Breaking with Tradition Matthew 15:1-20 August 19, 2012
I’d like to start this morning by taking a brief poll.
You don’t have to participate, but it would help me out if you’re willing to share a little bit of personal information by simply raising your hand, and keeping it up until we’re done…(it won’t be long).
How many of you, before coming to church this morning…consumed the news…either by reading a physical newspaper or watching TV, or using an internet news site?
How many of you ate breakfast? (keep your hands up)
How many of you have had a cup of coffee or tea so far this morning?
Fed the dog or cat or other type of animal?
(here’s the controversial one)
How many of you took a shower before you came to church this morning?
Thank you for participating!
Most of us have these little rituals that we do as part of our morning routines.
I’ve heard of some people who just have to have a Starbucks coffee to get going, or I know some other people who might take walks or go running as part of our routine…some of us might read some scripture or a devotional in the mornings before we get going for the day…some of us might even hit up Wal-Mart or Rhodes for a sugar fix before church.
I’ve even heard rumors that there’s one group that hits up Jitters instead of coming to Sunday School as part of their routine!
Whatever the routine is that you have…it helps you ‘get ready’ for the day, right?
We all have these little rituals that we perform that help us put the day in perspective.
In other words, having a cup of coffee in the morning is more than just a shot of caffeine.
For many of us, it’s a whole experience that kind of ‘grounds’ us in reality (no pun intended).
Have you ever heard someone say something like “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee”? I can almost guarantee that it’s not just the caffeine that they’re needing.
There’s more to it.
See, Reality is a very fragile thing.
And over thousands of years of developing something called civilization, we’ve come up with ways to trick ourselves into thinking that it really isn’t all that fragile.
We prefer to believe that the reality we know is predictable, stable, and enduring.
So we develop routines that help create that story.
My making coffee in the morning is actually a ritual that says ‘this coffee and everything I need to make it is here this morning, just like it was yesterday morning, and just like it will be tomorrow’.
Our routines tell the stories we want to be true.
Over time, some routines turn into traditions.
Think of the birthday traditions you grew up with, or that you observe now.
For example, the tradition of giving gifts. It’s a tradition, that tells the story that the person having the birthday is worth something. They matter, they’re life matters, and it’s worth marking the occasion by giving them a gift.
It’s an act of celebration, but it’s rooted in a tradition.
Without the tradition of gathering together and enjoying a feast, the most Thanksgiving has to offer is just a day off of work.
Without traditions, Christmas loses some of its meaning.
Our rituals and our traditions tell the stories we want to be true.
Are you with me?
The tradition of giving an engagement ring to the one you love…you’re trying to enact a story of love between two people.
The tradition of shaking hands when you meet someone…you’re hoping to enact a relationship of trust and open-handedness between you.
Many of our most cherished traditions have stood the test of time, and they’re woven tightly into the fabric of our community.
The problem is, traditions can just as easily tear a community apart rather than building it up.
And I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in the passage we’re looking at this morning.
As we heard already, Some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus and asked him “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
We don’t have to guess as to what this tradition was.
If you turn to Mark chapter 7, verses 3 and 4, you’ll find a description of this tradition that the Pharisees were concerned about.
Matthew was probably looking at Mark’s book when he was writing this, and he probably chose to omit this description because his audience was different than Mark’s. Matthew’s audience was pretty Jewish, so they were probably already familiar with the tradition that’s being questioned…the washing of hands.
We’re not Jewish, so it’s helpful to see that Mark’s description.
He basically says that the Pharisees would not eat unless they gave their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.
And he goes on to list a few other traditions they had that were similar in intent…things like washing themselves after being at the market, washing cups, pitchers and kettles.
None of that seems all that unusual, right?
In fact, these seem like healthy, sanitary practices that would be good for the general health of the community.
And yet, Jesus gets a little bit testy when his followers are questioned for not doing these things.
So what are supposed to think? Are we worshipping a slob?
Aren’t these first disciples worried about hygiene?
I’m kind of with the Pharisees on this one.
I might as well tell you, Christine and I have a tradition of our own that’s very similar…we wash our hands good after we get home from church each Sunday!
Nothing against any of you…we just don’t like being sick, so we take the precaution before we eat Sunday lunch and wash our hands good (and we encourage you to do the same!).
I’m getting off topic though.
I don’t think Jesus was a slob.
I don’t think he or his disciples had anything against washing hands.
These Pharisees and the Teachers of the law, they were pretty sure Jesus and his group were missing the mark.
See, they were students of scripture…they knew the law, they knew about God, and they had been as faithful as they could be to the traditions that had been handed down for centuries.
I think they were honestly concerned about things like how to maintain their distinctively religious identity in a pagan culture, and how to stay ‘clean’, or ceremonially pure so that they could continue to enjoy God’s blessing, and continue to perform the rites of the religious institution they were part of.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad we never think like that.
I’m sure glad we don’t deal with identity issues as the culture changes around us.
I’m glad we never have to worry about how to procure God’s blessing, or how to maintain a religious institution in a world where loyalties are divided and commitments are conflicting.
I’m glad we have the science to back up our washing of hands.
But Jesus isn’t interested in that conversation.
They want to talk about washing hands.
We might want to talk about Romney or Obama.
But just like Jesus usually does, he doesn’t take the bait!
They want to talk about hand-washing, and he replies with this whole thing about how to honor your parents your whole life long!
See, Leviticus is the book that the Pharisees were getting these traditions from.
There’s a fairly long list in Leviticus that starts around chapter 10, and stretches into the 20’s.
It’s full of ritual laws, like how to avoid defilement, and the importance of washing away defilement as soon as it occurs in order to stay true to God.
It’s a list that urges the people of God to distinguish “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Lev. 10:10).
This was important stuff. You could say it was foundational stuff in the religious life of Israel.
Jesus and his followers weren’t staying clean.
That’s just as true metaphorically as it is literally.
They were guilty. They were dirty. They were defiled, according to Leviticus.
But look at what came out of their mouths! Hope! And Healing! And Blessing!!!
It is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean.
It might make them sick…but not ‘unclean’.
It’s what comes out of their mouth…That’s what makes them ‘unclean’.
I’ve worked with some seriously foul-mouthed people.
I’m not talking about the occasional cussword here and there…I’m talking about a gut-level, soul-wrenching, downright disturbing use of language.
So I can tell you, as you probably already know…that what Jesus is naming here is almost common sense.
And the language we choose reflects the reality we live in.
And the reality we live in is even more powerful than the traditions that tell the story we hope comes true.
In other words, the Pharisees want to talk about Leviticus.
But Jesus points back to the Exodus.
He points back to the Ten Commandments…the Big Ten.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one he mentions is about honoring your father and mother.
There’s a sort of parallel passage in John chapter 8, where a fiery Jesus goes so far as to tell the Pharisees that they belong to their father the devil, and they want to carry out their father’s desires.
He doesn’t really mince words.
Let me say it like this.
There was this system in the temple where basically I could wash my hands of caring for my parents by devoting myself and my income to the temple. Then I could just say “sorry mom and dad…whatever help I could have given you as you grow older is tied up for God”.
God wants nothing to do with that kind of thing.
That’s one point that Jesus was making.
But I think there’s a point behind the point.
Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment. It’s one of the big ten, so we should probably care about it as we go about our business here on earth.
But we can also think about this in terms of our heavenly lineage.
Remember…out of all the sermons I’ve preached over the past 5 years…remember that we are first and foremost beloved children of God.
Not just us though…the guy or the girl using that gut-wrenching language…they’re children of God too.
Until we get that in our heads, in our hearts, and reflected in our lives…our witness and our faith are ineffective.
We are first and foremost beloved children of God, not rule-makers and not rule-breakers. Sometimes we’re both of those things…but never first.
It is not what goes into us that makes us clean or unclean.
It’s what comes out of our mouths…for the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.
May the word of God fill each of our hearts to overflowing.