Have you ever been sat in a church service and wondered that you might be out doing something more useful instead? There are occasions when such thoughts crossed my mind, perhaps it was a failing on my part, but there have been moments at church services where I did not get a great sense that any of it had anything to do with Jesus.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is always exciting; always relevant to the problems and needs of people; always challenging to those who need change; always open to those who seek help; always a friend to the stranger; always a support to the tired and depressed; always an inspiration to anyone who tried to follow him. The Jesus of the Gospels is the most amazing, most charismatic, most life-changing man.
When we hear Jesus’ scathing attack on the Pharisees in today’s reading from Saint Mark, we may think it’s got nothing to do with the current times. The Pharisees were a religious group 2,000 years ago, but they had become stuck in their ways. Their beliefs were sincere and they were good people, but the life and the power had gone out of their religion. Jesus says to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
The Pharisees would have been furious at Jesus. They would have dismissed him as a troublemaker and a rabble rouser. They would have been angry with him because he had hit a sore spot. Many devout Jews knew that their religion had become lifeless. The very reason why groups like the Pharisees had sprung up was to try to counteract what they saw as the rottenness and deadness at the heart of religion.
Jesus doesn’t tell them that what they believe is wrong. He tells them that how they go about practising their beliefs is the problem They have forgotten the commands of God and they have become concerned only with their own traditions.
There are many people who have no problem with Christianity, their problem is with the way the church goes about things. They are happy with the commands of God, what they are not happy with are the traditions of the church. Traditions are only useful if they serve the original purpose, which is to tell people about Jesus. Jesus is not concerned with the outward rituals, he is concerned with what is in the hearts of people.
It is not what is done, it is the way that it is done. It’s not the outward traditions that count, it’s the motivation in people’s hearts. There can be 16th Century liturgies that are full of warmth and life, and modern worship events that are cold and impersonal; what is important is that it is more than just tradition. Jesus criticized the worship of the Pharisees in words from Isaiah, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” The criticism applies to everyone at times, what matters is the response to it.
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men,” Jesus accuses the Pharisees. Is faith about tradition, or about something far greater?.