Jesus and Tradition (Mark 7:1-13)

What is your functional authority in your life? What do you give final say to when making decisions? I’m not referring to what you believe your authority is or what you think the authority should be. I’m referring to day-in day-out, what is it that makes you say: this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is desirable? 

It could be friends, spouse, vacation—whatever holds the most weight in swaying your decisions. In our text today we will see Jesus interact with the scribes and Pharisees and reveal that their functional authority resides not in God’s Word, but rather in the traditions of men.

1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

7 in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, Honor your father and your mother’; and, Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” – Mark 7:1-13

After a period of seeming absence from Jesus’ narrative, the Pharisees and the scribes reenter our story. In particular, we have not seen the “scribes who came down from Jerusalem,” since Mark 3:22, where they proceeded to accuse Jesus of being possessed by demons. So, they obviously are not big fans of Jesus and His ministry. However, here we stumble upon what seems like relatively mundane, domestic issue. Some of Jesus’ disciples are not washing their hands before eating. We read, “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed,” Mark 7:1-2.


This, however, has nothing to do with hygiene and has everything to do with ritual purity. They were not washing their hands to remove dirt or germs, but to symbolically cleanse themselves from anything that was ritually unclean that they may have come into contact with. The issue of clean/unclean has been a reoccurring theme in Mark thus far with Jesus’ regularly coming into contact with individuals who were ceremonially unclean (Mark 1:40-45; 5:25-34; 5:41-42) and his labelling of demons as “unclean spirits” (Mark 1:23; 5:1-13; 6:7). One of the reasons why Jesus is seen as being such a scandalous figure in the religious authorities’ eyes is due to his regular association and contact with those who are unclean. As we continue to read Mark 7 we are going to see Jesus bring about a radical shift on the understanding of clean and unclean. But it would be wise for us to understand where this idea comes from.

In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, Moses is given detailed instructions about what makes one clean or unclean. To be “unclean” was to come into contact with something that represented the realm of death—blood, disease, corpses, bodily discharges, etc. God is holy, which in the Old Testament, is contradictory to anything that is unclean or common. God’s holiness includes his ethical perfection, His righteousness, but it also includes His purity, His total separation from anything that represents death or impurity. If you remember, “death” and all its attendant counterparts of disease and decay, is solely the by-product of sin (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23), which is in essence rebellion against God. God’s holiness cannot allow what is unclean to come into His presence.

A major part of the covenant that God makes with Moses after the Exodus is a lengthy detailed account of how Israel can remain clean and holy so Yahweh may dwell with them. Leviticus 19:2 summarizes it well, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So all of Israel was bound to abide by these purity laws, otherwise they ran the danger of coming into the presence of God as one unclean, which would have killed them, or having God no longer dwell in their presence. By the times of Jesus, it had become a common tradition for very religiously devout Jews to undertake a handwashing process similar to what priests in the tabernacle and temple were required to do, “When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die,” Exodus 30:20-21. Though this command was exclusively for priests and had nothing to do with eating food, in time Jewish tradition morphed this command into a requirement for all Jews to undertake before eating. Mark explains, “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.,” Mark 7:3-5 (NIV)


Notice that Mark tells us that they observe “many other traditions.” By the time of Jesus there was a large body of oral traditions that were handed down from generation to generation that people believed were first given by Moses and then added to by rabbis offering their own interpretations (what is today known as the Mishnahfound in the Talmud). The apostle Paul tells us prior to his conversion he was, “extremely zealous…for the traditions of my fathers,” Gal 1:14. These “traditions” were usually expansions on the laws we find in the Old Testament and how to apply them in varied situations. The Pharisees and scribes scrupulously followed these traditions and are shocked that Jesus’ disciples aren’t following along. The ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Mark 7:5

Now, our typical response when we read the gospels is to view the scribes and Pharisees as kind of ridiculous examples of self-righteous rule followers. While Jesus does expose their hypocrisy and hollowed out religion, we should be slow to rush to a cartoonish depiction of them. If we were living in Jesus’ day we would have all likely looked up to Pharisees—they were exceedingly devout men who take adherence to the Law very seriously. When one reads the Old Testament, you are struck by how much of it is a story of failure. There are certainly high points (Abraham, Moses, David), but the overall story is ultimately a downward spiral. God saves His people, but they consistently and constantly rebel against Him, break the covenant, and worship other gods. The entire section of the Old Testament that we call the “Prophets” is dedicated to repeatedly warning the nation of the danger of ignoring God’s Law. God, however, repeatedly promises that if Israel will just follow the Law and worship Yahweh alone, then He will bless them and establish them. This is what the Pharisees mission is—they want to correct the failure of their fathers by meticulously and scrupulously following the Law.

Jesus’ response is surprising: “And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘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.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men,” Mark 7:6-8

Now, just to avoid any confusion, we believe that traditions are a blessing. In the classic musical, Fiddler on the Roof, we see a modern critique of tradition. The story revolves around a Jewish family who slowly sees their traditions stripped away from them by the daughters of the family rejecting the traditional hierarchy of listening to their father’s advice in who they marry. Tevye, the father, opens the musical with the song Tradition.At one point, he mentions the prayer shawl he wears and says: “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? Well, I will tell you…I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” While this is trying to show some of the silliness of traditions, the conclusion that Tevye reaches I think is actually very important: traditions help us understand who we are and what God wants from us. Traditions are a part of God’s common grace for societies. Their danger comes from when these traditions contradict or ignore Scripture.

Even though the Pharisees have a seemingly righteous motive they are ignoring Scripture and contradicting Scripture. Jesus says the Pharisees “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” They are abandoning what God has said in His Word and are looking to these traditions about hand washing as being more important. 

But then, Jesus tells us, they actually contradict Scripture: “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 Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Jesus cites Isaiah 29:13 to describe the Pharisees. Isaiah 29 is describing a faithless Israel who will still go to Yahweh’s temple to offer lip-service, but then go off and proceed to worship other gods. Surely, the Pharisees would have been the last people you would have associated the people Isaiah is describing. They didn’t take their faith seriously enough, the Pharisees take their faith very seriously! But, this is critical, you can look like you are very devout, even like you are serving God, but have hearts that are far from the Lord. This means that the people that Isaiah is describing, people who pay lip service to Yahweh but then go and worship pagan gods, actually match the description of the Pharisees, people who believe they are zealously pursuing pure worship of Yahweh. 

But, Paul similarly warns us of those who believe they are zealous for the Lord but have missed the boat entirely, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” Rom 10:1-4.

What “traditions” are a part of your life? 

Church traditions: the classic example of tradition in the church would be the Roman Catholic church. The Roman Catholic church officially holds to two sources of authority: the church’s tradition and Scripture. Further, the church’s magisterium provides authoritative and binding interpretation of Scripture, so if at any point one wants to correct the church’s tradition by Scripture, the church can overrule you by saying, That isn’t what that Scripture means. Just as the Jews believed there was a body of oral teachings that Moses gave that was handed down and was eventually codified in the Talmud, so too does the Catholic church teach that there was a body of oral teaching given by Jesus to His apostles that was never written down, but simply passed down from generation to generation in the Church. 

In the 16th century, when a German monk named Martin Luther began to criticize the church’s teachings and practices on indulgences, justification, its priesthood and other abuses and teachings in the church that clearly ignored or flat out contradicted what the Bible taught, he was eventually summoned to the Diet of Worms where he was asked to recant his views. He responds famously,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” That is our inheritance as Protestants, sola scriptura—Scripture alone is our authority. We can appreciate and learn from church traditions—you would be a total fool to ignore the historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms of church history. We are not the first Christians who have ever read our Bibles; there are many giants of old who have produced excellent expositions of Scripture that have stood the test of time as invaluable guides. Nevertheless, there is nothing outside of Scripture which has the authority to silence or contradict. Jesus here is clearly laying out the authority God’s Word has to rule over the traditions of men.

Now, of course, we are not Roman Catholic, but friends this does not mean that our church is not prone to fall into this same error. We should be reminded that the Pharisees did not one day say, “Let’s contradict the Hebrew Bible!” Rather, the way barnacles can slowly form on the hull of a ship that is left at dock for a hundred years, slowly pulled under by the growing weight, so too do the gradual accumulation of traditions that are not under the scrutiny of Scripture gradually ignore, sideline, silence, and then eventually contradict Scripture. Traditions, remember, are not a bad thing! We are just always to be careful never to get the cart before the horse—we keep our traditions under the watchful and authoritative eye of God’s Word. 

So, in our church it is our tradition to end each service with singing the doxology, we take the Lord’s Supper every week, we have a certain liturgy each service, our services are in English, I wear a tie (sometimes)—none of these things are necessarily commanded in Scripture. They do not silence or contradict Scripture. In fact, we think for the most part these elements actually help us worship together more effectively. But, we are not claiming that these traditions have the kind of authority that God’s Word has. And we certainly wouldn’t look at other churches that practice differently and think: You aren’t obeying God because you don’t sing the doxology at the end of your service! No, like Luther, we want our consciences to be captive to the Word of God—not our tradition.

So, before we criticize someone else in our church or some other church for doing something that seems to run roughshod over our traditions, let’s ask ourselves: is this something that Bible actually teaches, or is this just my personal or church’s preference?

Cultural traditions: 

Cultural traditions are a wonderful gift. I love many of our cultural traditions—blowing up fireworks on the 4th of July, getting popcorn and candy when going to the theatres, the excitement and camaraderie you feel with other fans when you attend a sporting event together, decorating your house with Christmas lights in December. But, there is also a great danger in cultural traditions—perhaps even greater than our church traditions. Cultural traditions can have far more functional authority in our life than we realize and influence what church’s teach.

You don’t have to look very long in a history book to see abuses from cultural traditions—particularly traditions that are centered on viewing another group or class of people as sub-human. Whether you are looking at the caste system in India, or the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, or the Apartheid of South Africa. In many places, it is the cultural norm, tradition, to treat people who are different from yourselves with hostility, fear, and degradation. 

Flannery O’Connor, the great novelist from the 20th century, wrote a short story called Revelation describing the way racism, arrogance, self-righteousness can all be hidden under a veil of Christianity. The story is basically O’Connor taking the story of the Pharisee and tax-collector from Luke 18 and turning it into an expanded short story, set in the South in the 1940’s. It follows a Mrs. Turpin, a middle aged white woman who owns a pig farm in Georgia, as she goes to a doctor’s appointment with her husband Claud. As she is sitting in the waiting room, we hear what she is actually thinking and then hear her subtle, thinly veiled criticisms of everyone else in the waiting room. But as she is sitting there, all the while constantly thanking God that she is a devout Christian and isn’t like the poor colored people who works on her pig farm or isn’t like that white trash family sitting in the room (who she thinks to be more repulsive than colored people). But there is also a college-aged girl in the room named Mary Grace reading a book, but keeps staring angrily at Mrs. Turpin. With every subtle racist comment, every self-serving comment, every condescending look Mrs. Turpin gives, the girl is getting angrier and angrier, till her knuckles clenching the book are white and her face is purple. 

Eventually, Mrs. Turpin thinks to herself, Girl…I haven’t done a thing to you! The girl might be confusing me with somebody else. There was no need to sit by and let herself be intimidated. “You must be in college,” she said boldly, looking directly at the girl, “I see you reading a book there.”

The girl continued to stare and pointedly did not answer. 

Her mother blushed at this rudeness. “The lady asked you a question, Mary Grace,” she said under her breath.

“I have ears,” Mary Grace said.

Mrs. Turpin, so thrown off by the sudden and strange anger of this strange girl, begins to talk condescendingly to her mother about the importance of a cheerful attitude and good disposition. Eventually, Mrs. Turpin says with feeling, “If its one thing I am…its grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’…At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud.

The book struck her directly over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girls fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck.

People eventually pull Mary Grace off of Mrs. Turpin and sedate her, but before she becomes unconscious, Mary Grace locks eyes with Mrs. Turpin and yells, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

You might be thinking, what on earth is that story about? Remember, the girl’s name is Grace. O’Connor was taking the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector and setting it in a contemporary setting. The Pharisee loudly thanks God that he is so righteous and not like other people, certainly not like that tax-collector over there. What had happened? He had let his cultural traditions of defining “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad” have more authority in his life than God’s Word. Had the Bible held most authority, he (and Mrs. Turpin) would have responded like the tax-collector before God: “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Our cultural traditions that lead to dividing us into tribes and groups have an insidious power to make us self-righteous, self-justifying—to lead us to forget that we are sinners like everyone else and our ONLY hope is in Jesus, like everyone else. How do we know that we are “good”? We aren’t like them. We vote for the progressive candidate, we vote for the conservative candidate. We aren’t like those backwards fundamentalists over there, or we aren’t like those crazy liberals over there. We know we are justified before God because our skin is a certain color, because we have a certain view of how our economy should work, because we stand up for the rights of the victims and downtrodden or because we champion the importance of a work ethic and not exploiting the system. 

Mrs. Turpin’s revelation: 

“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” 

“Why me?” she rumbled. “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” 

“How am I a hog? she demanded. “Exactly how am I like them?” and she jabbed the stream of water at the shoats. “There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. 

“If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she railed. “You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted, why didn’t you make me trash?” 

“Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!” 

A garbled echo returned to her. 

A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?” 

At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls

were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.


What did Mrs. Turpin learn? She learned what Jesus taught the Pharisees, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you,” Matt 21:31.

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