“So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ceremonially unclean hands?'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever crossed a taboo? I live in the south now where, “Yes, Ma’am,” and “Yes, Sir,” are a fundamental part of the culture. Not so where I grew up. I grew up greeting most adults with nothing more than their first names. You can perhaps imagine the shock, then, when I met my wonderful in-laws when visiting Lisa in Charleston, SC for the first time and greeted them warmly by name…first name. Much to their credit, they handled my massive faux pas without even blinking, but I had violated a culturally sacred custom. Every culture has its customs. Some are wise and rightly held (like patterns of respect and honor in the south), but some are just there because, well, they’re there. Others are locked in place because of the currently prevailing worldview whether or not that worldview accords with reality. Jesus and His disciples came up against some of these during His ministry. Let’s talk about it.
While the Law of Moses utterly dominated the scene in first century Judea, it was not the only thing that dominated the scene. In fact, if you really wanted to push it, you could have made the observation that it was the second most important cultural shaper in terms of how people were expected to get along and go about their business on an average day. The most important thing was actually the various interpretations of the Law of Moses collected in the Talmud and other similar works. These teachings took the Law and, under the presumption of breaking it down to be easier to follow for the average person, actually served to add layer upon layer of complexity when the rubber met the road.
One of the major traditions to which the religious elite held (and which they naturally expected the average folks to hold to as well) were a series of ceremonial washings. Now, on the one hand, in a day before anyone understood anything about germ theory, these washings probably helped keep people from getting sick. I suspect that in places where the washings were rigorously observed there was less overall sickness than in places where they weren’t. People took notice and assumed the reason was God’s blessing their careful adherence to the Law.
But as is common for traditions like this, over time it gradually grew and expanded. If washing hands was good, perhaps they should be washing other things too. The result was a whole series of washings that took place all the time and worked out to be enormously impractical for the average person to try and keep on a regular basis. The Jewish leaders who had the time and money for such pomp and circumstance were smug in their self-righteousness over and against the peons who were not following the law as closely as they were. Of course, none of this was in the actual Law, but again, they viewed the teachings of the elders over the years as equal in importance and authority. When they saw Jesus, the highly reputable teacher of the Law that everyone thought Him to be, not practicing all of these customs, they saw an opening to discredit Him and pounced.
We’ll get into Jesus’ response tomorrow, but for now I want to spend a minute thinking through their objections. You see, every culture has its customs and habits. And every culture has a group of people who have appointed themselves the guardians of these customs and habits. These are folks with the money, power, and prestige to devote time to making sure other people are keeping the customs and harassing them when they don’t. They’ll do this using whatever levers of cultural or political or legal power they can lay their hands on. Now, these same individuals don’t necessarily follow all these rules and regulations themselves with the consistency they demand from others, but they consider their efforts to enforce conformity on the part of others to serve as indulgences for their minor sins.
Now, if you’re listening carefully, what I’m describing there may sound familiar. It sounds like a religion. Or at least, it sounds like the caricature of religion we are often presented today. Indeed, this caricature exists in part because of folks like these very Pharisees and scribes who were fussing at Jesus and the disciples. They have had their image bearers pop up again and again over the centuries since. Sometimes they have been in the church. Sometimes they have been in the culture. But they are always there. Most often they exist as self-appointed representatives of whatever the prevailing cultural religion happens to be. Where that has been Christianity they have proudly worn that hat. We live in a day now, though, when that is no longer the case. And indeed, they have moved out of the church for the most part. Okay, then where have they gone?
Think about what our prevailing cultural religion is today. It is a hybrid of technology and cultural progressivism. And behold, look which cultural voices are currently echoing with the greatest volume. Look which cultural powers are flexing their muscle most often. Facebook and Twitter have become the new temples of our cultural religion with Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey acting as our high priests. They enforce the new orthodoxy and you cross it only at your own peril.
One of the latest examples of this is the now former Mandalorian star Gina Carano. She staked out some opinions that violated the current political and cultural orthodoxy and was finally fired from the show by Disney, a company with a remarkable willingness to not only reflect, but also protect whatever it understands the prevailing cultural religion to be. Indeed, if Facebook and Twitter are the temples, Disney is the bishop enforcing the rules with ruthless efficiency. All of this is loudly supported by the major media companies who effectively serve as the prophets and priests of the current order. How ironic is it that these same voices who once protested and mocked this kind of cultural order being shepherded by the Christian church (which largely did a terrible job at it as is well-demonstrated by the speed at which the culture turned from celebrating it to hating it) have stepped in to fill the vacuum they helped to create and become the very things they once professed to hate and oppose? Such irony, though, is generally entirely lost on the heralds of the new order once they have taken power. Indeed, while their positions may, people don’t change.
Friends, this is how the world has always worked. The people in power enforce the worldview that granted their power with all the authority they can muster. The worldview changes, but the results don’t. In the whole history of humanity there has been but one exception to this pattern: the movement Jesus started 2,000 years ago. This movement is best represented by the church, although the church tends to jump right into the fray whenever it gets a little cultural power which is why its seasons of thriving have always been when it doesn’t have much cultural power. Nonetheless, the church is the institution Jesus intended for His movement to have form and substance. Only in the church has there ever been a genuine freedom from the tyranny of the prevailing cultural religion. And again, we haven’t always gotten it right. Sometimes we’ve been devastatingly wrong. But no one else has ever come close. The movement of Jesus has only one rule and the rest is freedom. Love one another. Get that right and everything else falls nicely into place. If you’re tired of living in a world where the powers that be are looking for opportunities to force you into conformity with the prevailing cultural religion, let me invite you into the only place where real freedom has ever existed.