Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Traditions of the Elders 2

... continued from Sunday.
... But before we go any further, we should probably be a little more precise about exactly what "rules" we are talking about. It is common to call some of the rules Jesus didn't pay much attention to as the "traditions of the elders." For example, the Pharisees ask Jesus in Mark 7:5 why his followers ignore traditions about how they wash their hands. Jesus’ reaction is fairly typical. He points out that their priorities are out of whack. They pay a lot of attention to their own traditions and yet miss the blatant values of Scripture.

As an example, Jesus points out how some individuals use traditions about dedicating things to God in order to get out of taking care of their parents.  They simply say, "all the resources I would have used to take care of my parents belong to the Lord," and then they can't take care of their parents (7:11-13). "Sorry, Dad and Mom. I gave away all your food and clothes to God."

This sort of legal maneuvering in the service of injustice is exactly the kind of thing that really angers us today. A person may know how to use the technicalities of the rules to get out of doing the heart of why the rules are there in the first place. Some institutions get bogged down with bureaucratic nonsense and process, and never actually accomplish anything. We hate it in government, when it seems like nothing ever gets done or when a criminal gets off on some technicality.

It is easy to place the blame on the fact that these Pharisees were following human traditions rather than the Bible itself. That is indeed an element of the passage. They are following "merely human rules." What is harder is to see how often we do exactly the same thing.

For example, once when I was a boy and visiting a worship center, I was told that I could not swing on the playground because it was Sunday. The logic went something like this. We are to "remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy" (Exod. 20:8). According to Exodus 20:9-11 and other places in the Old Testament (e.g., Neh. 13:15-21), what this means is not to do work on Saturday.

 But in the interpretation of this person, Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath, so a Christian shouldn't work on Sunday. Further, what is the work of a child?  Is not playing on a playground the work of a child? Therefore, children should not play on a playground on Sunday.

Now it didn't harm me to have to leave the playground. But it is helpful to realize that it was exactly this sort of logic that led the Pharisees to insist people wash their hands before eating. It had nothing to do with hygiene. It had to do with the purity rules of Leviticus. They were trying to make sure that you didn't inadvertently make yourself unclean because of accidentally touching something unclean. They were being extra-holy.

Some Protestant traditions have built this warning into their core statements. The Methodist tradition drew from the Anglican tradition a statement that the Scriptures "contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man or woman that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." [1] It reminds us immediately of Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees in Mark 7.

The problem is that the Scriptures inevitably have to be interpreted and, even once we interpret them, we constantly have to apply them to new kinds of situations...

[1] Taken from the Discipline of the Wesleyan Church (2008). However, the Wesleyan is simply drawing from Wesley and the Methodist tradition, and Wesley took the statement from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church?


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Your footnote;
"1] Taken from the Discipline of the Wesleyan Church (2008). However, the Wesleyan is simply drawing from Wesley and the Methodist tradition, and Wesley took the statement from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church?"

illustrates that Wesleyans, just as any denomination, are not following the Bible so much as an interpretation of the Bible. Traditions form around humans that have had some impact on societal change. These "heroes" breed a "following", which births a "tradition".

Traditions are conservative, because traditions seek to preserve something that is felt to be valuable. But, one must question why these things are being protected in the first place...are the things being protected in need of defending, and why? or does something need changing? or viewed differently?

Nathaniel said...

But Jesus nowhere condemns the hand-washing. I read this passage as a condemnation of the use of rigorism to usurp spiritual authority, and in the process teach false teaching. Certainly there are many "traditions of men" which Christ does not abhor. What he abhors is the use of these traditions in order to claim some moral high-ground from which to impart heresy to unsuspecting disciples.

Also, I read one commentary which suggested that the hand-washing custom was a Judean-only custom, one with which the Galileans were not familiar. Have you encountered anything similar?