The Gospel reading for the Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, Mark 7:1-13, raises the issue of tradition, the theme of my last post on 1 Corinthians 15:1-13, but in this context it is raised in terms of condemnation. At least a superficial or initial reading points to condemnation of tradition, though a distinction might be made, at least implicitly, between “human tradition” and “(divine?) tradition”. It must be said, though, that nowhere in the passage does Jesus speak positively about “tradition”, unless his contrast between “God’s commandment” and “human tradition” is meant to imply that “God’s commandment” is a part of “divine tradition.” That might be stretching the text beyond what is likely - “God’s commandment” is most likely a part of the Scripture, in this case the Torah.
This whole passage is challenging, at a couple of levels. Many scholars do not see the whole of this passage emerging from Jesus’ historical mission, but locate the Sitz im Leben (the historical location of the passage) in the life of the early Church which was distinguishing itself and its practices from those common amongst Pharisees and perhaps other Jews also. E.P. Sanders argues that the giveaway is the addition of “and, in fact, all Jews,” as this sounds like an explanatory addition for Gentile Christians unaware of Jewish purity practices, though Sanders questions whether “all Jews” did in fact practice the act of washing before eating (E.P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (London: SCM Press, 1990), 39-42).
Let us accept that many did, though, and that the disciples of Jesus did not, which seems likely. The confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees also seems historically likely, and I believe the passage reflects an historical encounter. Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees and scribes as to why his disciples do not follow this tradition. In itself, it seems there is nothing problematic or offensive with washing one’s hands before one eats, even if it is not a question of hygiene, but purification. It might be seen as a ritual action similar to grace before a meal, in which one prepares oneself spiritually to eat. Jesus, however, calls the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites” for following the “traditions of the elders,” and then states that they would cast aside “God’s commandment” in order to “cling to human tradition” (Mark 7:8). Is Jesus truly so angry about this tradition of hand washing itself? Or is he angry that he has been challenged regarding the practices of his disciples? Or is what follows in verses 9-13, which brings us into another, more complex legal issue, what is truly at stake?
I think the final verses are the main concern, on the question of korban, or what is vowed to the Temple, for Jesus sees the issue here as the Pharisees allowing a person to follow the Pharisaic tradition in such a way that the intent of the law of God is nullified. The problem is not “human tradition” in itself, but whether “human tradition” trumps what God asks of us. Jesus says that God clearly asks us to honor our parents, but a child could say that he is not able to support and thus honor his parents because the goods that might be used to do so have been given as a gift, or korban, to the Temple, thus removing them from the need to be used on behalf of the parents (7:10-12). Lurking behind this accusation is Jesus’ understanding that this is a form of casuistry, that what is “dedicated” to the Temple is only “dedicated” to keep it from current use by his parents, and that he will redeem his property at some point advantageous to him (7:12-13; see A.I. Baumgarten, “Korban and the Pharisaic Paradosis” in Ancient Studies in Memory of Elias Bickerman. The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society, 16-17, 1984-85, 5-17; E.P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, 56-57). This is a legal dispute over the interpretation and application of the Torah between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus’ point is that “tradition” should not take precedence over the clear sense of God’s will in the Scripture. He states that the Pharisees do “many such things” (7:13).
For current readers, though, the main concern should not primarily be the Pharisees and their traditions – I suspect we will not manage to raise up a protest march (or even a Facebook page) dedicated to opposing the Pharisaic interpretation of korban - but our own behavior. Certainly, we can sift through Christian history and find examples of times when individuals and groups within the Church opposed the clear teachings of God’s law to seek their own way. It is not always done out of malice or a desire to misinterpret God’s law, but out of a certain inwardness or even cleverness with respect to interpretation.
This passage can be misread, in my estimation, as a call against tradition itself, but it is a call instead to align tradition at all times with the word and the will of God and to be open to correct our tradition(s), no matter how comfortable they feel. Jesus' concern is not that the Pharisees wash their hands, but that no amount of tradition, however carefully carried out, can substitute for what God demands of us.
John W. Martens