Sermon: Pharisees, Disciples and Tradition

Mark 7:1-23

“Who has used up all the handwash in the bathroom?”

Debbie asked the question, but she knew the answer.

“I did!” said Mark.

We should be pleased that our son is very good at washing his hands after going to the toilet. It’s just that he doesn’t think one squirt from the liquid soap dispenser is enough. He doesn’t accept that with water its effects will multiply. So he pumps the dispenser about three times on each occasion.

Our only problem on hand washing with Mark comes when I have to take him in a public toilet and he thinks the electric hand dryer is going to be too noisy. Only one thing is allowed to be loud in this life, and that is his voice! So confronted by a noisy hand dryer, he may want to dry his hands on his t-shirt instead, and complain vigorously if I don’t do likewise.

It’s easy to read today’s Lectionary Gospel with modern eyes and think it’s a story about hygiene. In which case, we would be as offended as the Pharisees and the scribes at the actions of Jesus and his disciples. In a time when we are even more concerned about safe, healthy practices in our churches due to swine flu – witness Anglicans and Catholics not using a chalice for communion and some Christians not wanting to share The Peace – this story may seem even more disturbing.

But the background is different. The religious lawyers of Jesus’ day had taken the Old Testament laws, imposed their own interpretations on them, and then made those interpretations a binding tradition on all Jews. Washing your hands before eating bread was not about physical cleanliness but about  avoiding ritual defilement. And that seems to be something that never worried Jesus too much. After all, he shared table fellowship with ‘sinners’, making him unclean in the first place.

So the issue here is this: what shall we do with tradition? Is there still a place for it? Do we overturn it, like angry teenagers? What is its place, if any, for the disciples of Jesus?

What, then, is tradition? Put simply, tradition is the wisdom and truth that generations hand down to succeeding generations. Here’s an example. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, he speaks of passing on what was handed down to him. You could more literally translate it not simply as what was ‘handed down’ to him but as what was ‘traditioned’ (to coin a word) to him.

At its best, then, tradition is a good, helpful and even necessary thing. Truth and wisdom is handed down to us. Then it is our responsibility to hand it on to the following generations.

But because tradition is the means by which we hand something on, it cannot be the be-all and end-all in itself. If you like, tradition is a goods train, but it is only the train, and not the goods. What is important is that the goods get to their destination.

And that’s why when the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day made so much insistence on the regulations they had devised, they were putting all the stress on the train and not on the goods.

John Wesley said there were four sources of truth for Christians. They were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. But he was clear that Scripture trumped all the other three. Tradition, then, for Methodists, has to be about the ways we hand on scriptural truth. If it faithfully conveys the biblical gospel, though, then tradition has done its job.

The problem comes when tradition gets ideas above its station. There was a story that illustrated this in the new issue of Christianity Magazine:

A church I know is dying from hypocrisy. And although I’m watching it from a distance, it’s still painful. The congregation is small, though very faithful, and the minister is a natural evangelist. But whenever someone is converted through an Alpha course or pub ministry they don’t stay in the church for long. The members soon show them that they are inadequate for their new faith: they know nothing about the depth and traditions of Christianity; the fumble their way round the Bible and prayer book; they don’t have the gravitas or decorum for respectful worship; and those who have children can’t control them properly. The old faithful, who are becoming fewer in number, can’t understand why the new believers don’t make more effort to be like them and to support the church like they do. They can’t see that they are suffering from that peculiar form of hypocrisy identified by Jesus – doing all the ‘right’ things for all the wrong reasons. And this results in repelling people from God.[1]

What are we to do, then, if we are to stop tradition being used to damage people, as Jesus clearly thought was happening in his day, and was obviously happening in the church I have just mentioned?

I think there are two measures we must take. I have hinted at the first, but to underline it, let’s return to the Bible passage. Hear the words of Jesus again:

He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’ (Verses 6-9)

Jesus quoted the Scriptures and accused his opponents of abandoning Scripture (‘the commandment of God’) in favour of human tradition. So our first remedy must be to place tradition under Scripture, not outside or above the Bible.

If we’re going to place tradition under Scripture, then we need to do two things. The first is that we need to soak ourselves in the Bible. The second is that we then need to subject our traditions to biblical teaching, and ask whether they do indeed carry the Gospel into our world, or whether they contradict it.

That’s why I’ve spent much of the last four years urging people into spiritual discipline, including Bible reading. It may be using daily Bible reading notes as I do. It may be using our imagination to enter the situation and the characters as Ignatius of Loyola taught. It may involve persistent chewing on whatever grabs us in a particular passage. But whatever approaches we take, the bottom line is that if we are serious about following Jesus, we will be serious about immersing ourselves in the Bible.

Then, when we do, we can examine our traditions. Do they convey the Gospel on a two thousand year journey into today’s world, or do they turn ‘human precepts [into] doctrines’ (verse 7b)? You could raise a lot of embarrassing questions about the way we do church without a lot of difficulty. A lot of the things that consume our time or tie us down have very little to do with the Gospel and should be open to all sorts of criticism. Are we in danger of Jesus quoting the same words from Isaiah about us that he did about the Pharisees and scribes: ‘In vain do they worship me’ (verse 7a)? Would he tell us that we ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ (verse 8), even ‘rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep [our] tradition’ (verse 9)?

So – the first thing we need to do is place tradition underneath Scripture. This means we soak ourselves in the Bible and then examine our traditions carefully in the light of the Gospel.

But I said there were two measures. It’s not enough only to place tradition below Scripture. Why? Because you will have come across those kinds of Christian who know their Bibles well but lob verses of Scriptures at others like hand grenades. You’ll know how people have been wounded by other Christians cutting them to shreds with the Bible. So while, for example, I hold a traditional Christian view that the only place for sexual relationships is in marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, I am also aware of the way homosexual people have been damaged by the church.

Our second measure, then, is this. Having placed tradition under Scripture we must then guard our hearts. Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, says it’s a matter of the heart:

This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me (verse 6b).

Where were the hearts of those who criticised Jesus and his disciples? Far from God. It’s the danger we face, too. If we do not stay close to God, then it doesn’t matter whether we are issuing edicts of tradition or firing bullets of Scripture, if we are not in close and vital contact with God, we’ll achieve nothing for the kingdom of God, however zealous we are. More likely we shall cause pain and put people off church, rather like the elderly people at the church I mentioned earlier whose actions have driven new converts away.

So how do we guard our hearts and draw near to God? I am reading a book called ‘Wrestling with God’ by an American pastor, James Emery White. On Friday, I read the chapter entitled ‘The Distance of God’ where he discusses many reasons why people may feel far from God. By no means all of them are our fault, but he asks some people, ‘What are you doing to stay close?’ and suggests some basic activities that will draw us closer to God:

  • Are you praying?
  • Are you spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible in order to apply it to your life?
  • Are you involved in worship?
  • Are you connecting with people whose relationship with God challenges and encourages your own?
  • Are you engaged in some kind of ministry to others?
  • Are you carving out time for spiritually oriented reflection?
  • If the answer to any of these queries is ‘no’, then there’s no wonder that God feels distant. Our relationship with God must be nurtured and developed. We can begin a spiritual life, but we must also develop it. God continues to ask the question, ‘Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ (Jeremiah 30:21)[2]

Most or all of us are people who have begun a spiritual life, mostly many years ago. What is each one of us doing to develop it? We cannot be complacent. We cannot stand still – because we won’t remain where we are, we shall slide backwards, further away from God. There is great danger to our souls if we do not develop our spiritual lives. I have to challenge myself and say, just because I have followed certain spiritual practices for many years, am I still in a vital, living relationship with God, or have I drifted into stagnant water?

We are faced with a challenge, then: those who fail to nurture their spiritual lives become Pharisees. Not only do they waste away spiritually themselves, they hurt others by their harsh application of tradition.

On the other hand, those who do develop their life in the Spirit are disciples of Jesus. Feeding on Scripture and intentionally growing their relationship with God, they are like the image  in Psalm 1 of a tree by the water.

Which, then, are we: Pharisee or disciple? It’s our choice.


[1] David Instone-Brewer, ‘New Testament Scandals #9 Hypocrisy’, Christianity, September 2009, p52.

[2] James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p53.


  1. I do like this, Dave……..

    It speaks to a lot of things I’ve seen in the Lutheran church over the years. I do get tired of rituals when they seem to be just for their own sake. It seems to easy to just repeat the same things every Sunday and think we’re doing allright.

    But this is a very good reminder……if we’re not staying attached to the vine, we’re dying.

    (P.S. my son does the same thing, except with the toothpaste!!)


    1. Thanks, Owen. There is a place for ritual if it is a healthy habit that transmits truth, and in a sense we can’t avoid it because we all have regular habits even in ordinary life, but some people in churches prioritise them over what the ritual is meant to preserve or signify.


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