Human Tradition

By James Cornwell

A Reading from the Gospel of Mark 7:1-23

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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.) 5 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?” 6 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;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”


Here Jesus rebuffs the invidious implications of the Pharisees, who ask him why his disciples do not all follow the tradition of washing their hands before eating. He answers that although the Pharisees and scribes follow the established public traditions of their fathers, they neglect the commands of God as revealed in the Scriptures.

This is a convicting phrase of Christ’s: “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

How many human traditions do we follow in the ethical, political, and social discourses and involvement of our day? How many of us, when asked to defend some contested ground, or take action, rather than rooting our response in the word of God, instead root it in some comparatively recent philosophical treatise, social innovation, or parochial tradition of our particular corner of the globe? Television talking heads, leaders of social and political discourse, and those who fill our social media feeds trade in a variety of human traditions as justification for why they are morally superior or intellectually correct and therefore ought to stand in judgment over their fellows. We should take care. We too can start washing our hands with capitalism, socialism, constitutionalism, nationalism, libertarianism, expressive individualism, feminism, traditionalism itself — all handed down to us by our fathers and mothers — and ostentatiously wonder aloud why others open their mouths without first washing their hands in our traditions as well.

Note well that Jesus does not condemn tradition — indeed, we owe a great deal to established traditions, including some named above. But we must take care to recognize that the authority of any tradition is entirely provisional, and ultimately must root itself in the word of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or it is counterproductive. Let us take time this Lent to reflect upon those human traditions we take for granted, placing them and ourselves under the authority of the commandment of God.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their seven children.

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Today we pray for:

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tulsa, Okla.
The Diocese of Nord Kivu – Province de L’Eglise Anglicane Du Congo


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