The Tradition of the EldersMARK 7:1-23 (NRSV)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. =(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘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.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Then he 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.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.”
There was an assignment that I had when I attended Hill Roberts Elementary School that has stuck clearly in my memory. I don’t know if I remember it because I struggled with it or because I learned a lot from it, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The assignment was to write down the directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Perhaps it stuck in my mind so clearly because, after we handed in the written assignment, the teacher read each one aloud as she attempted to follow the directions word for word. If steps were left out, or words and phrases were not quite as descriptive as they needed to be, she ended up making a mess of most of the sandwiches.
We tried making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Huddle this morning as well, and you’ll all get to try some during coffee hour today, should you desire. But did they all come out the same? No. Because we all have different experiences with making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we all have our own way of doing it.
In the Thibeault house, believe it or not, we learned from the great Bill Belichick how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that holds up in a lunchbox until lunchtime. The trick is to spread peanut butter on both pieces of bread and then put the jelly in the middle. That way, the peanut butter serves as a protective layer on the bread, and the jelly doesn’t soak through.
Well, I wonder. When you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, do you put the peanut butter on first, or the jelly? Which side do you flip over on top, the peanut butter side or the jelly side? Does it matter what kind of knife or spoon that you use? Or the kind of bread that you choose? It’s shouldn’t, right? Because if it has bread and peanut butter and jelly, then it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, right? How you put it together shouldn’t really matter. But to be honest, to some people it does, because to some people, there is a right way and wrong way to do just about everything. And if you have ever worked with a person like that, you know it can get a little frustrating sometimes. Because sometimes there is a difference between “giving directions” and “being bossy.”
Well, the same is true in our scripture reading today. We hear about how the Pharisees have taken something good, like washing hands and washing dishes, and they turned it into something overbearing and oppressive by being bossy. The fact is, rules are meant to protect us, not to belittle us. Today, we wash our hands and our dishes as a way of staying healthy and not spreading germs, but no one judges us on how we do it and when.
The truth is, the Pharisees believed heavily in tradition. To the Pharisees, tradition became even more important than the law and covenant of scripture sometimes. Occasionally, we still fall into the same trap today, because sometimes, tradition and “the way we’ve always done it” become more important than what we are actually doing. Did you hear that? Sometimes tradition and “the way we’ve always done it” become more important than what we are actually doing.
My mom has always baked bread at home, and I remember helping her when I was a little girl. Every time we baked bread, she would always use the same big ceramic bread bowl, follow the same recipe, and when it came time to let it rise, she would cover the bowl with a dish towel and put it in a warm place. I remember when my kids were young, I wanted to carry on that same tradition and we would follow the same recipe and let it rise in a warm place, but it never felt quite right, because we didn’t have the same big ceramic bowl that my mom had. Sure, the bread always came out okay, but I always struggled with which bowl to use. Now the recipe says nothing about what kind of bowl to use, but my past experience, and the story that I knew that went with baking bread, said that it had to be in that big ceramic bread bowl or it just wouldn’t be the same.
I wonder. Have you ever experienced something like that? Do you have a certain bowl or spoon or dish that you always use for certain things? We do it with brand names when we shop as well. If you always use Colgate toothpaste, it just doesn’t feel the same to use Crest. Or if you always drink Dunkin Donuts coffee, Honey Dew just doesn’t taste right. But the truth is, those are just our quirks and our preferences. They are part of our own personal story, and they have nothing to do with laws or rules or directions.
Today’s storybook, That’s NOT how you do it, tells a similar story. Lucy the cat knows how to do things well. And in order to do things well, you have to do them just like Lucy. As we could see, Lucy was rather bossy. Then Toshi comes to town, and he does things well too, but he does them differently than Lucy. Lucy gets very upset because she knows that her way is the right way, and she tells Toshi that’s not how you do it. But after trying Toshi’s way, Lucy humbly learns that there is more than one way to do things.
Friends, rules, traditions, and directions are important, but there is a difference between obeying and carrying out rules and being bossy. Rules are meant to protect us and to guide us, not to hurt us and demean others. That’s why they should always be shared with encouragement, kindness, and generosity.
If we go back to our scripture reading for just a minute, we realize that Jesus goes on to talk about the fact that sometimes it’s not about how we are doing things, but what we are doing and why we are doing it. Friends, when we go out into the world and truly live out our faith, it’s about humbly loving and serving others. We are not called to bring attention to ourselves or to try to make others be just like us. No, we are called to share the unconditional love and grace of God, in all that we say and do, with everyone we meet. And over the years I have found that works much better when we help people see and identify their gifts rather than pointing out and stressing their shortcomings.
As our bulletin cover reads today, “Whatever you do, do it with love!” So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, think about what you do and why you do it. Pay attention to the words that you share with others. Are they bossy? Are they encouraging? Are they kind? And next time you want to say to someone, “That’s NOT how you do it,” take a deep breath and think about your story and why it’s so important to do it that way. Then, watch and listen, because, by the grace of God, you just might learn a new way of doing things.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!