Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, "O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart.
"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his 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 honours 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." 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 your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had 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."
The core of biblical teaching is that whatever God made is indeed very good. From this angle we can examine today's texts, the better to understand the words of both Solomon and Jesus. In his new-built temple Solomon ponders, "Can it be that God indeed dwells among us on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built?" And Jesus excoriates the lawyers for "making a fine art of setting aside God's commandment [i.e. that the world, as blessed by God, is very good] just for the sake of keeping your traditions."
Solomon's prayer reminds us that God's presence fills the universe, and so the king asks how a mere building can contain God. And Jesus argues that the produce of the world, its fruits and vegetables, are all clean because they have been created and blessed by God. Still, Solomon did build the temple; and Jesus did sanction fasting and abstinence from food. The Bible holds together these diverse statements about eating and fasting, about the entire world as God's dwelling and about building a temple or church for prayer. This diversity is not meant to cancel out or neutralize but rather to balance, nuance and enrich.
We build a church for the community for the same reason that we build a home for a family. We need the home in order to learn how to love and feel secure. Only then are we capable of extending our love to the larger human family. Likewise, we benefit from a church building where we learn to be family or covenanted people, bonded to one another and to God. Through the church, we have a place for prayer and instruction and a faith-community with whom to interact. Without the church we would have been deprived of the Scriptures, of the sacraments and the memory of saints.
To wash ourselves or our food before eating is good, if it induces cleanliness and respect. Yet if it just leads to arguments and a spirit of contempt (as seems to have happened), it negates the plan of God to form one human family made in his own likeness. The Bible is continually cutting down the barriers which we raise. If the word of God sanctions walls for temple and home, it is with the intention of training us to live in the world outside those walls. When we are thoroughly at home in the outside world, then we are ready for heaven, "the highest heavens," where all God's children are at home. Therefore, Jesus could not tolerate separations that divide and split apart. People who favour such divisiveness are the hypocrites condemned by the Scripture: This people pays me lip service but their heart is far from me.
Jesus accuses the religious leaders of putting aside the commandments of God, the word of God, so as to cling to human traditions. Jesus recognized that the religious traditions of his time did not always correspond to God's will as revealed in the Scriptures, and as revealed in a much fuller way now by Jesus himself. The church always has to be on the alert to ensure that its own traditions conform to God's word to us, especially as spoken by Jesus. Every so often the church has to renew itself, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to purify its traditions so that they correspond more closely to the true spirit of the gospel.
In our own personal lives too we can get into traditional ways of doing things that are not in keeping with the core of God's message to us in and through the Scriptures. Our own personal tradition, whether it is our religious tradition, or our tradition in the broader sense, is always in need of reform in the light of the gospel. We need to keep on hearing the word of the Lord afresh, and to invoke the Holy Spirit to help us to do so. [MH]