Preacher’s Post: When Religion Gets In the Way

road_closedJaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

My biggest disappointment when I first visited Israel in 1996 is that so many of the sites where something important happened in Jesus’ ministry have some sort of church shrine erected over them so that whatever was originally there has been swallowed by the human activities to memorialize them. Nowhere is this more true than the tomb in which Jesus might have been buried after his crucifixion. Originally built into the side of a hill, the entire hill was removed so a massive church could be built, the church of the Holy Sepulcher.

I’ve written before about the appalling politics and dysfunction associated with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place reflecting Jesus’ call to love God and love neighbor, and his personal sacrifice on the cross. But it is in fact a place where five main, and several lesser church denominations, vie for power and control within the facility. The governance of the facility was laid down by the Turks in 1853 and is known as the “status quo”. Anything that threatens this appropriately named agreement often ends with violence as monks attack one another. The last fisticuffs were exchanged on Palm Sunday, 2008. Historically, the conflict between the groups entrusted with the care and function of the church is so bad the keys to the church have been held for years by two Muslim families. They faithfully unlock the main door in the morning and lock it at night.

Having personally spent time sitting and watching the comings and goings of the various religious groups, it is obvious their hatred for one another. Like school children from two competing classrooms, I observed two lines of monks passing one another, and several leaning to the right in such a way as to give a shoulder to the other sect going the opposite direction. And this is to represent Jesus and Christendom? I’m embarrassed. I can’t begin to imagine Jesus’ thoughts and views.

The danger of traditions is that we forget the main thing that created the tradition in the first place. Rather than pointing to something worthy of remembering and living today, traditions can spawn rules, and rules become important for their own sake, not for the sake of the truth they are meant to reflect. The result is everything can look good on the outside while we’re missing the whole point on the inside. That was Jesus’ constant beef with the religious leaders of his day. They just didn’t get it, but because they were keeping the rules, they were convinced they had it right.

Mark 7:1-23 (TEV)

Some Pharisees and teachers of the Law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus.  They noticed that some of his disciples were eating their food with hands that were ritually unclean—that is, they had not washed them in the way the Pharisees said people should.  (For the Pharisees, as well as the rest of the Jews, follow the teaching they received from their ancestors: they do not eat unless they wash their hands in the proper way; nor do they eat anything that comes from the market unless they wash it first. And they follow many other rules which they have received, such as the proper way to wash cups, pots, copper bowls, and beds. )  

So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law asked Jesus, “Why is it that your disciples do not follow the teaching handed down by our ancestors, but instead eat with ritually unclean hands?” Jesus answered them, “How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! You are hypocrites, just as he wrote: ‘These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me.  It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’  “You put aside God’s command and obey human teachings.”

And Jesus continued: “You have a clever way of rejecting God’s law in order to uphold your own teaching.  For Moses commanded, ‘Respect your father and your mother,’ and, ‘If you curse your father or your mother, you are to be put to death.’  But you teach that if people have something they could use to help their father or mother, but say, ‘This is Corban’ (which means, it belongs to God), they are excused from helping their father or mother.  In this way the teaching you pass on to others cancels out the word of God. And there are many other things like this that you do.”  

Then Jesus called the crowd to him once more and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand.  There is nothing that goes into you from the outside which can make you ritually unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of you that makes you unclean.”  

When he left the crowd and went into the house, his disciples asked him to explain this saying. “You are no more intelligent than the others,” Jesus said to them. “Don’t you understand? Nothing that goes into you from the outside can really make you unclean, because it does not go into your heart but into your stomach and then goes on out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared that all foods are fit to be eaten.) And he went on to say, “It is what comes out of you that makes you unclean.  For from the inside, from your heart, come the evil ideas which lead you to do immoral things, to rob, kill, commit adultery, be greedy, and do all sorts of evil things; deceit, indecency, jealousy, slander, pride, and folly—all these evil things come from inside you and make you unclean.”


More on Sunday…

Here’s what I have on my desk…



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