Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018
(Picking somebody from the congregation) Didn’t your mother tell you to wash your hands before dinner? She probably had to do it every night, just to remind you. Wouldn’t you call that a tradition? But that doesn’t automatically make it bad does it. She has you wash your hands because they are dirty, and she doesn’t want you passing all the day’s accumulated germs to everybody else eating with you. This is a good thing and it is a good tradition. It is not done for the sake of doing it just because it has always been done that way. Nor is it done just because your mom wants to impose another ritual or another task just to make life more difficult for you. It is done because it accomplishes a good.
It is not so with the Pharisees and the scribes that came out from Jerusalem to confront Jesus with their latest attack against Him and His teaching. They notice that the disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. They note that it is a tradition of the elders to wash before eating so that one does not eat with defiled hands, that is, so that they don’t eat with sinful hands.
This tradition was not a thorough washing with soap and water. It was a sprinkling or the simple applying of water in some fashion. It did not necessarily intend the submersion of whatever was being washed and it did not mean that whatever was being washed was going to be free of dirt or germs after the washing. It was a ceremonial act. It may have been a good ceremonial act and it may have conveyed a good purpose. The problem with it is that these Pharisees and scribes had made something binding upon the people that God’s Word had not made binding. They were enforcing their traditions as if they were God’s commands.
It should be noted that God did command ceremonial washings and so they draw from a command in God’s Word, but these traditions were not included in that Word. You are familiar with the laver, or bronze basin, that was placed outside the tabernacle where the priests were to wash their hands and their feet before enter in the tabernacle to perform their daily service (Ex 30). This was by God’s command and it too was a washing that was ceremonial, cleansing the priests for service at the altar before the Lord. But such washing did not extend to all the people every time they were to eat by God’s command. It was the tradition of men and as good as any tradition may be, if it is by man’s invention, then it cannot be enforced as God’s command. To burden people with such traditions is to jeopardize their salvation by either convincing them of their inability to please God and earn His grace or to convince them that they are righteous in their deeds and thereby pleasing God and earning His grace.
Jesus quotes our Old Testament reading as prophecy against these Pharisees and scribes and then goes on to expose another example of how they set aside God’s command by instituting their own statute. The whole idea about Corban was a way to get around the Fourth Commandment. It was a way to disown one’s parents and not be responsible for them in their old age. It was a way to legitimize being greedy and to legalize the dishonoring of father and mother.
Jesus was exposing the church of the day for its hypocrisy and need for repentance and reformation. It is a similar call to Isaiah’s words 700 years earlier where the Church had fallen into a rut of human tradition and rules and ignored what God actually says. It was a place of comfortable ritual that didn’t require any real examination of self and repentance from sin. Everything was taken care of through the rituals established. It was just a matter of doing this thing or saying that thing and God would be placated, and the sinner could be counted as righteous. But such thoughts were contrary to God’s Word. God counts faith has righteousness (Ro 4:3). He counts righteous that person that hears and trusts His Word to do what it says. God accepts tradition that supports such faith but not those traditions that contradict it.
This is also what the Reformation was about. Martin Luther, among many others, recognized the traditions that had sprung up that were contradictory to God’s Word. There were many things that not only didn’t contribute to faith in the Savior but directed the sinner’s attention away from Jesus and to their own works and deeds. I don’t know of any washings before meals but there were the indulgences and pilgrimages and fasts, as well as many other mandated human traditions.
The Church needs always to be watchful and on her guard against even well intentioned and salutary traditions becoming new rules and laws of faith; things that misdirect people’s faith from God’s true Word towards themselves and their actions. For instance, the simple act of crossing oneself can be a useful tradition but when faith is directed away from the Savior it can become a hindrance to faith. If it reminds one of his baptism (washing) and the salvation given by God, then it is good. But when it becomes a talisman that wards away evil spirits simply by doing the crossing, then faith his misdirected and it becomes a harmful ritual.
We all develop traditions in our families. It could be popcorn movie night on Fridays. We all develop personal traditions, as well. It could be the place where we start on our face with the razor each morning or the pattern that we follow after that first stroke. Both of such traditions may be good and there may be legitimate reasons not to follow them at times. But in neither of those case do we delude ourselves that we are somehow doing God’s work and He is going to give us an extra measure of grace.
But we do develop traditions that need to be aware of and repent of; traditions of sin that divert us from our Savior. Some of those traditions can be straight our sinful behavior, where we have a pattern of doing the same unloving thing all the time without even thinking. Other traditions can be our own piety where we think that God is going to notice us because we are being so holy. But it could even stem from the washing that has cleansed each of us from sin when we think of Holy baptism as a thing that works all by itself apart from faith instead of the thing that we run to in repentance as our assurance of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ.
The Church today needs reform, just as in Isaiah’s day or in the disciples’ day, or Luther’s day. She needs to be aware of what is God’s command and what has been devised of man and taught as God’s command and then repent of it. She needs always to examine what she does and what she teaches so that she does not mislead the very people to whom she is sent and for whom she is commissioned.
But so too, do each and every one of us need to be aware and on guard for the ways in which we establish our traditions, our habits that can displace God’s Word and His command. Our piety and our faithfulness cannot replace nor add to the faithfulness of Jesus. Ours is always to look to and rely upon His faithfulness because it is His faithfulness to the Father in heaven that is our salvation whether we make the sign of the cross over ourselves or not.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.