“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of the disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain they do worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother’; and ‘Whosoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)– then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
~ Mark 7.1-13, NRSV (emphasis added)
As a southerner, I was raised both to respect my elders and to honor tradition. But, as I have grown older, I have learned that gray hair is not an indication that one is wise and a bent back does not support the thought that one is honorable. I still listen and answer them, “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am.” But, I am not so quick to take heed to their counsel or to do what has always been done as it is often born of old wounds, miseducation or outright ignorance.
I used to believe everything that the elders told me as we were instructed not to think of them as or call them liars. It was comparable to swearing at them and the punishment for such a crime was unthinkable. Consequently, I wrongly believed that they were always right so I didn’t question what was being told to me, taught to me, handed to me, passed down to me.
I surmised that because they were older, they knew better. This thought was certainly reinforced in my family, community and church. Their words seemed to suggest that my age prevented me from attaining the knowledge that they possessed. I had not “lived long enough” they would say and they were right about that. So, what they knew would be out of my reach so long as they lived.
But, when they began to die and I, now older, realized that they were not all- knowing or all- seeing. People don’t speak well of the dead for long and their well- kept secrets were exposed. Their lives became illustrations for the teaching of those younger than me and then, I saw it: the cycle.
Today, there seems to be an endless supply of old fools. If my parents would come clean, I am sure that there were no shortage of these creatures when I was growing up. An old fool is one of the saddest appearances, to observe someone that has not learned from their mistakes or who continues to repeat the same bad habits that have resulted in their present condition is difficult. They have not learned self- discipline or self- correction and have found ways to justify their poor decisions and actions.
Still, they retain their position as elder and are allowed to carry on with their duties despite the fact that they don’t meet the qualifications. They pass down traditions that have grown out of their personal experiences, their family’s history or the stories of persons that they have met along the way. And we are simply to practice them; no questions asked.
We “do many things like this.” But, what happens when those traditions call for us to go against the commandments of Christ, to do the very opposite of what our faith calls for? What are we to make of our traditions of hating, segregating and prejudging when they make void the Word of God?
With all due respect to our elders and our collective history, I suggest that we reexamine why we do what we do, why we are who we are and consider letting go of the traditions of race.