The tradition of the elders

November 7, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news this afternoon is the beginning of a long passage from Mark 7:1-5.

Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

Barclay gives us a history lesson about the subject of this passage. “Originally, for the Jew, the Law meant two things; it meant, first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and, second, the first five books of the Old Testament, or, as they are called, the Pentateuch. Now it is true that the Pentateuch contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions; but, in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles which a man must interpret and apply for himself. For long the Jews were content with that. But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts whom we know as the Scribes. They were not content with great moral principles; they had what can only be called a passion for definition. They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded, broken down until they issued in thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation in life. These rules and regulations were not written down until long after the time of Jesus. They are what is called the Oral Law; it is they which are the tradition of the elders.”

The Pharisees and scribed believed had the same authority as Mosaic law. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, the Pharisees’ rationale was that they wanted to impose the rituals applied to priests in the Hebrew scriptures “to all Israelites, thus making actual the vision of a priestly people.” They continued to raise the bar for what it meant to be a devout, pious Jew. In other words, the Jewish faith became ever more exclusive and consigned most people to a perpetual state of impurity. They were told over and over that they weren’t good enough for God basically and that they were punished in this life and the next.

The Pharisees and scribes had set themselves up as critical observers, judging and condemning people for acts of omission and commission without regard for a person’s sincere faith and practice. Further, only they knew all these rules since they weren’t even written down. What ordinary person could commit thousands of them to memory? It was an impossible bind that they put people in. The washing of hands referred to has nothing to do with hygienic; it is all about ritual purification with explicit instructions for how the hands were to be washed and the nature of the water to be used.

This absurdity is what confronted Jesus. Barclay writes, “To the scribes and Pharisees these rules and regulations were the essence of religion. To observe them was to please God; to break them was to sin. This was their idea of goodness and of the service of God….There is a fundamental cleavage here — the cleavage between the man who sees religion as ritual, ceremonial, rules and regulations, and the man who sees in religion loving God and loving his fellow-men.”

Rituals have their place, but they can’t usurp what is means to be Christian, which is essentially to follow the great command that Jesus gave us to love God, love ourselves, and love one another. Everything else is mere distraction. Pope Francis seems to understand this and is making efforts to return the Church to what is fundamentally important to being Christian. He has his work cut out for him, though. There are a lot of scribes and Pharisees in the Church hierarchy who relish their roles as enforcers of canon law. That’s where they derive power and sustain their elitism — the very things that Jesus railed against. He was a rebel and revolutionary and was killed for it.



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