or good practices of asepsis.  They did all this washing of hands and vessels because it was their tradition.  Period.  And they wanted everyone else to keep their tradition because it was a way to maintain boundaries.  It was a way to easily see who was clean and who was unclean, who was acceptable and who was not.

All of this handwashing business was part of the Pharisees elaborate social code of table fellowship.  Ched Myers describes it this way:

“In Mark the Pharisees represent the guardians of social  orthodoxy.  They believe the boundaries of the body politic can best be policed though control of political bodies.  Thus they seek to maintain gender, ethnic, and class divisions by stressing fidelity to their ‘traditions.’  At issue here were the rules of table fellowship that functioned socially (maintaining Jewish group identity), politically (who you ate with reflected your status in the hierarchy), and economically (control over production, distribution, and consumption of food.)”[3]

Jesus isn’t bothered by their rule or their tradition.  Jesus is addressing the way they usetheir tradition.  Their rule has an impact on the people around them.  They use it to decide who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is unworthy, who is clean and who is defiled.  They use it to decide who they will buy from and who they will sell to.  They use it to create a caste system, to determine who can associate with whom.  They use it as a pretense for criticism of others.  They use it to exclude.  That’s what Jesus is objecting to.  It gives them a platform for declaring that some people are unclean—and that saddles people with a lot of social and economic consequences.  The Pharisees’ tradition had become an obstacle for others.

Jesus wants to make it clear that “clean and unclean” are not determined by whether or not someone has washed their hands.  Touching your food with unwashed hands does not make the food ritually unclean and eating food that has been touched by unwashed hands does not make the person unclean.  

According to Jesus, the Pharisees have been coming at this whole clean/unclean business from the wrong direction with their tradition.

“Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand:  there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

For the ancients, the human heart represented the seat of rationality and will.  Jesus is saying if you want to talk about what defiles a person, what makes someone “unclean,” start there.  That’s where evil begins.  In the human heart.  

Joel Marcus wrote, “The basic problem Christians should be concerned about… is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of [the human person][4]. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world.”[5]

It makes me wonder…how much harm and even evil has been done in history in the name of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”?

Evil starts in the human heart.  It’s there, in the heart, that the seeds of fear and greed take root and grow and blossom into evil intentions.  They don’t always look evil.  Often it just looks like we’re trying to protect our own interests.  But doing that—just that, protecting our own interests—sets a boundary between us and them, or you and me.  It draws a line in our thinking and tilts us toward looking out for Number One instead of looking out for the needs of the neighbor, the other.  That’s why we need to keep examining our hearts—our intentions, our thinking, our will—especially our inclination to exclude.  It’s important to keep examining our traditions to make sure that we aren’t turning them into obstacles or even weapons.  

Evil starts in the human heart.  But evil is more complex than just my own negative thoughts and habits.  It goes beyond us individually to affect the world at large.  Matthew Skinner wrote, “We know enough about the human condition to say that evil is about more than an individual’s selfishness or bad decisions. It roams our collective existence, our social, economic, and familial systems. We are at once perpetrators and victims. And our victimization furthers our capacity to perpetrate. ‘The human heart,’ or the human will, remains a complex thing. Our kin and culture usually keep us ingrained in patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.”

Ingrained patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.  From a cynical point of view, that could be the history of the human race in a nutshell.  But it’s not the whole story.  

Evil comes from within… but so does goodness.  Love, generosity, mercy, forgiveness, grace…these things come from the heart, too.  The love and mercy of God is poured out for each and every one of us so that we can learn to nurture these life-giving qualities in our own human hearts.  Love, generosity, mercy forgiveness and grace can grow in our hearts until they displace the greed and fear that lead to evil.  We have the promise, the love, and the guidance of Christ to change our hearts, to heal them, and thereby to change and heal the world.  We have the grace of Christ to teach us new patterns and new ways of being.  We have the transformative power of Christ to remake our traditions so they can become doorways of invitation instead of obstacles of exclusion.  Most of all, we have the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and give us a will to open our arms and embrace the world.  


[1] 1 Corinthians 11:29

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:27

[3] Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone; p.310

[4] anthrōpos

[5] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 460-61.

2 thoughts on “When Tradition Becomes an Obstacle

  1. Your post hits straight to the heart. Traditions can indeed do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to be or do. I have a backstory that’s too long. But my church life became over complicated; I didn’t like who I was even. And a huge shift in my heart and mind occurred in which traditional church became less of my focus and the teachings of Christ became the main motivation. This statement you made suns it up for me. “That’s why we need to keep examining our hearts—our intentions, our thinking, our will—especially our inclination to exclude. It’s important to keep examining our traditions to make sure that we aren’t turning them into obstacles or even weapons.” God bless you!

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  2. Thank you for sharing that with me, K.L. You’re right. Things become much clearer when we make Christ the focus. Martin Luther once wrote regarding all our liturgical traditions, “These things are adiaphora. They matter not.” God bless you, too.

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