After three Sundays on the Bread of Life discourse in John, the lectionary this week takes us back to Mark. The transition is sharp. No longer do we read about Jesus promising to satisfy and raise and abide in His people. Instead, we encounter a Jesus who goes on the attack against the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocritical disregard for the Word and commands of God. Simply put, this is not a happy text. If you are going to preach from it, you should keep in mind several preliminary observations:

  1. There is no explicit gospel in this text. There are no gracious promises, no saving works of Jesus, no words of comfort and encouragement. It is a rebuke and a warning. If you are to proclaim good news of Jesus from this text, you should be clear from the outset that you will need to import the Gospel.
  2. Jesus spoke this rebuke and warning to the Pharisees and scribes. He did not speak to the baptized people of God who have gathered for worship this week. While your hearers face related temptations, you will want to acknowledge the cultural, social, and theological distance between your people and the people to whom Jesus was speaking. In other words, you cannot simply repeat verbatim what Jesus said in the text to the people of God today.

These qualifications notwithstanding, this text offers an opportunity to help contemporary Christians take a careful and honest look at their own faithfulness to God’s commands in relation to the traditions they hold dear. Jesus’ rebuke, which stands as a warning for God’s people of any time or place, is most clearly stated in verse 8: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to (κρατέω) the tradition of men.”

The presenting issue for Jesus’ rebuke was the fact that His disciples were not washing their hands according to tradition. Check a commentary for the cultural and cultic details, but do not let your sermon get lost in those weeds. Instead, focus attention on the perennial temptation to let human traditions get in the way of God’s commands. Even good and helpful practices can become so important to us that they overshadow the clear instructions of God in Scripture. Jesus’ words in this text remind us there are two ways to abuse the authority of the Scriptures. Sometimes we are tempted to say less than the Scriptures say by ignoring or rejecting what is clearly written. At other times we are tempted to say more than the Scriptures say by insisting upon our own ideas and additions. In this case, the Pharisees and scribes were doing both.

Even good and helpful practices can become so important to us that they overshadow the clear instructions of God in Scripture.

Members of your congregation (much like you and I) are tempted to do the same. This is especially the case with helpful and longstanding traditions. Indeed, the more helpful and the longer standing the tradition, the more difficult it may be to spot this temptation. Which is why your sermon should do more than discuss the theoretical danger of making tradition more important than God’s commands. It should expose concrete ways in which your congregation is tempted to do this in their specific context. You might start with some personal self-examination to acknowledge some of your own beloved traditions and commitments.

If you have a tough time identifying such a tradition in your context, you could use the example Jesus identifies in the text. In verses 10-13, He points to their neglect of the Fourth Commandment for the sake of an ostensibly religious tradition which obscured (and even negated) God’s command to honor one’s father and mother. The “Corban” practice is probably not an issue for your hearers, but that is okay. We have plenty of other ways of justifying the lack of honor we give to parents and others in authority. Consider the various excuses and traditions we have created to avoid the clear command.

Up to this point, however, there is still no gospel for this sermon. You might get there by recalling the contrast between what the Pharisees and scribes were “holding to” and what God invites us to “hold to” in faith. If you would like to stick with the same verb (κρατέω), you could point towards the book of Hebrews and its encouragement to hold to our confession of Christ as the Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) and the sure and certain hope we have in Him (Hebrews 6:18). Or you could note how the Lutheran Confessions speak of faith as that which clings to Christ (see the Large Catechism, First Commandment, 4). In this case, you would clearly proclaim the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ to which we cling.

As we cling to Christ, we also cling to His good commands. This leads to the goal for this sermon, which would be to help your hearers keep in proper perspective the relationship between the commands of God and human traditions. As we do so, we will pay more attention to the commands of God (such as honoring our parents and other authorities) than maintaining human traditions. This will still leave room for helpful traditions to support our Christian faith and life. But it will prevent those traditions from overshadowing or negating the clear commands and promises of God which we find in the Scriptures.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 7:1-13.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 7:1-13.

Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 7:1-13.