Listen to it:
“The Teaching of God”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The line has to be drawn, and Jesus draws it firmly between the commandments of God and all the traditions of humans. This is a dispute over the law in the first part of Mark 7: What is the Law for, and how should people who want to follow God live? Jesus points the disciples of Moses back to Moses; to Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees had interpreted and interpreted and interpreted Moses until Moses got lost. They had elevated the interpreters’ traditions over the actual commandments of God through Moses. They worked hard to achieve holiness in the light of the traditions, while the true holiness commanded by Yahweh was abandoned and neglected. There’s holiness, and then there’s holiness. There is no question that Christians are called to live in a particular way. Simply read one of the Gospels, or any of St. Paul’s letters, and you would have to work pretty hard to argue that the way a Christian lives is irrelevant. We don’t have to look any further than the Epistle lessons for the past few weeks. The whole second half of the letter to the Ephesians is about what the Church of Christ, saved through faith by the free gift of God in Jesus, should look like. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, ESV). God was very specific in the Old Testament about how Israel should live after He had delivered them from Egypt’s slavery, and He is no less specific in the New Testament about how the new Israel, both Jews and Gentiles, should live after He has delivered them from sin’s slavery.
It is that divine specificity, combined with the Pharisees’ sinful human specificity, that motivates Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah. “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is very far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching commandments of men as [if they were] the Teaching [of God]” (Mark 7:6-7; cf. Isaiah 29:13). Now, this is not so much about worship in the Temple or synagogue or church, as it is about all the ways that the people of God express their devotion to Him. We might call it “piety,” or the things we do that flow from what we believe. That certainly includes things we do in the church building, such as the specific form of the liturgy we use, gestures and motions such as bowing or making the sign of the cross, the hymns we sing, etc. But it also includes everything that falls under the broad term “good works.” We believe that God commands the vocations of husband, wife, parent, child, student, supervisor, employee and everything else; how we actually live it out falls in the realm of human tradition. We believe that God has instituted governments for the good of those who abide by the law, and for punishment of those who break it; how we actually carry out our civic duty falls in the realm of human tradition. We believe that God is worthy of our worship. He redeemed us by the cross and gives us the fruit of that cross in the Word and Supper; how we actually go about our worship falls in the realm of human tradition. We should remember, though, that not all human traditions are created equal. Some traditions will better express what we believe than others.
Take today’s Epistle lesson, for example, which seems scandalous to our 21st-century ears. (This lesson, in fact, is absent from some churches’ lectionaries; I’ll give you one guess at the reason). But Ephesians 5 can serve as a good example of a divine command that gets filled out with human tradition. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord…Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…[L]et each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:22, 24-25, 28, 33, ESV). This whole section teaches that marriages should look like the relationship between Christ and the Church. Wives have to battle the effects of the curse in Genesis three and not seek their husbands’ God-given position of headship and responsibility (Genesis 3:16). Husbands have to battle the effects of the curse and deny their own desires and selfishness, to the point of giving their lives for the sake of their wives’ and families’ good. Husbands have to love like Jesus loves, even when their wives don’t submit, and wives have to submit as the Church does, even when their husbands don’t act like Jesus. What the details of this look like in any given marriage is not spelled out; nevertheless, the command remains. In marriage, as in all our human relationships, we love in the open-ended freedom that does what is best for our neighbor. But we draw the line firmly: there is the command of God to be good spouses, parents, children, bosses, workers; there is the command of God to submit to the governing authorities; there is the command of God to worship Him alone. But the details of the commandment vary according to love. There is the commandment, and there is the form that the commandment takes in love, because love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:10; Matthew 22:40). Incidentally, we should be clear that since it’s God’s Law, and since God is Love, Love and the Law cannot contradict each other.
Notice that the Pharisees have two problems, but neither of them is that they observe human traditions, as if it were even possible to live without traditions. Their first problem was that they acted as if their human traditions were actually divine commands. They observed all their ritual washings as if God had commanded them to do so. But their second problem was worse: their traditions, observed as if God had commanded them, caused them to break the real commands of God, such as, “Honor your father and mother.” Now, every age has its Pharisees. At the time of the Reformation, for example, it was considered a sin for priests, monks, and nuns to get married and break the vow of celibacy, but it became a virtue to refuse to serve parents because of this human tradition. That sounds almost identical to the consecrated “corban” offerings, which is a sin against the Fourth Commandment. But we have our Pharisees, too. Pharisees who observe the minutest detail of liturgical decorum (trust me, I’m not even close!), not because it points to what God is doing in Jesus Christ, but simply because it has been handed down from the fathers. And we have Pharisees who don’t want anything to do with liturgical ritual, not because it gets in the way of what God is doing in Jesus Christ, but simply because they prefer relaxed, undemanding worship-tainment. No specific liturgy, in itself, has a divine command in the Scriptures, but the liturgy is a gift from those who have gone before us, a Scriptural way to ensure that the Gospel of Christ’s free grace remains central in the Word and the Supper. We have Pharisees who demand that Christians must do something about global warming, or end poverty worldwide, or require a Palestinian state, or treat homosexual relationships as the equivalent of marriage. But we also have Pharisees who focus so completely on personal, individual salvation that they neglect stewardship of this creation, or who do nothing to help the poor and hungry in our communities because good works are unnecessary for salvation, or who support Israel because it will figure prominently in Jesus’ Second Coming, or whose gut reaction against homosexuality is so strong that they treat homosexuals as unworthy of the Gospel of Christ. Both make the Gospel something other, either more or less than what it is. These are just a few, obviously generalized, examples of an inability to follow the line that Jesus draws between the commands of God and the traditions of men. Whenever you and I attempt to serve God on our terms, rather than His, we twist and bend and warp the line that Jesus draws. More than that, when we make the Law the substance and goal of our piety rather than its shape, love is lost and the people around us become objects to help us achieve a self-satisfied holiness. God really has commanded certain things and we really are supposed to do them. Human traditions, at their best, are an attempt to do those things in the here and now, but we must always draw the line where Jesus draws it and not confuse human traditions for the Teaching of God.
But see, beloved, that Jesus holds out the true heart of that Teaching in Mark 8, 9, and 10: “[Jesus] began to teach them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and to be killed and after three days to rise” (Mark 8:31). Again: “[Jesus] taught His disciples and said to them, ‘The Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and when He is dead, after three days He will raise Himself’” (Mark 9:31). Again: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and hand Him over to the Gentiles, and they will mock Him and spit on Him and flog Him and kill [Him], and after three days He will rise” (Mark 10:33-34). This is the Teaching of One with authority, and not as the scribes with their human interpretations and traditions (Mark 1:21). This, finally, is the single divine commandment which Jesus came to fulfill out of His great love for you and me and His whole creation. It is only because Jesus kept that commandment that we can be “[God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, ESV). We walk in the good works of love, prepared for us by God for our specific situation and circumstances. Though we do not yet see the fullness of what we will be, we know that we God’s children now, baptized into Christ (1 John 3:2). Only in that confidence and boldness can we resist the temptation “to walk according to the traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:5) simply because they are the tradition of the elders, or as if we had our status because of the traditions. The only traditions that matter—and they matter only for this life—are those that help us to better do the good works required of us in this world, and, most importantly, those that point to the Teaching of God: Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/17/09