On Tradition, Hypocrites, and Newness
A sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, Song of Songs 2:8-13
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash]
Is it just me, or is the confrontation that is the focus of today’s gospel story both familiar and surprising?
The familiarity comes from how quickly a disagreement about an “issue” devolves into more personal attacks.
This is the pattern in our historical moment’s all-or-nothing culture of disagreement: It seems that we are never ONLY arguing about one particular policy or perspective.
Our differing perspectives are so deeply imbedded in contrasting worldviews, that our defense of individual claims become a test of integrity, so that our legitimacy and personal worth feels like it is on the line when someone challenges a position we hold.
Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry challenges this pattern in this summer’s church book club read Love is the Way. He writes, “We need to leave behind contempt. Contempt is the belief that the person who disagrees with you isn’t just wrong, but worthless.”
That’s what lies beneath the venom and name-calling of political and social debate: contempt. The belief that one’s opponent is worthless, idiotic, a sheep, better off dead.
So, it’s nothing new when the confrontation between Jesus and the Jerusalem leaders in today’s gospel devolves to personal attacks and name-calling. But it is nevertheless surprising… because Jesus is the one doing the name calling.
The religious leaders from Jerusalem raise what seems to be a very issue-specific challenge related to religious purity rituals, and Jesus starts calling them hypocrites and citing judgmental prophecy in their faces.
It all feels a little excessive, doesn’t it?
I’ll admit, I am tempted to try to tone-police the Son of God here:
“Feeling a bit triggered, Jesus? Come on, they just want everyone to wash their hands – this is a good thing! You’ll have a better conversation if you don’t get so angry and personal!”
That’s my instinct, born, no doubt, from nerves rubbed raw by COVID-bickering.
But what if Jesus’ outburst is NOT about contempt?
What if the insult he hurls is not random? What if, by calling his detractors hypocrites, he is giving us a key to what he is trying to do: to get them to drop their concealing masks and talk about what is really at issue?
Because, when we read the Gospel of Mark as an on-going narrative, the way it was written, it’s clear that the debate about ritual purity practices is NOT what’s really at issue.
What’s really at issue is who has the authority to reinterpret God’s law.
The confrontation started back in Mark chapter 2, when the Pharisees criticized Jesus’s disciples for gleaning grain to eat on the sabbath. In response, Jesus claimed authority, stating that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so, the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28).
Immediately after, these same opponents were in the synagogue when Jesus encountered a man with a deformed hand, and Mark tells us that “They watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (Mark 3:2).
It’s clear that the agenda is not about defending the laws themselves, so much as it is about attacking Jesus’ authority over the laws. And this is confirmed when, immediately after Jesus heals the man, his accusers begin to conspire “how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:6)
Today’s gospel story is another scene in this on-going struggle and Jesus knows it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites, challenging them to drop the mask of pretense.
For the religious leaders, whose own authority to dictate the law of God to the people is threatened by Jesus, the real concern is not about the legitimacy of Jesus’ interpretation…it’s about power, and who gets to speak for God.
For those of us gathered today for Christian worship, I imagine the choice is obvious: of course, Jesus gets to speak for God. He IS God!
There’s no tension for us in the deliberation around the authority of interpretation.
Except, that disagreements about interpretation are not restricted to 2,000-year-old arguments about purity rituals, at they? We have plenty of modern interpretation debates, and plenty of different voices claiming the authority to speak for God.
So how do we know who to listen to? Jesus isn’t here directly to tell us.
In examining this question, it might be helpful to look at a section of the story that was skipped over by the lectionary editors.
In verses 9-13 Jesus explains his accusation that the leaders “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
The “tradition” he is talking about involves the designation of corban – resources promised or dedicated to God. The religious leaders (who by the way, may benefit from these monetary gifts) endorse the tradition that if a person has made such a dedication, they cannot break the vow to use those resources to care for aging parents. Thus, they privilege a human tradition (corban) over the direct commandment from God to honor one’s father and mother.
Jesus doesn’t have a problem with tradition per se, but rather he is challenging the way that the leaders use tradition to put on a mask of piety that conceals selfish motives.
Piety is about what other people see – what is “outside” the person – but what matters is the heart: the motives and the will.
Or, put another way, attitudes that seems righteous can mask actions that harm other people.
The SALT Commentary paraphrases Jesus’s teaching from today’s story this way:
“For God’s sake, don’t use religion to express your contempt, or to mask your unkindness, or to put yourself up on a pedestal, wagging your finger at those supposedly beneath you. True religion, true faith has the opposite effect: fostering compassion and humility, and unmasking our judgmental ways.”
Or, as Jesus himself summarizes when asked “what is the greatest commandment”:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
THIS is our touchpoint when we are confronted by an argument about whether a reinterpretation of traditional practices in our faith is to be rejected or embraced.
We ask: does the reinterpretation draw us deeper into love for God? And does it teach us to love and value our neighbor as much as ourselves?
If the answer is yes, then why should “tradition” stand in the way?
In a few minutes we will be engaging in a rite that is new to our congregation, at least in this specific application.
My son Quinn, who was originally baptized with a different name and pronouns, will have his baptism affirmed with his new name.
The liturgy we will use for this rite is adapted from the traditional “affirmation of baptism” used in confirmation, but this application – to affirm the baptism and the identity of a trans child – would almost certainly scandalize some faithful, well-meaning members of the church of Christ.
But, just as in the confrontation about hand washing, debating tradition is just a mask for the heart of the issue. Our guide should always be: does this action build up love for God and neighbor.
For Quinn, the answer is YES! Absolutely. Today’s rite is an affirmation that the identity he has claimed is NOT a step away from the faith begun in his baptism (even though that baptism used a different name and pronouns).
Today we are reinforcing Quinn’s love for God and God’s love for Quinn.
And for our congregation, this new tradition is a way for us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Which of us don’t want to be welcomed into the community of faith in the fullness of who we are? We expect to change and grow in our faith, of course, but that growth is always built on the understanding of our fundamental belovedness, the certainty that we are made to be our unique selves in the image of God.
If we want that for ourselves, then we are commanded to want that for others as well – and to encourage our trans siblings to pursue their journey of faith on the same foundation.
And if this still feels a bit uncomfortable, perhaps our first reading can offer us an invitation to view newness and change from a more joyful perspective.
The Song of Songs is a compilation of poems portraying a human love story (and it is wonderful to know that our Bible contains such an affirmation of the goodness of human life, love, and embodiedness).
But this poem can also have a broader application to today’s challenge: an invitation to celebrate new life, new ways of being, after having been locked away in more confined structures.
The lover in the poem calls his beloved to contemplate the Spring, and to let the change of the seasons free her from the cage of Winter.
There is a time for winter, for retreating behind walls and focusing on the protection of our life and faith. But there is also a time to fling wide the doors of old ways of living that have become a cage, and to embrace God’s creative abundance as an offering of love to God and neighbor.
Thanks be to God.
 Bishop Michael Curry, with Sara Grace, Love is the Way, New York: Avery, Penguin Random House, 2020, p. 188.  See discission in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, for Mark 7:11  https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/8/29/salts-lectionary-commentary-for-fifteenth-week-after-pentecost.