The Traditions of the Elders

Week of Sunday August 30 - Pentecost 14
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and 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.) 5So 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?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
7 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But 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)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ 

We all 'do church' "according to the traditions of the elders."  Church is a language that we speak; "A religion is like a language that one must have begun to learn before being able to grasp what is being said in it." Andrew Dutney.  Language "lets us in" to experience.

We can't not do church "according to the traditions of the elders." Not only would it be like making up our own Esperanto as we went along, but even a constructed language like Esperanto has roots in other languages; it has necessarily constructed a tradition from other traditions.

The traditions of the elders are the pathways and signposts which allow us to hear and interpret the experience of the God of Israel, and which allow us to speak about those experiences with each other today. In this sense, the traditions of the elders enable us to understand or interpret an experience as holy or sacred.

The best traditions of our elders safe guard us from defilement. Defilement is not fundamentally about cleanliness. Our 21st century understanding of the term unclean, is hugely influenced— and gifted— by our discovery of bacteria in health and hygiene.  But to understand defilement (and / or purity) in terms of cleanliness, is a secondary understanding of defilement.

Defilement is first of all about boundaries and, finally, about separation from God and the sacred. Boundaries are the things— habits, ideas and, last of all physical barriers— which we use to define our identity, and which we use to keep safe; that is, which we use to maintain our identity. That maintenance covers the whole range of physical survival through to cultural survival.  Understand what I am saying here: carrying a shield or a weapon to protect myself is primarily a method of maintaining my identity rather than ensuring my physical safety. Perhaps an animal instinctively seeks to remain biologically alive, but I— and even my dog, I suspect— have evolved deeper concerns than mere biological survival. We understand ourselves in relation to other people. We have an identity. The fact that we humans so often get sick when we lose our identity or sense of self, might well suggest that identity is almost more important to us than mere biological function.

So our survival as a church, the survival of the tradition of the elders, is determined by some kind of boundary, some kind of definable identity: What is it that makes us a church? What makes us the church in this place? How does that relate to being Australian, or English— is there an overlap, or are church and nationality mutually exclusive of each other? These are live questions: witness the Reclaim Australia campaign, or the use of the illegal exclusion of refuges from Australia to  gain electoral advantage. We use boundaries in an attempt to strengthen our selves and our sense of who we are.

We can read Mark's gospel in this light. It claims to be "the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." (Mark 1:1) And after being introduced, Jesus comes on to the stage and clarifies his role by saying: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." (Mark 1:15) What defines this "kingdom of God?" Where are the boundaries of this kingdom? To which tradition of which elders will we listen? To whom will we disciple ourselves?

Mark 7 is the boundary equivalent of Matthew 9:13: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6.)

Why, I wondered, are mercy and sacrifice antagonistic in Matthew 9? Why is there a tension between mercy and sacrifice? Of course, this tension might only be apparent and situational, two virtues that just happened to come into conflict in this particular circumstance. But the more I pondered the biblical witness and the behavior of churches, the more convinced I became that the tensions and conflict were not accidental or situational. I concluded that there was something intrinsic to the relationship between mercy and sacrifice that inexorably and reliably brought them into conflict. Mercy and sacrifice, I suspected, were mirror images, two impulses pulling in different directions….

These are the opening words of Richard Beck's book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. (Cascade Books 1011). Beck begins with a discussion of disgust, our response to what we regard as in some way impure or defiling. He references a psych experiment where people find it repulsive to drink their own spit out of a cup.

In short, disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust marks objects as exterior and alien. The second the saliva leaves the body and crosses the boundary of selfhood it is foul, it is “exterior,” it is Other. And this, I realized, is the same psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. Specifically, how are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. And it’s very hard, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see this, to both erect a boundary and dismantle that boundary at the very same time. One has to choose. And as Jesus and the Pharisees make different choices in Matthew 9 there seems little by way of compromise. They stand on opposite sides of a psychological (clean versus unclean), social (inclusion versus exclusion), and theological (saints versus sinners) boundary.

Although Matthew and Mark are speaking of similar dynamics, there is a difference between them.

Neither Matthew nor Luke was particularly happy with what Mark wrote. Matthew revises it thoroughly to reduce it to just a dispute about Jewish scruples and not about scripture. Luke leaves it out altogether. It was not that they were being capricious. For they know of other teachings of Jesus which indicates (sic) that Jesus steadfastly rejected the suggestion that his teaching went against biblical law. Not a jot or stroke is to be called into question (Matt 5:17-18; Luke 16:17). (Bill Loader)

Our modern sensibilities understand scripture is itself a tradition of the elders. It is not "descended whole," or somehow independent of our boundary making. We have defined our scriptures, and excluded other writings from the canon which we use along with other traditions to identify ourselves.

Mark is much more critical of the traditions of the elders about scripture than either Matthew or Luke. Mark's text says: Thus he declared all foods clean, which crashes against the food laws of Leviticus 11, for example.(Mark 7:19)

We can see that Mark's teaching of defilement is about boundaries and inclusion, and about relationship with, and access to God.  Immediately after this week's reading, Jesus meets with a woman who is from outside the boundaries of Israel, and heals her daughter, then heals a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis which was predominately gentile territory, and then, in chapter 8, repeats the Feeding of the 5,000 with a distinctively Gentile flavour

What separates us from God? And what brings us closer to God… or, more importantly, lets us be a part of the bringing of the Kingdom of Heaven close to hand. We will be told, after all, that we are to take up our cross and be like Jesus and follow him if we wish to be disciples! (Mark 8:34)

The traditions of the elders with which Jesus took issue were ritual behaviours around washing, and concerning food. He does not remove ritual behaviour from the table! Instead, he changes the rituals. The rituals that are to define us are to be gathered around the nature of the human heart; that is our mercy, or the lack of it.

21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ (Mark 7)

Each of the things listed are un-merciful. That is they place the doer at the centre of reality— as the only important person— and show no compassion (mercy) or fellow-feeling for anyone else. In fact, they steal identity from others! Theft is obvious: I diminish you if I steal from you. But fornication is a kind of theft too. It intrudes into your identity, using you, or diminishing your relationships and therefore, yourself, for my sake.

All of these things are therefore evil, as Jesus says. It is they which separate us from God, and which question our belonging amongst Jesus' people. And it is quite clear that we can do these things whilst "faithfully" maintain the rituals of washing hands, or attending church, or repeating a creed, or excluding those we define as sinners. These things are sacrifice rather than mercy.

Mark does use the measure of mercy, although not until after chapter 7.

32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12)

In chapter 12, where the scribe speaks of the love of God and neighbour, is words can be summarised with simply one word: mercy. And "his is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices."

So the question for us is this: By which traditions of the elders will we define ourselves? Will we be obsessive in our rituals of mercy, or will we define ourselves by our rituals of exclusion?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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