Traditions can be meaningful and deep and significant, unifying us with a beloved history, a family tree, or the soil of a community whose roots have grown strong for generations. But traditions can also grow teeth. Traditions that grow teeth don’t just smile at you, they bite. I’m sure you celebrate certain traditions that you hold dear. But have you ever been bitten by a tradition? Have your traditions ever sunk their teeth into another person?
The text of my message this morning is Mark 7:1-23. It’s another scene in Mark’s gospel that has a courtroom feel to it. It begins with an envoy of religious leaders who have come from Jerusalem to test the orthodoxy of the new Rabbi (Jesus) with a rock star following. One thing these guys had a handle on were their traditions. What they didn’t realize is that these traditions had grown teeth over many generations, to the point where they devoured all those in their path. The orthodoxy of Jesus, which they judge as lax at best and profane at worst, is put on trial when a keen-eyed scribe picks up on the fact that some of his followers don’t ceremonially wash their hands before eating. Apparently, in this culture both your Mama and your pastor made sure you washed up before supper.
Jesus wasn’t having it.
The line of questioning that was perhaps meant to put Jesus on the defensive, instead inaugurates his power running game. Jesus picks up the penalty flag and throws it right back into the face of the guys sporting the long beards and striped shirts.
Mark 7:6-13 [main points]
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…thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”
Jesus’ point: “You’re missing the point!”
In an effort to explain, teach, and apply the Torah (OT Law), they took that which was supposed to draw men close to God and used it as a battering ram to drive people away.
At least that never happens in churches today.
Does it break your heart or turn your stomach when you see traditions grow teeth to the point where they drive people who need Jesus away from the church? How many millions of people are walking around sporting their own brand of Jesus, disconnected from his body, because of traditions that have grown teeth? How many simply dismiss Jesus all together because of those who claim to represent him?
In the church leadership world we have a term for these millions of people who sport scars shaped like the teeth of certain traditions. We call them the “dechurched.” They’re not “unchurched,” as if they have never been associated with a church; they are the rank and file of those who have been driven away. They are the sons and daughters of church leaders, the brothers and sisters of churchgoers, who can still quote the bible verses from Sunday school and who know precisely what it feels like when traditions grow teeth.
How can you know if your traditions have grown teeth?
Here are a few indicators:
- If you spend more time, energy, thought, words, and focus on the boundaries of your religion than on the Center, then your traditions have grown teeth.
- When your emphasis becomes a certain aspect of experiential worship rather than the object of worship, then your traditions have grown teeth.
- When you find yourself losing track of the plank in your own eye because you are constantly squinting to find the specks in others, then your traditions have grown teeth.
- When you fail to discover someone’s heart, because you can’t look past the stereotype their outward appearance leads you to, then your traditions have grown teeth.
- When you forget or fail to realize that outside the grace of God you would be dead in sin, then your traditions have grown teeth.
- Or, like the Pharisees and scribes examined above, when you sit in the seat of judgment nitpicking everyone else’s spirituality and assuming the vitality of your own, then your traditions have grown teeth.
Lord, give us the grace to walk in faithfulness, compassion to heal the wounded, and the wisdom that is from above; which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.