Read: Mark 7:1-23
Consider: Can you empathise with the Pharisees and teachers of the law who approached Jesus about his disciples eating food with unwashed hands? In our family we were not allowed to sit down for a meal without first washing our hands. Were my parents concerned that there was a hygiene risk, or were they concerned to be seen to follow tradition? Knowing what children get up to during the day, it is sensible for parents to ask their children to wash their hands in order to protect their health.
This leads us to the question: ‘What were the Pharisees and teachers of the law concerned about?’ In Mark 7:5 we read: So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating food with defiled hands?’ It is clear that these people were more concerned with following tradition, than with following what might be laid down in the Law. Jesus’ response, quoting Isaiah 29:13, gives us an insight into the condition of the hearts of those who questioned him. Jesus said: You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions (7:8). In other words, they were trusting more in their own interpretation of Scripture, rather than trusting in Scripture itself.
Jesus moves on to criticise the Pharisees and teachers of the law: You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! (7:9). He uses a specific command, ‘Honour your father and mother’ to show them how their tradition of something being declared Corban (i.e. devoted to God), allowed them to set aside the commandment. I’m sure that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were not pleased with Jesus’ rebuke, but his comment does get right to the heart of the matter.
What can we learn from this passage? We need to be on our guard against legalism that turns something outside of Scripture, into something that we expect people to follow without question. There are many things where Christians are expected to use their discretion: where there is no clear guidance in the Bible. In these circumstances we need to give others leeway to interpret things differently, knowing that they are a matter of conscience. We may have thought long and hard before deciding on some matter of conscience, but we always need to be careful of turning our views into something other people must follow.
There are also ‘traditions’ that can be adopted within the church setting and, again, we need to be wary of something like this being set up as either equal to or above what we see in the Bible. Many individual churches and denominations have traditional practices, such as particular patterns of worship or rites, that have developed over time. Sometimes these practices become so ingrained that any deviation from them may lead to heated discussion and may even lead to division in the church.
Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister (Romans 14:13).
Pray: Father, protect your Church from legalism that sets manmade traditions over Scripture. Help us to discern where our traditions have become more important to us than the Bible. May your Word be the final authority for all that we do. Amen