Centuries ago, when marriages were basically transactions between families of a woman to a man, the tradition began of the man standing on the right as they approached the altar and the woman standing on the left. (Many heterosexual couples today still hold to this tradition.) Why was this tradition started you ask?
I happen to read it recently...it was thought that if the couple were standing, facing the reverend, then the groom would be holding the bride’s hand with his left hand, and, should another man try to forcefully take the bride as his own, the groom would have his right hand - his sword/fighting hand - free to defend her.
Thus, the man stood on the right and the woman on the left. (I know a couple who recently decided to buck that system because one felt their more photogenic side was the opposite positions of standing.)
It’s a tradition with a meaning from a long time ago. Most don’t know the meaning. Most don’t care. It doesn’t apply to every couple. But now you know.
In our story today, Jesus encounters some people who are questioning why the disciples aren’t following a tradition of hand washing.
The tradition wasn’t so that germs were kept at bay; they weren’t concerned about hand sanitizer v. soap/water. The hand washing tradition started years before during the time that the Temple existed in Jerusalem. The priests had numerous rituals to follow before entering the sanctuary; this hand washing piece was one of them. Once the Temple was destroyed, though, the rabbis didn’t want to lose its significance and so it was moved to their tables - to their home “altars” - to wash their hands before a meal Thus, the Pharisees expected that Jesus’ disciples would go through the hand washing ritual in a home before a meal.
Rituals and traditions have such a wide history supporting them. Many households have holiday traditions - of ballgames or certain decorations. Individuals have traditions; churches have traditions; schools have traditions; religions have traditions.
And each of these traditions started for a good reason, I’m sure. They were started as way of spending time together or thinking that if you wear certain socks then your sports team will win or remembering what we’ve been taught in our religions.
Traditions were started with a deeper purpose than just “I like these socks.” David Lose stated, “We each have traditions that are more than traditions. They are markers of what has been accepted as right and wrong and thereby serve to lend us a sense of stability.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-14-b-tradition/) Traditions create a sturdy foundation.
It’s when those traditions can’t carry on for whatever reason, that it’s a good time to seek and reflect on the meaning behind it. It’s a good time to get to the heart of the matter. Maybe somebody moves away; maybe new information is found.
For instance, I heard this week that Clemson University is discontinuing its tradition of releasing thousands of balloons at the start of football games because they’re learning more about the environmental harm of when those balloons fall back down to the earth. The tradition started with good intent; it created a bonding point for many Clemson fans; and now it’s time to discover a new tradition for fans to bond over.
When we reflect on why we do something, we may not only discover that its consequences no longer match our intent, but we may discover that it’s meaning doesn’t express what we believe anymore, similar to the case with hand washing that we read today.
In reflecting on today’s Scripture, Karoline Lewis on workingpreacher.org stated, “What’s the good news for this week? All of these texts articulate how hard it is to live what we believe, to speak our truth, to be willing to bring forth in our words and our actions what is in our hearts. And how hard it is to hear that what others hear from us does not seem to be us. That’s why you need people around you who will tell you the truth when they see a disconnect between who you are and what you say and do.”
Do our rituals and traditions still express what is inside of us - in our hearts? As Psalm 15 alludes to, it is what is in our hearts that brings us into the presence and dwelling of God. (Hoping, of course, that what is in our hearts will come forth truthfully in our actions.)
Perhaps if we question why a certain tradition or ritual is practiced, then we may discover that either it’s a belief we want to emphasize more or it’s a belief we no longer hold to be true.
Turning back to Jesus and the hand washings. As said, the ritual was moved to the home from being practiced in the Temple. From there, however, the ritual turned into a way of distinguishing “insiders” and “outsiders.” Those who knew the law and those who didn’t. It became a way of justifying discrimination and exclusion. (http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2015/08/on-hand-washing-shells-and-our-oh-so.html; Rev. Dr. Janet H Hunt)
The ritual strayed far from its original intent, which was to bring people closer to God. It turned in such a way that it was excluding people from God. It was time for that ritual to be re-examined, because it showed that it was time for it to change.
I don’t believe that Jesus was upset with the literal act of washing hands before a eating (note: he didn’t actually tell the Pharisees to stop practicing the ritual), but I do think he was upset with the hypocrisy behind that ritual. He was more upset with the thinking that what is done on the outside - that the appearances of religion - matter more than the intent and the heart motivation behind the actions.
As ritual-followers ourselves - because we do have individual and collective rituals - we need to be responsible holders of those rituals, making them accessible to all. Not using them to exclude anyone, creating “insiders” and “outsiders.”
We need to ask about other people’s rituals, so that we learn their purpose and not judge for another way of doing things. (For example, in two weeks we’ll host a Buddhist speaker and learn about their rituals and traditions.)
We need to ask ourselves about our rituals and traditions - in our homes, with our families, in our community, and in our church. We need to ask “Do these things still convey the message we believe and want spread?” Traditions, in and of themselves, are not bad things, but we need to remind ourselves that they are not the end goal. They are simply outward expressions of our inward selves.
I pray we all have the strength and wisdom to make sure they match up.
Scripture: Psalm 15 & Mark 7:1-2,5-8,14-15,21