Mark 7:1-13 When Tradition Misses The Point

7 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[d] and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[e] 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

When Tradition Misses The Point

Some people in Jesus’ day were genuinely perplexed about how to keep themselves holy.  ‘Holy’ mean set apart for God.  God’s people, Israel, did not have a good track record of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow path.  The Pharisees thought they would help out by delineating what people should do to keep themselves holy in more and more situations.  They lost the plot a little on the way.  They went from being holy because they were set apart from God to being holy to the exclusion of having a relationship with God.  Their principles became so complicated that they lost some of the simplest principles of being holy.  Then when Jesus’ disciples break one of their laws they try and use it to discredit Jesus.

Jesus shows them that, in effect, they have no relationship with God.  They have set themselves apart, but it is not set apart ‘to God’.  It is set apart in an exclusive clique kind of way.  Jesus counters them and maintains his credibility and teaches his disciples at the same time.

In more modern times churches can identify traditions that set them apart.  These traditions can be good, but upholding them to the detriment of relationship with people and with God is unhealthy.  Protestants often bash Catholics because of their many traditions and the way people slavishly and mindlessly serve those traditions with no relationship with God.  However, I know Protestants whose love of tradition has led to hateful and hurtful action.  For example, the traditions in some circles about what ways a woman should have her head covered, the traditions regarding what music should be played, and the traditions regarding how The Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) is administered.  When people fight over such things without a heart of service to God or their neighbor, what we have is an unholy mess.

Traditions can be beautiful when they help a person relate to the community and to God.  They are ugly when they are a protection against being punished or a means of control.


I see that others have their traditions.  What do I hold precious?  Is it that people in the small group should read MY blog as a measure of their spirituality?  As much as I hold to that, it is laughable.  Is it that people should read the Bible every day in the morning?  Let me be aware of ‘tricks’ and ‘schemes’ that I establish to control others, be accepted, or to manage my fears.  Let me be free to relate to the Father by devoted holiness from a thankful heart.  My practices (in some real ways) achieve nothing, but they can reveal everything.


  1. What rules do Jesus’ disciples break?
  2. What do you think The Tradition Of The Elders was?
  3. What is wrong with the approach of Israel’s leaders?
  4. Which traditions do people follow out of fear, control, or laziness?
  5. How should we address a wrong attitude to tradition in ourselves or others?

Note:  Even a constant desire for what is new can be a tradition.  A truly free position is one that is open to both new things and old things.

About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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2 Responses to Mark 7:1-13 When Tradition Misses The Point

  1. cyeaman says:

    Traditions give us comfort and stability. We know what to expect with traditions. I LOVE traditions because I like to know what and how things will happen. I have in the last few years realized that I like them because of the control I feel I have and because of the fear of the unknown. I try to work at letting go of these things especially for my daughters. I want them to love God and others because of a relationship, not because it is a tradition. Lord continue to help me to let go of my need for some of my “must have” traditions. Let me focus on interacting with You and others.

    • Plymothian says:

      I still think we will celebrate traditions at Christmas, but like you say, are we doing it to maintain safety and control or to celebrate something lasting and beautiful?

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