Religious traditionalism did not die with the Pharisees, and it continues extending its tentacles through the religious instincts of humanity in the clothes of various religious movements and tendencies today. At its heart is a root that issues in one particular fruit. The fruit is illustrated in the interaction that Jesus has with the Pharisees in the first half of the passage (7:1-13), and the root is explained in Jesus’ teaching about that interaction in the second half of the passage (7:14-23).
The Pharisees were outraged because Jesus’ disciples were eating with “defiled,” that is unwashed, hands. Mark explains this tradition and others like it in an aside that suggests his original audience was not familiar with the Pharisees’ practices. The disciples of Jesus, they felt, were not walking according to “the tradition of the elders.” Jesus replies that the Pharisees are, in the words of Isaiah, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” They “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
The most egregious example of this tendency was their teaching with regard to “Corban,” a rule they invented that basically allowed individuals to escape the financial burden of aged parents by making some sort of gift to God. This tendency to put (human) religious rules in place of God’s Word is familiar enough to any who have observed the pattern of human religiosity throughout the world. The reason for it is that the human religious rule, while superficially impressive enough, actually allows the devotee to escape the more ardent requirements of God’s Word. Thus, by an all-too-human sleight of hand, the religious person captivated by tradition can both escape the commands of God and feel good about doing so because apparently, he or she is following a yet more stringent demand (that is really less demanding).
It is worse yet. This human religious traditionalism can, Jesus says, actually have the effect of “making void the word of God.” What could do such a thing? What could manage to empty God’s Word of its impact, to such an extent that Jesus could say that it made that word “void”? Human tradition.
Jesus then teaches his disciples about the religious washing in the second half of the passage from verses 14-23. There, he makes it clear, that at its heart is the problem of the human heart. We cannot actually make ourselves pure by ritual washing. The real problem that must be solved is “what comes out of” us, not “what goes into” us. By focusing on the external—washing, environment, technique, tradition, formalism and traditionalism—the impact of religious traditionalism is to avoid the real and deeply uncomfortable truth: the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. And for that there is only solution: grace, the gospel, Christ and His Word.
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