The Center of Tradition

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Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

James 1: 17-27


Perhaps you’ve heard of a religious holiday called Corpus Christi – the feast of the body and blood of Christ. In some countries, such as Ireland which is heavily Catholic, this is an important celebration. In many rural communities there is a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of the Parish. Altar boys go ahead of the procession ringing bells to alert the faithful that the procession is coming near. People come out of their houses, kneel, and cross themselves as the Holy Eucharist passes by.

A pastor in this country tells a story about some recent Irish immigrants who had just arrived in the U.S. and were unpacking their  belongings when suddenly they heard bells ringing in the street outside. The whole family immediately stopped what they doing, went outside, knelt down and crossed themselves – just as the ice cream truck went by.(1)

That is the power of tradition – it has a hold on us, and sometimes we don’t know exactly why.

For instance, I love the story about the young lady who asked her mother to show her how to make their family’s traditional Easter ham dinner. She and her mother spent the morning preparing the special glaze that had passed down through the generations, slicing the pineapples and prepping the side dishes. Then the mother plopped the ham on the counter, cut about three inches off one end and put it in the roasting pan. They applied the glaze, the cloves and the circles of pineapple to the ham and put it in the oven to bake.

When they were done, they sat with a glass of wine and welcomed the rest of the family as they arrived for dinner. The daughter asked her mother – “So mom, I was wondering, why did you cut that big piece of ham off – does it make it cook faster or something/”

Her mom thought about it for a second and said, “I don’t think so, that was just the way my mom taught me. I’ll ask her.”

The mom called out to her own mother, the grand matriarch of the family – “Mom, why do we cut the piece of ham off one end before we cook it?”

Grandmother called back – “Because it wouldn’t fit in my oven back in the 50’s.”

The power of tradition – it has a hold on us, and we don’t always know why, or the real reason behind our traditions.

In this morning’s Gospel passage, Mark tells us about the Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem to see Jesus for themselves. They were gathered around Jesus when they noticed something that bothered them. Some of Jesus’ disciples were eating without first going through a ritual of ceremonial hand washing. Now this wasn’t a concern for proper hygiene, the concept of viruses and germs were not known to people of Jesus’ day. This was concern for a matter of religious ceremony, a matter of tradition.

So the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands.” Good question. Why didn’t the disciples keep this tradition? They, like Jesus, were devout Jews. They kept other traditions of their faith. Why not this one?

After all, throughout their history, the Jews have been a persecuted minority. Their respect for tradition is one way that the Jewish community was able to survive. Tradition provided order, structure and meaning. Through tradition, identity was preserved and passed on to the next generation. Tradition connects you with your ancestors and to your community.

Rabbi Allan Tuffs tells a wonderful true story out of World War II that is great example of the value of tradition. There was a man named Winneger who was with the US Army as it marched through Europe at the end of the war. Winneger’s unit was assigned to a European village with orders to secure the town, search for any hiding Nazis and to help the villagers any way they could.

One night, Winneger was on patrol and saw a figure running through a field just outside the village. He shouted, “Halt, or I’ll shoot.” The figure ducked behind a tree. Winneger waited and eventually the figure came out, thinking that Winneger had gone – went to a spot near a large tree and started digging. Once again, Winneger called out “Halt, or I’ll shoot.” The figure tried to run, but Winneger tackled him to the ground.

To his surprise, he discovered that he had captured a young boy. An ornate Menorah had fallen from the boys hands in the scuffle. When Wenniger went to pick it up, the boy grabbed it shouting – “Give it back, it’s mine.”

Winneger assured the boy that he was among friends, that he himself was Jewish. The boy had survived several years of the Holocaust and had been in a concentration camp and so didn’t trust anyone in a uniform. He had seen his father killed and no idea what had happened to his mother.

In the weeks that followed, Winneger took care of the boy and eventually offered him a chance to come back to New York City with him. David accepted and came to live with Winneger.

Winneger was active in the New York Jewish community and happened to know one of the curators of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. One evening the curator saw David’s Menorah and recognized it as a very valuable object. He wanted it for the Museum and offered David 50,000 dollars for it.

But David refused, saying the menorah had been in his family for over 200 years – no amount could tempt him to part with it.

When Hanukkah came, David and Winneger lit the menorah and put it in the window of their house. David went upstairs to study and Wenniger stayed downstairs. Soon there was a knock on the front door. Wenniger found a woman with a strong German accent who said that she had been walking down the street when she saw the menorah in the window. She said that she had once had one just like it in her family and never seen any other like it. Could she come and take a closer look.

Winneger invited her and said that the menorah belonged to David, who could perhaps tell her more about it. Winneger called up to David to come down and meet this lady – who turned out to be David’s mother. She too had survived the war, but had no idea what had happened to her son. Mother and Son reunited because David had faithfully kept the traditions of his people.(2)

Tradition has held the Jewish community together for centuries. And the Pharisees treasured these rituals and traditions. Nothing wrong with that. Traditions help us hold on to our past.

So it’s no wonder that the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to our traditions?”

Now, for some reason, this question touched a sore spot with Jesus. He quotes from Isaiah and says, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” Then Jesus goes on to say, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

For Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten what was behind their traditions. The rituals and laws and traditions themselves had become the point of their worship, the essence of their identity. Jesus points out here that they have forgotten the center of their tradition – and that is God’s love.

This is what was on James mind when he wrote: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves… Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this; to care for those in need and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

In the 1950’s, Charles Swindoll served a stint in the Marine Corps. He had the opportunity to tour the Pacific and to visit Japan. Before the men on his ship were allowed to disembark in Japan, the company commander lined them up and gave them a sober lecture. He wanted to remind them that they were walking into a totally different culture, that their customs and habits might not be welcome in Japan. Their behavior would be closely scrutinized by the Japanese citizens. It would be imperative to maintain good behavior because, as the commander said, “They know nothing of your homeland except what they see in you.”

Swindoll goes on to make the point that as Christians, it is our responsibility to represent our true homeland, the kingdom of God, here on earth.(3) To be doers of the word, those who live the love, compassion and grace of God. Not just hearers of the word, but doers.

There is an old Japanese legend that tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful – full of lush gardens and glittering mansions. But then the man came to a room lined with shelves. On the shelves were stacked piles of human ears. A heavenly guide explained that these ears belonged to all the people on earth who listened each week to the word of God, but never acted on God’s teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. When these people died, only their ears ended up in heaven.(4)

As Rick Warren once wrote, “You only believe the part of the Bible that you Do”, as in act on and live out.(5)

May friends, let us be doers of the Word, as James said.

May that be at the center of our traditions as we gather at the table today.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, p57.

2.    Ibid… p58-58.

3., retrieved 8/15/18.

4.    Ibid.

5.    Ibid.