Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” [from Mark 7]
Some of you have heard this story before…
When I got married more than 27 years ago, I thought I knew what to expect. I’d read all the books, talked to friends. I knew there would be an adjustment period when we’d decide who would do household tasks (taking out the garbage and washing the dishes), learn each other’s idiosyncrasies (not that I have any), deal with each other’s weaknesses (again, not mine), and enjoy one another’s gifts.
I did not expect serious disagreements over cornbread.
I grew up in the mountain south, where all cornbread is made from white cornmeal, a little flour, and the tiniest bit of sugar (if any at all). Add shortening and some leavening agents, throw that baby in the oven, and you have corn deliciousness.
The first time I made it for my husband, it was perfect. And he nearly gagged.
From Baltimore, he was used to cornbread made with yellow meal, lots of flour, and a huge amount of sugar. In my family, we derisively called that type of bread “corncake.” He had no problem with that name. He did have a problem with my cornbread.
My problem was this: his cornbread was just plain wrong. Culinarily. Culturally. Morally. Sacrilegious, if you want to know the truth.
We hear Jesus talk about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, how they wanted people to obey minute rituals, and it seems silly to us.
Some of the little, picky laws and observances had become burdensome. Worse, people identified those forms with true religion. It’s truly hard not to do this. Because it’s easier to keep to forms and practices than it is to look deep within ourselves for faith and love and willingness to change.
I’ll bet nearly all of us closely equate our religious experience with certain forms, certain styles of music, certain types of prayers, certain manners of preaching. There have been times in my life when some forms were more helpful than others, and at those times I believed those forms were intrinsically better than others. Times when I found hymns sung around the campfire to be better, and times when I thought German chorales to be better, and times when I thought the Old Rugged Cross was better.
The forms of our religion might be the things we grew up with or the things that became meaningful to us somewhere along the way. In either case, they become deeply ingrained in our psyche.
That is a good thing. It’s good to know and appreciate what has meant something to us.
It’s even better to keep in mind which practices of our faith are important to us and what things are important to God.
Jesus refers disparagingly to the traditions of the elders, human traditions, and your traditions. He speaks positively of the commandment of God and the word of God.
He doesn’t seem to be condemning the practice of ceremonial hand washing. Instead, he’s challenging his listeners on something else—what’s more important: to be ceremonially clean, or to be able to eat?
The point: God wants our hearts, not some mindless obedience to the rules of good behavior, fine though those rules might be. Once our hearts are in the right place, then we can discuss the other rules and practices together.
If we learn to do this in our communities of faith, maybe we’ll have something to share with our neighbors.
Politics, for instance. Oh my. If we could come together around love for country and respect for each other, maybe we could learn to compromise on the details.
Yes, I eventually learned to make what I called “compromise cornbread” It still has white meal, but it has more flour and sugar than what I was accustomed to, and less than what my husband grew up eating. Don’t tell him, but I think it’s better than the stuff I used to make.
When we stop for a minute to think about why we do things the way we do them, we need to remember what Jesus showed us: some things are weightier than others. Feeding people is more important than ceremony. Relationships are more important than tradition. Let’s figure out what the heavier commandments are, then concentrate on them.
All the other stuff is just cornbread.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2012