"When Tradition turns into Traditionalism"

Proper 17.B.21
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Debi Thomas grew up in a church where jewelry was not allowed. She writes: “No one in the congregation wore engagement rings or wedding bands. Women and girls weren’t permitted to wear rings, necklaces, bracelets, or earrings. Even play jewelry. It was all banned. Anyone who showed up on a Sunday morning sporting an “ornament”—even first-time visitors ignorant of the prohibition – could be denied Communion.

“Growing up, I had no idea why God hated jewelry. I was told that my bare ears and unadorned wrists were visible signs of my wholehearted devotion to Jesus…I was told that avoiding material distractions and pleasures would help me grow as a Christian.”

“As a kid, I wasn’t brave enough to argue with my elders. But in secret, I knew they were wrong about the relationship between my jewelry-less-ness and my devotion. Not being allowed to wear pretty bangles on my wrists…did not make me love God more. It made me resent him.

She continues: “I only learned the whole story many years later. Apparently, when my great-grandparents had been newlyweds, a large-scale charismatic revival had swept through South India, winning many converts (my great grandparents among them). At the time, many young adults embraced the simple faith the revivalists encouraged—often at great personal and social cost—changing their lifestyles for the sake of the Gospel. One of the lifestyle changes centered around jewelry. At a time when gold meant social capital in India, when even Christian families judged each other’s worth by the weight of the jewelry their women wore, when girls whose fathers couldn’t produce enough jewelry for their dowries had to remain unmarried, the decision to forsake “ornaments” in the name of Jesus was a radical one. It spoke powerfully to the equalizing message of the Gospel. …. That was the history behind my church’s “no ornament” rule. It was a noble history, for certain, but the problem was, its nobility had frozen in time. Our context had changed, and so had the cultural and social meanings behind wearing a bracelet, a necklace or a pair of earrings to church.

When does tradition fall into traditionalism? And what should be done about it when it does?

With this in mind, let’s turn to the Gospel lesson for this morning to hear what our Savior has to say. In the seventh chapter of Mark the Pharisees notice that some of the disciples were eating without ritually washing their hands before doing so. And so, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples are disregarding this rule. Bear in mind, the Pharisees are asking—not because they are worried about the spread of germs—they are asking because ritually purifying oneself before eating is an identity marker for Jews. It sets them apart and it helps them tell others apart.

Notice how Mark goes to great lengths to describe the thoroughness of their washing. Pharisaic Jews were to wash all of their food vessels, and any time they were out and about among people who were different than themselves, they were to come home and ritually purify these vessels again as well.

You might find yourself wondering why would this be important? Here is the backstory. In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus, Moses is told to set up a wash basin for the priests to use before going into the presence of God, including when they are going to make an animal offering to the Lord on behalf of the people. The priests were to wash in recognition and as an expression of the holiness of God. To put it simply, this ritual cleansing was meant to communicate the holiness and purity of God. And, if you think about it, that is a perfectly good reason for the priests to have this ritual—to remind them that God is holy.

Others agreed, because eventually, someone somewhere at some time decided that if it was good for priests to do, it would be good for everyone to do, and (voila) a new tradition was born. Not only should priests ritually purify their vessels—everyone should!

Now, listen to the Pharisee’s question in today’s Gospel: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Notice, the Pharisees aren’t angry that God’s holiness is being violated, they are insulted that Jesus’ disciples aren’t going about the business of setting themselves apart. They are not following custom. Over time, the ritual had become about the people of God—not God. Over the years, the ritual’s meaning had changed and become distorted. Instead of conveying God’s purity, the tradition of the Pharisees had made this ritual to be about Jews separating themselves from others and comparing their purity to those of different people—notably, the Gentiles (non-Jews). This is why Jesus says to the Pharisees: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Jesus uses this moment as an opportunity to challenge and re-orient the concept of what it means to be pure. He says: “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: theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly.” So, in essence, what our Savior is saying is this—what people see when they see the people of God IS important. However, the focus shouldn’t be on rituals (particularly rituals which have lost their original meaning) so much as the focus should be on outward expressions of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is what people should see when they behold the people of God. And in this is also an invitation as to what they can become.

Today’s lesson challenges our narrow definitions of purity and piety (because, let’s face it, we all run the risk of being judgmental in our own way). In some churches, such as the one in which Debi Thomas grew up, there might be a legalistic focus on jewelry and clothing. In others it might come down to deifying one style of worship over another. (For example, speaking in tongues, singing praise music, hands in the air or folded demurely on one’s lap.) In still more it means policing the political affiliations of parishioners. In some faith communities the lines drawn in the sand have to do with gay marriage, being vaccinated (or not), economic equality or women’s roles in worship. The guises all vary—what’s important is that we recognize the danger that legalism, in any form, can take.

Today’s lesson encourages us to ask ourselves if there are places in our lives of faith that are causing us to become stingy and small-minded, cowardly and anxious. Are there rules which strip away our joy and rob us of peace? Are there rituals to which we have lost the original meaning? If there are, we need to speak up; to ask questions. Why? Well, so that we do not become the ones about whom Jesus is speaking when he says: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ We are called to be far more than the outward expression of rituals that have lost their meaning. Today’s lesson reminds us that we are each called to become a new creation in Christ, ready to respond to God’s grace with joy, as true witnesses to the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love to all people, everywhere. In Jesus’ name. Amen.