When tradition gets in the way

Of course you’d never want to start a church fight, but if you did, an excellent way would be to start doing things differently from how they’ve always been done. That gets folks upset in a hurry.

We’re creatures of routine and ritual, and we get so comfortable doing things certain ways that any kind of change really bothers us. In fact, we love our rituals so much that sometimes we can’t tell the difference between them and what really matters.

That was one of the major contentions Jesus had with the Pharisees.

He had some extremely harsh words for them in this story:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:1-8).

The text literally reads, “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands with a fist.”

That latter phrase is difficult to understand, but it probably has to do with the ritualistic way the Pharisees washed their hands before eating.

Their hand-washing was based on an oral tradition that had become as important to them as God’s Law. In fact, they often defended their traditions more passionately than they did the Scriptures.

The Lord doesn’t really sugarcoat how He feels about this practice: You hypocrites . . . You honor God with your lips, but your heart is far from Him and your worship is vain.

Jesus despises traditions when they obscure God and our relationship with Him.

What about us? Do our traditions become sacred?

Well, yes. Of course they do.

But identifying them is difficult, and it’s often a delicate discussion . . . no one likes his own practice to be described as a tradition that could be discarded. We’re pretty good at identifying other folks’ human traditions, but fairly blind to our own.

But think about this: the fact that this is so delicate ought to tell us that we’re sometimes just as protective of our traditions as the Pharisees were.

As you meditate and pray over this passage today, ask yourself: what do I do religiously because it was prescribed by the Lord Himself?

And what do I do because it’s the way I’ve always done it?

We should refuse to compromise on the former, but we dare not bind the latter.

Seeing Jesus for who he really is

We would probably react the way the disciples did if we were in the middle of a small sea fighting a storm at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and we suddenly saw someone walking toward us on the water.

They were understandably terrified.

Mark includes an interesting sentence in his account of the story: As Jesus walked toward them, “He meant to pass by them.” What does that mean?

Read the whole story and then we’ll reflect on it:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:45-52).

It sounds almost like Jesus planned just to walk right by them, doesn’t it?

But that’s probably not right.

Quite a few scholars think the verb here means to “pass in view of” rather than “go beyond.”

I’ve emphasized the same idea in the passages below:

And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. . . . and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-19, 22-23).

Moses wanted to see God . . . a visible divine manifestation, a theophany.

Later God also revealed Himself to Elijah:

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19:11).

Here’s what all this means, I believe: When Jesus intended to “pass by” the disciples, He was revealing to them who He really was: God. He wasn’t just a miracle-worker or great rabbi or deep-thinking wise man. He was God in human form.

Who else can raise the dead? Feed thousands with a small amount of food? Walk on water? Calm the wind?

Jesus intended to let them see a theophany, a Christophany, the glory of God, to strengthen their faith in Him.

In their weak humanity, though, they were so overwhelmed with the idea of a ghost that they missed the spiritual significance of the moment.

And I suppose, if there’s some kind of application for us here, we might be guilty of the same thing.

Jesus wants to reveal Himself to us, but we’ve got to work through our own humanness to see Him as He truly is: an incredible, miracle-working God.

Jesus’ walking on water is more than a fun story to teach four-year-olds in VBS . . . it’s Jesus’ showing Himself to us as the Creator God whose power knows no limits.

Think about that today. Your God is in control of everything.

Disrespecting Jesus?

We’ve all been disrespectful to someone at some point—a parent, spouse, teacher, boss, . . . maybe even to God.

But not to His face, right? Who would do that?

Apparently the apostles would . . . and did.

Mark includes something in the following familiar story that Matthew and Luke omitted. Read this paragraph carefully, particularly the disciples’ interaction with Jesus.

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men (Mark 6:34-44).

Jesus told the apostles to feed the crowd, and, according to one commentary at least, the apostles’ answer was disrespectful: Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?

Maybe that’s why Matthew and Luke chose to leave it out, but Mark told it like it happened.

It was definitely a terse response, if not disrespectful. They essentially said, Where in the world are we going to find eight months’ wages to buy some food? Lord, you’ve seen our purse, and it has nowhere near that much money in it . . .

What their disrespect showed was a lack of faith. Though the disciples had already seen Jesus raise the dead, they hadn’t yet truly caught on to who He was and what He could do.

We can’t see Jesus literally, of course, so we’ll never disrespect Him to His face.

But do we ever do today what the apostles did then?

Do we ever doubt His ability to make something good out of this mess we’re in?

Do we ever wonder if He really cares what we’re going through?

Though we know He had the power to raise the dead when He was on earth, do we ever think that now He just sits back and wrings His hands while the world spirals downward?

One of the reasons Jesus performed miracles was that we might really trust that He will do what needs to be done—in our personal lives and in the world around us.

A God of compassion

What does God look like? (Stop reading for a few seconds and form an image . . .)

What came to your mind?

Maybe we think of someone who is austere, authoritative, and majestic. Or perhaps you didn’t think of a person at all, but rather some kind of radiant and shapeless being.

But we can’t see God anyway, at least not in our sinful, fleshly state.

Or can we?

Read this short account from Jesus’ life:

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:30-34).

Again, what does God look like?

Truth is, He looks just like Jesus. Remember what the Lord told Thomas? “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

One of the reasons Jesus gave up heaven’s glory for earth’s trouble was to show us God—what He’s like, what He loves, how He acts.

In the story above Jesus was exhausted, and He needed to get away from the crowds for awhile and rest. But the crowds found Him, of course.

I love His response: He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

We see so much of that compassion in Jesus’ life, it must mean that’s what God is like.

Whatever else we think of when we think of God, we ought to see His heart. Jesus modeled it daily. He extended it toward the poor, the sinful, the sick, the hurting. He cared about people.

Two thoughts for us:

  • God looks at you today with compassion. He knows the stresses that are stealing your joy right now, and He cares about every heartache, every tear, every struggle.
  • Following Jesus means caring about people.The more we know God, the more we want to be like Him, and it’s impossible to follow Christ without reaching out to hurting people.
Draw some comfort from the fact that God cares about what will happen in your life today, and then take that compassion and extend it to someone who needs it.

What would you do?

Here’s a question most of us will probably never have to answer, but it’s worth considering anyway:

Would we be willing to die for our faith?

If we faced the hypothetical gun-to-the-head scenario, perhaps some of us feel confident that we wouldn’t flinch.

Others of us recognize our own weaknesses and hesitate, fearing we would waver in the moment of decision.

John the Baptist never blinked, apparently.

He openly criticized Herod for stealing his brother’s wife Herodias, knowing the potential consequences. Herodias never forgave him, orchestrating a lewd dance with her daughter as the main attraction in order to manipulate Herod into ordering John’s execution.

Here’s the story:

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6:21-29).

Would John have been as outspoken if he had known it would turn out this way? Knowing what we know of him, we can’t imagine his taking back anything he said.

But of course we don’t know what we would do in a similar situation, and we probably never will.

And it doesn’t really matter, because we would be better off anyway to ask this: What are we doing with the opportunities to serve Christ that He’s given us?

It’s intriguing to throw hypotheticals around and think about how we might respond.

But it’s more telling to consider situations we’re in right now and think about how we’re doing.

Today we’ll be faced with an opportunity to do the right thing. It might be at work or school or home, or perhaps while we’re sitting at the ballpark or staring at our computer.

Let’s decide now that we’ll do what John did—whatever’s right—without even thinking about the consequences.

Saying what needs to be said

I doubt John the Baptist would’ve fit very well in our politically correct society. People wouldn’t appreciate his unshakeable convictions and tell-it-like-it-is approach.

Of course John ended up being executed, so I suppose it didn’t serve him too well in the world he lived in either. But John, as you know, was living for a different world anyway.

The Herod family situation was a 1st-century version of our 21st-century soap operas. The details are messy, but here’s the gist of it: On a trip to Rome, Herod had fallen in love with Herodias, and he wanted to marry her.

Sounds like a good love story so far, right?

There were 2 problems: Herod was married to the daughter of another king, and Herodias was married to Herod’s brother Philip. Herod wasn’t willing to let these legalities interfere with his plan, though. He divorced his wife, persuaded Herodias to divorce her husband, and Herod and Herodias married. It would certainly seem that Herod’s stealing his brother’s wife might’ve made future family get-togethers somewhat awkward.

But regardless, Mark tells us how John enters the picture:

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly (Mark 6:14-20).

You don’t see that kind of courage too often anymore. What Herod and Herodias had done was wrong, and John spoke the truth about it.

Publicly, unashamedly, boldly.

And it made Herodias mad, as we might suspect. Who does this backwoods preacher think he is?

We need more people like John today, don’t we?

People who speak the truth even when it’s unpopular, who don’t change their views to accommodate whichever crowd they’re with.

What if politicians worried more about what was right than about what was popular?

If preachers thought more about what God wanted them to say instead of what their audiences wanted to hear?

What if all of us truly believed in telling everyone—out of love for people’s souls—what God’s word says?

Some folks wouldn’t like it, but that shouldn’t be our primary concern anyway, not when truth is at stake.

When people you know reject Christ

Some people are hard to reach.

You probably have someone in your family or circle of friends you’ve tried to share the Lord with, but they’ve shown no interest. They might’ve even displayed hostility.

You may have felt guilty about it.  I must be doing something wrong. If only I had the right words, the right approach . . .

Something like this happened in Jesus’ life. Read Mark’s account:

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching (Mark 6:1-6).

That must’ve been difficult for the Lord.

He returned home to Nazareth, probably eager to share His message with people He had grown up with. And it seemed to start well—people were amazed at His teaching.

But that’s as far as it went. They were scandalized by His lowly roots, and they doubted He could’ve risen higher than they or His family had.

So they rejected Him while simultaneously insulting His mother and siblings.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that if people rejected Christ—and most did—should it surprise us that many people turn away from the message we’re trying to share?

It’s often hardest to reach the ones who’ve known us the longest, especially if they knew us when we were growing up.

But we’re not responsible for how people respond. We need just to keep living the Christian life and looking for opportunities to share Christ.

Sometimes it takes people years to overcome emotional or intellectual barriers to the gospel, but some of them will eventually come to know Christ.

Is there someone you know who doesn’t yet believe? Perhaps soon the Lord will give you an opportunity again to talk about Christ and share your faith.

People outside your circle

Look around you. If you’re like many of us, you spend most of your time around people who are like you: they earn about the same amount of money, have comparable educations, and are of the same race.

Why is that?

The more I read the New Testament, the more it reminds me that Jesus spent a lot of time with people who were different.

He intentionally stepped outside of the cultural norms of His day to engage people who wouldn’t normally be in His circle.

Mark writes about one such interaction. After you read this short story, we’ll reflect on an interesting point.

And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” And he went with him. 

And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat (Mark 5:21-43).

It’s interesting that both of the people Jesus touched in this story had low places in their world: one was a child, the other was an outcast because of her continual state of ritual impurity, and both were females.

The woman with a discharge of blood was terrified when Jesus discovered that she had touched Him. Perhaps she thought that He was like all the other male Jewish leaders she knew—one of their main concerns was maintaining ritual cleanness, which meant staying away from people like her.

But of course Jesus didn’t criticize her; He commended her faith.

The other person Jesus helped was a little girl, and Jesus’ attention to children like her was uncharacteristic of most Jewish men.

But it probably shouldn’t surprise us.

Jesus cared about people, regardless of race, gender, age, or social status.

And this should tell us something about the people we spend our time with. There’s nothing wrong with having a group of good friends who share our interests, but we should intentionally reach outside our circle of friends to engage others.

Look around you. What kind of people do you spend most of your time with?

Do something today for someone outside that circle, a person who’s not like you, maybe someone who’s been relegated a few steps down the social ladder.

It seems that Jesus made a habit out of doing this.