In this passage we read of the Pharisees' criticism of Jesus' disciples for not washing their hands before eating bread and Jesus' forceful response. As a Bible-bred evangelical, I have read this over my lifetime with some self-righteous satisfaction that as a current follower of Jesus, I would never put "tradition" ahead of obedience. It has always been easy to criticize "traditionalism", especially as someone who spent 13 years developing and leading a "contemporary" service for a traditional, main line congregation.
As I would read this though, I would fail to expand its application to "traditions" that I might not have thought were "traditional" by the measure Jesus might have been using. Is it possible that if Jesus were addressing the issue today, the examples he may give might make some of us non-traditionalists uncomfortable?
The "tradition" that the disciples had failed to honor was not part of the law of Moses but had developed over time as a well-intended strategy to honor God. In fact, it might be argued that the habit of hand-washing was an "above and beyond" measure to show extreme allegiance to the God of Moses. It would make sense for the guardians of spiritual health in Jesus' time (the Pharisees) to call out the allegedly God-honoring followers of Jesus (his disciples) on this matter of a widely accepted spiritual discipline of that time.
Jesus response was to them yet another attack on what they had painstakingly developed over hundreds of years of honoring the religion of Abraham and Moses- a religion at least theoretically centered on the God who Jesus claimed to be his Father. Jesus wasn't confronting blatant sin or overt rebellion against the Torah; Jesus was calling out something that had become so ingrained in their religious activity, that it had usurped the simplicity of the kind of activity that would mark those who claimed to be God's people. Hand washing had become equal to if not greater than honoring human dignity.
Could we possibly make an application from this passage to the perspective Americanized Christians carry about attending church?
I wonder what Jesus would say to those today who have made attending an institutional church service equal to or more important than honoring others with dignity and love. "Jesus, your followers aren't members of or attending a church in town. Why?"
Perhaps we have made something- attendance at a consumer-driven church service- greater in importance than Jesus did. Perhaps the way we live our values as people who share God's spiritual DNA should be highlighted more than how many times we attend church or which church we currently attend. Wouldn't Jesus challenge those who "draw near with their mouth and honor with the lips but whose hearts are far from him" to a purer and simpler life- a life that he exemplified?
Yes, followers should congregate and learn from one another. But like the Pharisees in this story who were challenged to regain God's true perspective, we may need to rethink (repent?) how we are functioning in our "churches" and why we think that what we do in those churches is so critically important to how we live as Jesus' followers.