You wouldn’t dream of making up instructions, and pretending they came from God? Of course you wouldn’t. There are warnings in scripture about neither adding, or taking away, what is there as instruction (for example Deuteronomy 4:2, another of this Sunday’s readings). But be careful! Culture filters our hearing, and is easily confused with God’s teaching. How good are we at separating our habits, and the generally accepted ideas among the people we know, from the actual instructions from God we find in the Bible?
That is a key question for Christian living, and the answer needs constant checking with scripture, and dialogue with Christians especially those from other cultures. That is really what comes up in the gospel reading, Mark 7:1-23 (or selected verses from that). Jesus, born a Jew, living under Jewish (Old Testament) Law, questions not the law but the tradition around it. The Pharisees had traditions about washing hands and utensils – but its “tradition”, not Law (that is, the instructions in the Old Testament about God’s way for his people), and Jesus won’t confuse them. Evan a good habit can be broken for reason. Criticised for that attitude, he notes how Tradition is used to break the Law as if it were more important than Law – (you may miss out the verses about “Corban”. which explain a “dodge” to avoid supporting a family member (as the Old Testament requires) by declaring the money dedicated to religious service – a “tradition”) The detail may be a bit remote – but the principle is vital.
Tradition is never as important as God’s instructions. Sometimes the questions our lives, and the lives of our congregations, face do not have clear answers in scripture. (Should I retrain for a new career, marry a certain person, – you know the sort of thing). Tradition may suggest answers, but be clear that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t enough for a final decision. What you have to do is to keep reading scripture and asking: What does this mean? What should we do? What needs to change, and how?
It won’t all come clear at once (you wouldn’t like it if it did!) but this is the way of Christian disciples – they follow Jesus, make mistakes and accept forgiveness, learn a bit and go on listening and trying. Tradition – yes, it can be a guide, but it needs to be questioned, and held against the standard regularly.