“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. Tradition: it’s a strange thing, but very powerful.
A few years ago I was taking a wedding rehearsal. It was one of those weddings where there were a lot of bridesmaids, and I’ve tended to find that the more bridesmaids people have, the less use they are collectively – they all stand around comparing their nail varnish, rather than looking after the bride. So I took special care at the rehearsal to remind these bridesmaids of the essentials of their job, which is to look after the bride. In particular I told them that it was really, really important that when the bride got out of the car at the lych gate they made sure that her dress didn’t touch the ground until she got into the church. They looked at me wide eyed, “Why? Is that supposed to be bad luck?” “ No,” I said, “it’s just that it will get dirty if you don’t.” I thought I was stating the obvious, but I can understand why those bridesmaids assumed this must be a tradition they had missed out on somewhere, because weddings are festooned with traditions, many of which have no apparent sense to them. I’m glad I managed to prevent another one being added inadvertently, because, my experience is that it is easy for traditions to become superstitions, and for people to feel that they have blighted the marriage somehow if they don’t keep them.
The word “tradition” literally means something that has been “handed down”. It’s from the Latin “tradere” – it gives us trade and trader too. Traditions can be very good and useful, ways of conveying important knowledge and skills. Our ancestors passed down traditions about which plants were poisonous and which good to eat –things they’d discovered by trial and very painful error. They handed down skills, like how to make a wheel, so that we didn’t have to reinvent it in every generation. But the trouble with things that are handed down, like all those wedding traditions, is that it is very easy to forget why they were important in the first place. Out of context they become hindrances rather than helps. That’s what had happened to the Pharisees who accused Jesus and his followers of disregarding the traditions of their ancestors.
Jesus’ disciples, they say, aren’t washing their hands before eating. Now it’s important to stress that this isn’t about hygiene. We know that handwashing is very important in order to kill the bacteria and viruses that would otherwise make us ill. But the Pharisees didn’t know anything about germs, and that’s not what this is about. This is about spiritual impurity, which you got by coming into contact with a whole host of things; dead bodies, skin diseases, discharges of any sort, or by breaking the ritual laws in other ways – or associating with those who did. If you weren’t ritually clean you were excluded from God’s presence. Ritual washing would make you clean again, though, and the Pharisees seem to have taken to washing before every meal, just in case. You never knew, after all, what might have been going on in the lives of people you had bumped into in the marketplace. You could have been inadvertently contaminated without even knowing it. Better safe than sorry. But just imagine how that felt to the people they were trying to avoid? They felt judged, stigmatised and excluded.
No wonder the Pharisees disapproved of Jesus and his followers. They knew perfectly well what kind of people they associated with - lepers, foreigners, tax collectors, prostitutes – people who they thought were walking bundles of uncleanness. If ever there were people who ought to be washing, it was surely them. But they didn’t, and Jesus didn’t seem to be at all bothered. It was as if he was saying that these sinful people were loved by God just as they were. Which, of course, he was.
Strictly speaking, then, according to the law of Moses and the traditions of Judaism, the Pharisees were right to be concerned. And it wouldn’t be the only time Jesus had broken the law, or at least seemed to sit very lightly to it – working on the Sabbath was another recurrent gripe they had with him.
It’s not that Jesus didn’t care how people lived – in fact the standards of love and service he called people too were often more demanding than the law of Moses. As he says in this passage, never mind what you put in your mouth – that’s an easy thing to control – it’s what’s in your heart that matters, and we all know that that is far more complicated to sort out. What distinguishes Jesus from the Pharisees, though, is that instead of telling people that they have to change before they can draw near to God, he starts by telling people they are already loved and welcome. The change in their lives will come as a response to God’s love.
One of his later followers – the author of the first letter of John – said “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4.19). And in the second reading today, James tells us that a right relationship with God is his gift to us, not something that we create through our own efforts. Change is a result of God’s love, not a precondition for it.
That’s the heart of the good news of the Christian Gospel – God’s gift of grace to us - but it’s not the only good news that we can find in these readings we have heard today.
The second piece of good news comes in the very fact that Jesus is clearly prepared here, and elsewhere, to argue with the traditions and laws of his people, to wrestle, and sometimes disagree with what was regarded as sacred truth. It is good news because in doing so, he gives permission for us to do so too.
Moses said to the people of Israel in our first reading, “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” He’s talking about the lists of rules which God had given for this fledgling nation, rules which covered every aspect of daily life. It sounds very straightforward. Here are the commandments – now keep them. No more, no less.
If we want to treat the Bible as a simple instruction manual, a book of rules, here is our justification for doing so. But it’s clear from today’s Gospel reading that this wasn’t how Jesus treated it. He respected and paid attention to what had been handed down – the traditions , written or verbal, which his ancestors had found valuable – but he was prepared to reinterpret them, or even set them aside if they were getting in the way of the healing and the growth of the living, breathing, hurting human beings in front of him. In him God was speaking to us through a Living Word. Jesus was a flesh and blood reminder that God can’t be pinned to a page of print, but comes to us anew in every time and place.
If you like your religion simple, as some of these Pharisees did, that might feel a bit unsettling, but it really wasn’t all that revolutionary, even at the time of Jesus. In fact, if we look at what we now call the Old Testament we find it often argues with itself. It speaks with a variety of voices and gives us many different viewpoints.
The law of Moses, for example, forbade marriage between Jews and non- Jews (Deut 7.3). Some Jewish leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah fiercely upheld the law, making those who had intermarried put aside their wives and children, no matter how good and loving those marriages were, or the impact on their families. But alongside that example of strict adherence to the law we also have the book of Ruth, a foreigner from the land of Moab, who married the Israelite, Boaz. Their love story was celebrated in the Scriptures, and she became the great-grandmother of King David. She was highly honoured in Jewish faith. There was no condemnation for her.
If it surprises or disturbs us when the Bible doesn’t fit neatly together, that’s probably because we think of it as one book, which we feel ought to tell one story. But it wasn’t written like that at all. Instead it’s a library, composed over a long period. The list of books regarded as sacred which were eventually bound together into what we call the Bible, wasn’t agreed on for several centuries after Christ, and even then it wasn’t completely settled. Today’s epistle, the book of James was almost thrown out by the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who famously called it a “strawy epistle”. Different branches of the Church still don’t see eye to eye on the Bible; the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have eighty-one books in theirs to the sixty-six of Protestant Churches.
So the very make-up of the Bible, with its baggy, inconsistent, but fascinating assortment of writings, should tell us that we can’t simply pick out individual verses and apply them unthinkingly to contexts and circumstances far removed from the ones they were written for, especially if we use them to judge and condemn others. If we are serious about following the pattern that Jesus left us then, like him, we need to learn to see under the surface of these ancient stories, and listen for the voice of God speaking today, in our language and for our world.
The Bible can be many things to us. It can provide inspiration and food for thought. It can open the doors of our imagination. It can bring comfort, and challenge. It can help us to be more aware of God in our own lives by showing us God at work in the lives of those who met him long ago. But it can’t be a simple book of rules, and when we try to make it one, it often becomes dangerous and damaging.
I began by talking about tradition – the things which are handed down to us. The Bible is part of that tradition for Christians, a precious gift for us to pass on to others. But let’s make sure that we are passing on not a collection of dead rules, but something through which we can discover the Living Word of God afresh.