Updated: Sep 16, 2018
In the Royal Australian Navy there is a tradition of sitting to drink the health of the Sovereign during formal Naval Mess Dinners (The Loyal Toast). This was a privilege accorded to the Navy in 1660 when the King (some say it was William IV, others say it was Charles II) was returning to England onboard the ship the 'Royal Charles'. During a formal dinner with the ship’s officers in the wardroom of the ship, the King stood to reply to a toast and bumped his head on the deck-head. Having hurt his head a little, the King decreed that Naval Officers would be excused from rising on these occasions, and this tradition has continued for ever afterwards.
In the church we also have traditions – our religious traditions; just as the Jewish religion during Jesus’ time had traditions. The Jewish religious authorities, particularly the Pharisees, took pride in upholding the traditions of their forefathers; but, they had become so focused on the traditions that they were no longer honouring God. In the Gospel passage for today we read that Jesus challenged them on this, and out of this encounter we too are challenged to consider if we may be dishonouring God in similar ways. The passage from Mark 7 (7:1-8, 14-23) indicates that there are three ways that we might dishonour God: …
I. We do not honour God if we reject Jesus.
The Jewish religious authorities were actively rejecting Jesus. They had not accepted Jesus as being the Son of God and their opposition of him was intensifying. They were looking for some way of building a case against him, and their judgement of the level of a person’s righteousness was based upon how well they followed the law; particularly how religiously they observed the ritual of Jewish oral tradition. So, a delegation had come down from Jerusalem to check Jesus out.
The Jewish oral tradition had been added to the law, that had been originally given by God, to spell out the details, implications and applications of the law. One such ritual required a ceremonial cleansing of the hands before eating, not to maintain hygiene, but for ceremonial purity. But the trouble was, the Pharisees had lost sight of the original intention of the Law, and so the observance of the tradition – the ritual - had become more important to them than the original commands of God that lay behind these traditions.
They soon observed that Jesus’ disciples were not carrying out this ceremonial cleansing. This enabled the Pharisees to bring an accusation against the disciples of contravening the traditions, which was an implied criticism of Jesus. They were so intent on finding fault with Jesus that they were failing to recognise that he was indeed the long-anticipated Messiah, and the Son of God. Even though Jesus had performed miracles and had blessed many people through his ministry, the religious authorities’ eyes were blind to everything except what threatened their traditions, their vested interest, their authority, and their prestige.
Jesus however, knew their real intentions and confronted them with the truth that whilst the things that they said appeared to be honouring to God, in their hearts they were rejecting God through rejecting his Son, Jesus Christ. Their failure to see who Jesus really was arose because they had lost sight of the spiritual intent behind the laws that God had given them. They had set aside God’s law in favour of human teaching based upon it, and now saw observance of the rituals of the human tradition as the main thing.
But, just as we do not honour God if we reject Jesus, so also …
II. We do not honour God if we religiously follow human tradition
Tradition in itself is not necessarily bad; in fact, it really is an important part of living. Family upbringing and national custom depends upon tradition. And tradition defines who we are.
Another tradition in the RAN that separates the Navy from the Army and Air Force is that the Navy always salutes with the hand turned down. This tradition arose from the days when sailors always had black, dirty looking hands from handling the ropes that had tar imbedded as a preservative. And it was considered bad etiquette to salute royalty, who strolled along the wharf, with hands that appeared unclean.
The Anglican Church has certain traditions as do other church denominations. In the church context, tradition ranges from monastic rules and formal traditions associated with Catholic practice, to the local rules and regulations of the protestant churches.
However, through history, there has been a tendency to criticise each other’s traditions. Theological, denominational and inter-denominational churchmanship rivalries have been fuelled by concentration on the traditions and practices of others – whether in worship, organization, or life style.
Often these issues are like the issue that led to the ruination of the country of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s story Gulliver’s Travels (have you read it?). You may recall that Gulliver came to a country where the inhabitants were engaged in a bitter war regarding the tradition of cracking eggs at the big end. Let me read some excerpts from this story:
The two great Empires of Lilliput and Blefuscu … have … been engaged in a most obstinate War for six and thirty Moons past. It began upon the following Occasion. It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty's Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penaltys, to break the smaller End of their Eggs.
The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End.
During the Course of these Troubles, the Emperors of Blefuscu did frequently … accuse us of making a Schism in Religion, by offending against a fundamental Doctrine of our great Prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth Chapter of the Brundrecal … This, however, is thought to be a meer Strain upon the Text: For the Words are these: That all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the convenient End: and which is the convenient End, seems, in my humble Opinion, to be left to every Man's Conscience … to determine.
Sometimes, as in Lilliput, our concern to maintain tradition becomes all consuming. We can become so concerned with watching to ensure that there are no deviations from the ‘traditional’ way of doing things that we miss what God may be wishing to do in a community.
We also need to question the current value of the tradition before we rigidly uphold it to the detriment of more important things, like maintaining loving relationships with one another. Sometimes traditional practices can cease to have any meaning or value and need to be tested in the light of Jesus’ teaching, and if necessary discarded or changed.
The Russian Kremlin is guarded by sentries posted at strategic points. One day in 1903, the Russian Czar noticed that one of the sentries seemed to be posted in the grounds for no apparent reason. Upon enquiry, he discovered that 127 years before, in 1776, Catherine the Great found in that spot the first flower of spring, and had given the order, “post a sentry here so that no one tramples it under foot.” A sentry continued to be posted in that spot long after the flower had died, and the original reason had been forgotten!
A focus on tradition can result in us becoming blind to everything except what threatens our traditions, our vested interests, our authority, or our prestige. This in turn can result in hypocritical living - behaviour which is anything but honouring to God – which was the outcome of the Pharisees’ focus on the ritual associated with the Jewish oral tradition.
Jesus went on to say that the hypocritical behaviour of the Pharisees arose out of having evil hearts. He later explained to his disciples that, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.’ (v.20-21) So …
III. We do not honour God if our hearts are not clean.
What we outwardly say and do is an indication of what is inside our hearts. By the term ‘heart’ we mean our character, outlook and perspective on life that defines the essence of a person. And no amount of outward religious observance can fix a heart that is not in a proper relationship with God.
Sometimes we can look good on the outside by the things that we do – the appearances that we present in public; but, inside is a different story.
When the ocean liner, the Queen Mary, was retired, she was converted to a floating hotel and museum at Long Beach, California. During her conversion, her three massive smokestacks were taken off to be scraped down and repainted. But on the dock, they crumbled! Nothing was left of the ¾ inch (19 mm) steel plate. All that remained was more than thirty coats of paint that had been applied over the years. They looked good on the outside but inside, the steel had rusted away.
Sometimes, we can be like that – we look good on the outside but there is no substance inside. But we cannot fool Jesus, just as he was not fooled by the Pharisees – he knows what is in our hearts. And the reality of what is in our hearts will, sooner or later, become evident to others through our behaviour. It doesn’t matter if we diligently attend church and observe all of the traditions associated with our worship tradition if our heart is not right with God.
Now, the important question for us today is, “how do we know if this is the case?”
Well Jesus said that an indication of what is in our hearts is given by what comes out of us and in v.21-22 he lists some of the things that indicate a defiled heart. These include:
What we think (evil thoughts), pride, envy, etc;
What we say, eg slander, gossip; and
What we do.
So, if we are aware of any of these wrong ways of thinking, speaking or acting in our lives then we need to look again at what we really believe in our hearts. A Pastor, Dean Lueking, said, ‘Cleansing comes by loving God who first loved us and by translating that received love into the practiced love of neighbour and self.’ And we need to actively, and if necessary, daily, turn away from those wrong ways of thinking, speaking or acting and seek to place obedience to God’s Word ahead of any reliance on religiously observing traditions.
The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, (c.550 – 478 BC) recognised the importance of being right in our hearts. He said, ‘To put the world in order we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must set our hearts right.’
 F. Dean Lueking, pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, Illinois