How often do our traditions get in the way of the things God has commanded us to do? Jesus uses a specific example in Scripture to address those who place a higher priority on tradition than on caring for others. Just to set the verse up a bit, at this time in history, parents would have relied on their children to take care of them physically and monetarily in their old age. In this passage, Jesus was combatting those who would excuse themselves from taking care of their parents by saying they were giving that money to God.
He said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is [given to God]” then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do. (Mark 7:9-13)
How often do we give to a church and pretend like that exonerates us from caring for the people we see around us who are in need? Jesus commands us to give to the poor and to take care of the helpless, but he does not command us to tithe (he does talk about ‘offering,’ which carries a very different connotation). However, we’ve often made church giving a tradition observed in order to alleviate guilt. A few lines earlier in the same passage, Jesus quotes Isaiah and says,
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Mark 7:6-7)
Jesus was essentially saying “It sounds good and makes you look good to say you’re giving that money to God or the church, but giving at the expense of obeying my command to care for others makes your giving worthless.”
I’m not against giving to a church that is involved in the community; I know many churches who do good things with the money they receive. So, let’s get away from the example of money for a moment (an issue we tend to get hung up on too much).
How often do we spend all of our time serving at a building, rather than serving in our community? It looks religious and sounds like serving to say you cleaned a church building, but Jesus commanded us to serve others. Far too often we have large groups serving the needs of a structure, while ignoring the needs of the people one block away.
How often do we conjure up some false excuse of “holiness” or “purity” as a reason for not associating with certain individuals? Sure, it sounds religious. It may draw the admiration of others, but it’s a worthless barrier that is erected as a wall to prevent yourself from actually following God through loving others.
The entire exchange in the verses above came right on the heels of Jesus and his disciples spending time among the sick, then being criticized by the religious leaders who wanted to have a nice meal and didn’t like that his disciples weren’t properly washed. I can imagine the anger Jesus felt at these church leaders who were surrounded by those in need, but mainly concerned that his disciples follow hand washing rituals. Reading my own suspicions into the text a little: I imagine they didn’t like that Jesus’ followers were touching the food after touching people the Pharisees saw as “dirty.” If it weren’t so disturbing, it would almost be comical as a movie scene.
Traditions and teachings can be a great way of amplifying our worship and focusing our hearts and minds on God, but let’s make sure that the practice of these things does not become our end goal.
Let’s make sure our goal is to love and serve others, which is how we ultimately serve God.