Sermon for Trinity 4 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 July 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 4 E&B (Mark 7.1-23)
‘Tradition’, said G.K. Chesterton, ‘means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead’.
Of course it very much depends what you mean by Tradition.
We’ve just heard Jesus accused of flouting a certain sort of tradition. Religious officials from Jerusalem and local Pharisees want to know why Jesus permits his disciples to disregard the unwritten tradition of the elders, their evidence being that the disciples do not ceremonially wash their hands before they eat. Strict laws about ceremonial washing were only mandated for the temple priests, but the Pharisees, seeking greater purity and holiness, wanted to extend ritual purity to all Jews, though contrary to what Mark asserts in our second lesson, we know that most Jews didn’t observe these rules. It looks as thought Mark may have misunderstood this encounter. This was more likely to have been a thoughtful conversation with this deeply religious group (to which of course St Paul belonged), who assume that Jesus is a natural ally, seeking a stricter reform of Judaism. To their confusion, he isn’t playing by their rules.
Ritual purity was an essential dimension of their effort to claim Jewish identity in a world that affirmed polytheism. That’s why Paul has to address the question about whether Christians may eat meat sacrificed to idols (though that was the usual form of butchering in the Hellenistic world). A stipulation of the oral law (“the tradition of the elders”) was not a triviality but a demonstration of how seriously the law of God was to be taken. Since Jesus is obviously an authentic religious teacher, it is reasonable to ask why his disciples don’t take seriously the tradition of the elders, which is understood as a “fence” around the law to protect it? He is a religious Jew. Why do they avoid this entirely proper Jewish concern for holiness?
Jesus’ first response to the Pharisees’ query is an attack on the notion that the law of God even needs to be protected by the tradition of the elders. Citing Isaiah [29:13], Jesus charges the Pharisees with using tradition to avoid the commandment of God. The elevation of the oral law (or the tradition of the elders) to a place of parity alongside the Torah ultimately undercuts the Torah. Gleeful protestant commentators would later seize on this to denigrate Tradition and lionise scripture.
But Jesus’ second response is more striking. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15). The whole notion of ritual purity or of holiness based on food laws is undermined in one precise statement. This is an argument of a different order.
We must not misconstrue Jesus’ words here. He does not say that religion is a matter of inward piety rather than external behaviour, that one’s private spirituality is to be valued more highly than one’s physical life in the world, or one’s performance of religious duties. Rather, Jesus warns that sin arises from within and leads to destructive deeds (vs. 21–22). A lack of holiness is signalled not by breaches in the cultic code, but in evil acts that spring from evil intentions. Jesus’ words certainly are aimed at the very structure of religion, how holiness and sin are defined, and how the word of God regulates the life of the people of God.
In contrast, the stories which follow this encounter, of Jesus healing for the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman and restoring hearing and speech for a man of the Decapolis, enact the gracious generosity of God. Neither of these people knows about ritual purity or the tradition of the elders; both seek, and received from Jesus, the divine grace that makes one whole. Grace, the free-giftedness of the gospel, is the distinctive Christian contribution to our tradition. This is where Jesus is not simply patching up the old in order to make it more serviceable. Here he inaugurates something entirely new.
For us, who hold dear many traditions, small and large, it is good to remember two things. First, that the classic protestant opposition of Tradition to Scripture is false. The church and the Eucharist predate, are logically prior to, Scripture in the form we receive it. Scripture is an essential part of the Tradition and a primary witness to it. It must not be devalued. It cannot be ignored or explained away. But what we receive as Scripture comes to us from the Church and exists in the service of the Church.
Second, the sacraments (including holy orders) are therefore primary things, of equal weight to Scripture. They are not traditions we may set against scripture or reckon of lesser value than it. They are essentials of the faith.
But many other things we believe and do, like the precise form of Mass or other worship, our relationships with other Christians, our devotional practices, even, in some respects, our understanding of the Church as an organisation, are honourable traditions, but of lesser weight: they are ultimately more style than substance.
The good news from this evening’s lesson is that, in the pursuit of holiness, Jesus offers to set us free by the invitation to faith and the operation of Grace: he refuses to allow us to be kept away by any fencing God off behind inessentials of style, what St Paul, writing to Timothy calls ‘disputes about words’.
We need, as always, to consult the trajectory of the Gospel narrative: Love, sacrifice and new life. This will point us to organising principles for Christian life, such as invitation, generosity, the concern for others’ flourishing, forgiveness, and JOY. If we joyfully say our prayers, join in Eucharistic worship and seek to examine and measure our behaviour against the Gospel, we will find a welcome from our heavenly Father. But more than that, Jesus tells us that even if we fail in these respects the welcome is still there if we just turn back and ask.
This is about valuing substance over style. As the great Scottish Arts and Crafts architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh wrote:
‘There is hope in honest error; none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist’.