You probably know there are jokes about different Christian communions — Baptist jokes, Catholic jokes, and yes even Lutheran jokes. More often than not, they’re told by members of that church body to other members. Lutherans are known for being traditional in its ways of doing things. So, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is, “Change? We can’t change my grandfather donated that lightbulb when the church was dedicated.”
While most of these jokes are a harmless reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. There is an underlying reality that often isn’t funny, our attitudes toward change. Our jokes about religious traditions point humorously, to the danger of taking traditions to extremes and how those extremes can be unhealthy. I share this with a church I was working with, “It’s not a good idea to sit in the dark because you can’t bear to get rid of your tradition-hallowed, but burned-out, lightbulb.”
The Background of the Text
In Mark chapter seven Jesus tackles two important questions about the Gentiles. “Does interaction with Gentiles defile the Jews?” (Mark 7:1–13) And a question you can insert for any group not a part of our tribe “are the Gentiles less Important than the Jews?” (Mark 7:24–37).
For the point of brevity, we will limit the discussion to Mark 7:1-13.
Jesus was being taken to the woodshed (as they say down south) for violating the Sabbath traditions earlier in Mark 2:15–28; 3:22–30). He had received an official visit from the scribes and Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious ruling council. Because of His early infractions, he was being closely watched to see what others lines He might cross. In Mark seven it violated their tradition of the ceremonial washing of hands. I mentioned earlier that some traditions are dangerous and hurtful. This hand washing falls into that category. This ritual had nothing to do with hygiene; it was purely ceremonial to get rid of whatever defilement the Jews accidentally picked up from the Gentiles or Samaritans.
Nothing Against Tradition.
Let me be clear, I have nothing against traditions per se. Heck, I have some of our family and would hate to see those broken. Traditions go off the deep end when it has more authority than the Word of God. When we get to that point those firmly held ceremonies are wrong. Colossians 2:6-8 warns us against man-made traditions. 6 So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. 7 Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. 8 See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ.
The formula that leads us astray is laid out by our Lord and Savior in Scripture. If you fear that your traditions, ceremonies, your practices have strayed from what God requires or desires below are keys indicators from Jesus’ interaction in Mark seven.
8 “You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.” Mark 7:8
9 Jesus continued, “Clearly, you are experts at rejecting God’s commandment in order to establish these rules.”
13 “In this way you do away with God’s word in favor of the rules handed down to you, which you pass on to others. And you do a lot of other things just like that.”
Things had gotten so far out of control, so far from what God intended that the man-made traditions, not God’s truth, control the lives of God’s people. The Pharisees could rob their own parents of help by hiding behind their traditions!
Jesus exposes the Jews’ hypocrisy; He also exposed their hearts. “14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.” The Jews were not made unclean by coming in contact with Gentiles, what defiled them came from within. Like us, what defiles us are our own sinful hearts. As King David points out after his issues with infidelity in Psalm 51, no amount of washing on the outside can remove defilement on the inside. “Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!”
When the church or our religious traditions place a heavy emphasis on following rules we open ourselves up for the danger of robbing God’s Word of its power…the power to set us free by the work Jesus has already done for us. We make faith about US not about HIM! Jesus wanted to focus the hearts of the people back to the cross, back the what He had done to set them free form the expectations of the Law, back to grace.
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