The woman had conspired with her husband to commit a slew of treasonous murders. Now, as she looked at her hands, she wondered if she would ever again have a clear conscience. “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” She asked. “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
All of us have known the troubled conscience of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. We try to wash away our guilt but find it too deep for us to remove.
One of the ways people try to deal with guilt is by observing religious traditions. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day used traditional hand-washing to help make them feel clean before God (Cf. Mark 7:1-23). But Jesus’ wasn’t impressed. He knew that their rituals and their hearts were disconnected. Jesus’ exposé of their empty ceremonialism can be liberating.
The Appeal of Traditionalism
Ironically, in the Old Testament God prescribed ceremonial washings for his people (Cf. Lev. 15:11). Surely he was teaching the safety of sanitation. But at a far deeper level God was cultivating a principle of purity. He was training his people to wash their hearts by confessing their sins and seeking his forgiveness. He was preparing them for the coming of his Son who, with his precious blood, would wash away all his children’s sins. Old Testament handwashing—tied to God’s plan for moral renovation—was far from an empty tradition. Biblically-warranted traditions can become habits that tamp the truths of the gospel to the level of reflex in God’s people.
Here’s the problem: According to Jesus, the Pharisees used tradition as an end of religion rather than a means of godliness. They trusted in rituals though their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6). Though they worshiped God in vain (v. 7), going through traditional motions made them feel comfortable and superior to others. In Fiddler on the Roof, the main character Tevye provides an honest commentary on this kind of religion. “Because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
But traditionalism is always a lousy substitute for a living friendship with God. Mark tells this story well. Jesus’ own disciples had recently preached the gospel with amazing results. Sinful, fearful, and sick people had found hope and wholeness in Jesus (Mark 6:12-13, 56). But having never experienced the beauty of true religion the Pharisees and scribes’ could only accuse: “You don’t wash your hands right!” What a tragedy.
We can be allured by tradition. Some people try to deal with guilt by means of secular rituals—shopping, exercise, work, hobbies. Others medicate their sins by keeping religious routines. Traditional observance can masquerade as a vibrant walk with God. By maintaining our familiar religious habits we avoid the risks of true discipleship. By judging others whose traditions differ we feel more confident in ourselves. Because customs can make us feel so comfortable we don’t always sense their potential danger.
The Attributes of Traditionalism
Instead of simply defending his disciples for not washing their hands Jesus used Isaiah 29:13 (Cf. Mark 7:6-7) to expose the hypocrisy and legalism of these religious traditionalists.
Hypocrisy is the lip-service of a disinterested heart. Hypocrites wear a mask of religion to cover their lack of true piety. The great danger of religiosity is that one can go through the motions—attempting to placate God with tithes, sacraments, church attendance, Christian schooling, fancy clothes, and conservative slogans—while wandering far from him. Calvin put it well: “Nothing pleases [God] that is not accompanied by the inward sincerity of heart.” God calls hypocrites to de-mask by confessing their sins to God and others. Confession shows that we agree with God about what he sees behind our masks.
Legalism is “teaching “as doctrines the commandments of men” (v. 7). Legalism makes human tradition weightier than God’s word. Legalists require what God does not require or forbid what God does not forbid. Once man-made laws become a tradition, we have a hard time distinguishing them from God’s will. Legalism can actually keep us from obeying God by focusing attention more on our rules than on him. With such a mindset it is possible to develop an ethic that strains out gnats and swallows camels (Matt. 23:24).
The Absurdity of Traditionalism
Here’s why "tradition keeping" is never the same as a true friendship with God: Defilement comes from within not from without (Mark 7:14-23). Anyone can go through religious motions. But if we are unclean inside, all our traditions are a total waste.
Jesus gets to the heart of defilement by listing thirteen sins that flow from the heart, thirteen hammers that smash the idol of traditionalism: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). Jesus’ closing argument against traditionalism is stunning; clearly unrinsed hands are the least of anyone’s problems. Traditionalism can in no way purify our sinful hearts.
The good news is that real purity is not only possible but promised by God in Christ. In his very next passage Mark tells about a woman whose daughter had an “unclean” spirit (Mark 7:24-30). This family was made clean, not by conforming to secular or religious traditions, but by a living, self-emptying faith in Jesus Christ.
The Bible nowhere condemns tradition per se. Traditions can broaden and deepen our Christian experience. They can stabilize us, keeping us from making crazy mistakes on a whim. But misplaced love of tradition can also blind us from God’s will, keeping us from exploring alternatives to our well-worn paths. Trust in tradition will lead us away from refreshing, renewing life in Christ. On the other hand, a right use of tradition can help us believe God’s promise: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Is. 1:18).
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan and is the author of several books including Bible Studies on Mark (Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2016), from which this article is adapted.