Tradition of the Elders


Scripture: Mark 7: 1-8 and 14-23 Nigel Bunce

The Tradition of the Elders

The Tradition of the Elders is the heading of today’s section of Mark’s Gospel in my Bible. For the Pharisees, it was their duty to follow all the Laws written in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. They followed them precisely and joyfully out of gratitude for God’s rules for right living.

Hand-washing: to remove dirt or ritual impurity?

The Pharisees said that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands properly before eating. Taken literally, this Gospel reading might undo years of telling our kids to wash their hands before meals. After all, if Jesus and his disciples didn’t have to, why should they?

Ritual cleanliness was extremely important to devout first century Jews like Pharisees. Modern Orthodox Jews maintain an elaborate ritual for hand-washing before eating. They pour abundant water twice over each hand. Then they rub the hands together, while raising them to the height of the chin.

Then they dry their hands with a towel, and say this prayer. “Blessed are you, O Lord, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

The Pharisees called out Jesus and his friends for being lax and sloppy. For not following God’s laws properly.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees

Jesus claimed that the Pharisees were actually holding on to human traditions rather than God’s laws. Because people passed them down from generation to generation, he called them the Tradition of the Elders.  He re-framed the question from dirty hands to spiritual pollution or corruption.

Because, he said, cleanliness is not really about food. Food is just food. You eat it. The waste products go into the sewer. What really defiles people are things that come from within. From the heart. What you say and do. Vices like adultery, slander, pride, and envy are the real dirt. It wasn’t just a question of live and let live.

All cultures respect the past. That’s tradition. But by saying that Jesus and his disciples were not following “the Tradition of the Elders,” the Pharisees were not just displaying an innate conservatism. They revered the past so much that they their rituals into idols.

The Tradition of the Elders in he modern world

This is not a remote or esoteric argument. It strikes to the heart of how Christians, as well as people of other faiths, approach changes in interpretation of our sacred texts and the values and practices we have received from the past.

Every generation experiences conflict between tradition versus modernity and change. Thus, adherence to the Tradition of the Elders is why some Christian denominations do not ordain women as leaders, or consider that gays and transgender people are not equally God’s children as those we call “straight.”

The Tradition of the Elders and Orthodox Jews in Israel

Again, many Orthodox Jews in Israel feel so strongly about the Sabbath prohibition against work and travel that some of them throw stones at the buses and other vehicles that ply the streets of Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

Secular Israelis find that excessive and intolerant. But if you believe in the Tradition of the Elders strongly enough and sincerely enough, then you could reasonably conclude that it is your sacred duty to protest against Sabbath violation. 

The Tradition of the Elders and the Taliban in Afghanistan

The Taliban in Afghanistan are probably the most stark example today of keeping the Tradition of the Elders. They are not simply bloodthirsty barbarians, even though most Canadians feel that way. They are completely sincere in wanting to restore their understanding of the purity of early Islam.

That means imposing a very strict form of sharia law that includes cutting the hands off thieves, and making women obey the customs of the 7th century. Likewise, the Tradition of the Elders justifies destroying ancient artefacts in the Afghanistan cultural museum in Kabul.

In his own day, Jesus antagonized the Pharisees by challenging tradition about the relationship between God and humanity. If he were physically here in church today, he would probably do the same thing. Only focussing on different traditions of our elders.

Are modern changes evidence of God’s continuing revelation to humanity — or not?

For me, it is unrealistic to think that the relationship between God and humanity has not changed since Jesus was on earth. It is as if to say that God’s revelation to us stopped abruptly two thousand years ago.

Yet that is exactly the view of those Christians who parrot a verse or two of Scripture and say triumphantly that they must be right, because the Bible says so.

The Book of Leviticus is very popular among that crowd. However, I often wonder how carefully they avoid polyester and cotton shirts (no cloth made from two fabrics). Or, whether they refuse to eat shrimps and bacon (no shellfish and no meat from animals with divided cloven hooves).

Progressive minded Christians respond to what they see as God’s continuing  revelation

Such Christians overturn the Tradition of the Elders. Those of a Pharisee-like mind-set disagree. But eventually, change often occurs.

For example, Jesus told parables about slaves without suggesting that slavery was wrong. It remained that way for 1800 years. Christian people – William Wilberforce and John Newton in England, for example – fought against it. They eventually won.

The Roman Catholic Sisters of Saint Joseph set up hospitals across this country, instead of banishing the sick to leper colonies and similar institutions. The Baptist minister Tommy Douglas fought for universal health care out of his Christian conviction that access should not depend on your income.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a leading crusader against apartheid in South Africa. In El Salvador, the Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed a liberation theology for his people against a brutal right wing dictatorship.

God’s revelation continues

Many of these events happened within the lifetimes of Christians alive today. In this new century, Canada has legalized same sex marriage and authorized medical aid in dying. The majority of Canadians (but not everyone) decided that the former Tradition of the Elders wasn’t relevant any more.

To sum up. There’s nothing wrong with respecting the past. With following the Tradition of the Elders. Until we notice when those traditions have become irrelevant. Our task, as thoughtful Christians, is to decide which traditions remain relevant, and which are no longer useful.