I’m on vacation right now, but I’m always a sucker for a congregation who needs a pastor to fill in for them during a pastoral vacancy. This morning it was my privilege to preach at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in North Tonawanda, New York. (I was going to share a pic, but the photo interface on Blogger with iOs is **horrible.**)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The problem is not that the disciples didn’t wash their hands. The problem is that they didn’t wash their hands according to the tradition of the elders, which was a special kind of ceremonial washing. The scribes and Pharisees take offense because the disciples don’t wash their hands the right way. That phrase “tradition of the elders” has a certain ring to it. It sounds very official and very noble. It sounds like a good thing. The problem is that the hypocrites among the scribes and Pharisees studied Holy Scripture and the “tradition of the elders” in order to determine what they could get away with and still consider themselves righteous according to the law. They were interpreting the law in the way they wanted to interpret it and condemning everyone who did not agree with them. Does that sound familiar? It should because our culture still does that today.
Jesus quickly showed that these scribes and Pharisees valued their tradition above the Word of God. He even showed how their traditions allowed them to violate the Word of God as given to Moses. The scribes and Pharisees were teaching and practicing a man-made religion instead of the faith given by God. Jesus calls for faithfulness to God, not just an outward obedience. Jesus is the “old-fashioned” ultra-conservative doctrinal purist we love to hate, always taking His hearers back to the Word of God. Not all traditions are harmful, but any tradition which distracts from the Word of God and the gifts our Lord died to give us, we must set them aside for our good.
The words Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees bring us to ask some very uncomfortable questions. Do I worship God with my lips, but reject Him in my heart? Do I express my own ideas as true doctrine? Do I have any traditions that reject or distract from the Word and commandment of God? How often do I behave exactly like the scribes and Pharisees, becoming offended by every little thing while I myself ignore the Word of God? Sinners that we are, the answers to those questions make us just as uncomfortable as the questions themselves.
Although the scribes and Pharisees were indeed foolish with their washing rituals, there is a kind of washing that God did give for all people. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This Baptism, this washing, is not a “tradition of the elders.” Instead, it is the Word of the Christ who is both God and Lord.
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” These words teach us that the washing of Holy Baptism joins us to the cross of Christ. This washing which He earned with His suffering and death on the cross “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.”
The scribes and Pharisees were right in thinking that washing was important. They were wrong in thinking that it was the washing of the “tradition of the elders.” The important washing is the washing away of sin for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. We do not need to make up new laws or traditions that we can keep in order to earn our salvation. The Holy Spirit delivers the forgiveness of sins, won for us by Jesus Christ, through the washing of Holy Baptism. This is no mere tradition; this is a gift from God, one that serves for our eternal good. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.