Excerpted from Pastor Hoffman's September 2nd homily. Relevant text: Deuteronomy 4:1-9, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-23
One of my favorite musicals is Fiddler on the Roof. Do you all know this musical? The story takes place in a peasant, Jewish village in czarist Russia about 1905. The musical starts with Tevye, the village dairyman, speaking to the audience as a fiddler plays while perched upon a rooftop in the distance. Let me remind you what it is that Tevye says.
“The fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say everyone one of us is a fiddler on a roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy.
“And, how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word. TRADITION! And, because of our tradition, everyone here knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”
The scribes and Pharisees have something in common with Tevye and the village of Anatevka. Can you guess what it is? I can tell you in one word. TRADITION!
We are told in today's text that the Pharisees, and all the Jews, did not eat unless they thoroughly washed their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; nor did they eat anything from the market unless they washed it. And, there were also many other traditions that they observed like the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles.
Now these traditions probably don't seem very strange to us today. Who hasn’t been taught to wash his or her hands before sitting down to eat?
But there is a difference between our actions and the similar behavior of the Pharisees. We wash and clean before and after meals, to protect ourselves from germs. Few of us would believe, however, that washing our hands before we eat, or washing our food before we cook it, makes us a better person. Cleaner and healthier maybe, but not holier.
The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, didn't wash their hands, food, and utensils because it was good hygiene, but because their fathers did, and their grandfathers, and their grandfather's grandfathers. And by following this tradition, they believed they were assuring their closeness to God.
Our Old Testament text tells us that God did in fact give Israel statutes and ordinances that they were to observe without addition or omission. This refers to the 613 mitzvot, or commands, found within the Torah, the first five books of our Bible.
So it appears the Pharisees and scribes have just as legitimate a reason for washing their hands and food and utensils as we do. They are the children of the children of the ancestors whom God first commanded. And yet, Jesus condemns them, calling them hypocrites, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
I can see the scribes and Pharisees scratching their heads and saying, “Wait a minute. I thought the tradition WAS the commandment, which came from God.” So how and when did the commandment become the tradition established by humans? I will tell you. But first, let me ask you a few questions.
Do you know why the paraments are green today? Or why they are purple during Lent? Do you know why we hold our main worship service on Sunday mornings and not the last day of the week as God commanded? Do you know why you sit where you do each week? And, here's the tough one. Why do you come to church at all?
It is possible to answer all of those questions with the word "tradition." And, you wouldn't be wrong. Yet there is a much deeper reason as to why we do what we do, and why we do it when we do – the belief that what we do, and how we do it, remind us of our devotion to God and God's devotion to us. Much like Tevye's prayer shawl.
The Epistle writer James said much the same thing. In the text today, he wrote, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." To go through the motions is not enough.
"Just because" and "tradition" do not save. What does? Grace by faith.
It is our faith, or our response to God’s saving grace, that ties what we do here with what we do out there. The living out of our faith is what gives meaning to "just because" and makes "tradition" more than just a human ordinance.
So how do you acquire your faith? I’ll tell you. You can't!
Faith is a gift from God, obtained only through the grace and by the mercy of God. And the means of grace, ways we open ourselves to experience God’s grace that we might receive and grow in faith, are our sacraments baptism and holy communion.
It's not easy, as Tevye says, to keep one’s balance. But we must remember that God's grace is sufficient, even on those days when we find that our faith is as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. Amen.