WHAT DID JESUS SAY ABOUT RELIGION AND TRADITION?
The term tradition has two meanings, one secular and one religious. A secular understanding is that tradition is a long-established ritual, practice, or belief handed down from one generation to the next. For instance, families have certain traditions in the way they celebrate birthdays or holidays. Family traditions can be a positive and healthy way to maintain family cohesiveness. Social tradition can help to create a sense of belonging within a community. The school may have a tradition that every year, the students are escorted by the seniors to the first football game. Following these traditions promotes unity and helps to maintain social standards. However, in the religious aspect, tradition can blur the line between God’s truth and the inventions of man, confusing many. Christians should be careful about religious tradition.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the religious tradition was in full force. He often scolded the religious leaders, saying, ” Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” (Mark 7:13). The scribes and the Pharisees had applied so many of their ideas to the Law of God that the common people were confused and are unable to follow it all. In Mark 7:6–8, Jesus read from Isaiah to criticize the religious leaders, saying, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Note that the “commandments of men” were taught as though they were divinely inspired “doctrines.” And that was the problem.
One of the many rituals of Jesus’ day is the Pharisees’ ritual of hand-washing before meals. The practice of this tradition had nothing to do with purity; the Pharisees’ concern was the purity of ceremonies. Once, when the Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him, Jesus defied the tradition: “And when the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that he had not first washed before dinner.” (Luke 11:38). Jesus did not break any law — nothing in the Mosaic Laws required such hand-washing — but the Pharisee still anticipated adherence to the practice. Jesus’ obvious disregard of that manmade tradition sets up a clear difference between what is binding (God’s commands) and what isn’t binding (human tradition).
Religious traditions that supersede or displace the law of God have been around since the earliest days. They are still in full force in every religion and most Christian denominations. The conventional branches of Christianity have the most prominent traditions, but more relaxed worship venues can have their preaching method, a favorite music style, organizational structure, and routines of service that are accepted without question. If faced with change, a sense of moral outrage might be felt, as changing the service style or adding a bass guitar was a direct violation of God’s commands. What is been done, perhaps without knowing it, is to maintain our pet traditions, just as the Pharisees did. We can even be offended at Jesus, as did the Pharisees, as He disrupts our traditional idea of what we think Christianity should look like (see John 9:16). The more we dive into the Word of God, the more we learn about Him, and most times, it upsets our ideas. When we think we’ve got it all worked out, and we’re certain we are theologically, spiritually, and socially correct about it all, we uncover another layer that destroys those confidences. If we hold to tradition — whether denominational, biblical, or structural — as if it were the Word of God, we keep the door closed to God’s revelation of the truth. God wants to keep us amazed by Who He is while we continue to walk with Him (Jeremiah 29:13). But religious tradition is usually in the way. “That’s not how we have always done it,” is the traditionalists’ battle cry. Breaking tradition can be inconvenient for many, just as it was for the Pharisees (Matthew 5:33–34; Luke 6:26–27). While we can clearly see the dividing line between our traditions and God’s truth, we remain humble and pliable as God continues to transform us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
WHAT WAS THE POWERFUL RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE ON JESUS?
Jesus was definitely subject to the traditions of Israel; there is no question about that. But the form in which those traditions came to him in Galilee at the beginning of the first century is somewhat unclear. He must have learned about the Temple in Jerusalem, and possibly, as tradition says, would have gone up to Jerusalem major pilgrimage festivals. He would have learned the rites of the Temple, their atoning significance. He would have celebrated the Passover with his family and would have known the hopes of the Passover for divine deliverance. He was probably aware of the increasing Pharisaic movement that promoted the notion of purity that was available to all Jews, not only those who were officiating at the Temple. He would certainly have known the Jewish Scriptures. And in some of his parables, we can see how he plays on images from the Scripture. For example, the great Cedar of Lebanon from Ezekiel apparently plays a role in his parable of the mustard seed, which grew to become a tree. There is probably an element of parody there. Therefore, his relationship with the scriptural heritage is complicated, but it is certainly an important one in his formation.
DOES JESUS CONDEMN TRADITION?
Some felt that the Catholic Church had corrupted simple Christian faith by introducing all kinds of practices, traditions, and doctrines over the years. They thought that the Church was guilty of the same pharisaic fascination in their day with the rituals condemned by Jesus (Mark 7:1-23).
The solution, it seemed, was easy. Let us purify the Church by ditching all these traditions and keeping the Bible alone.
But if we read this part of the Bible closely, the Lord is not telling us that tradition is a dirty word. In fact, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, his apostle Paul tells us to “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”
“Tradition” means something handed over or handed down from one person to another, from one generation to another. The question to be answered when investigating any particular tradition is, “Where did it come from?” Its value depends on its origins. Is it from Jesus, the apostles, some godly believers who lived years later? Paul’s traditions were spiritual (from the Lord) and apostolic practices, such as the meaning and significance of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-34) or the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-11).
The traditions of the Pharisees were a different matter. They weren’t of themselves evil. But they were the godly customs of human origin passed down to support the living out of the law. Unfortunately, the Pharisees were unable to differentiate divine law from their human support system. Worse than that, in truth, they used pious customs as shortcuts to help them overcome the difficult demands of the Torah.
If you take your Bible out and read the complete text of Mark chapter 7, you’ll understand it. Everyone knows that when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites, he meant business. The fourth commandment, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ doesn’t only mean that young children should do as their parents tell them, but that adult children should meet the financial needs of elderly parents to ensure that they live their diminishing years with respect and dignity. But the Pharisees had recourse to a non-biblical religious tradition, which absolved them from this weighty responsibility. They “dedicated” their money to God, and thus “sheltered” it, making it unavailable for parental support.
It is not “tradition” that is the problem here, but the deviousness of the human heart that will use piety as an excuse to avoid the obligations of true religion, which involve caring for orphans and widows and probably elderly relatives in their distress (James 1:27).
And this is precisely Jesus’ point in today’s gospel. The kind of food we eat does not make us spiritually impure. No, it is the foul things that come out of the deep recesses of the human heart, wounded by original sin, dividing us from God and one another and leading to the suffering of this world.
The Pharisees believed that they would purify Israel using dietary laws and religious customs. The Protestant Reformers of the 16th century felt that they could purify the Church by leaving behind ecclesiastical customs and traditions. History has shown that both efforts were futile.
The answer is easy. Let’s all dedicate ourselves to absolute obedience to the Word of God. Let us admit our need, our sinfulness, our tendency to make excuses, and let us humbly, honestly, open our lives and hearts to God’s Word and obey them 100 percent. As Moses tells us in (Deuteronomy 4:1-8) and James tells us in his letter, let’s do more than listen. Let’s hear it and follow it. Let’s not give ourselves a wiggle room, but act on God’s word, no matter how much it might cost us.
TRANSFORMING TRADITION INTO LAW
An equally dangerous digression happens when men try to bestow the law’s status on that which is only a tradition. An ancient example of this mentality is found again in the Pharisees. When the leaders of this sect saw the disciple of Christ plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath day, they accused the Lord. “But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the Sabbath day.” (Matt. 12:2). Christ refuted the accusation with skillful reasoning. The Pharisees had erred in turning a traditional interpretation into actual law.
We would not be fair in our discussion of this matter if we ignored the fact that there is a meaningful body of “tradition” within the congregations of the Lord’s people. And sometimes, we have trouble distinguishing what traditional is from what is demanded or prohibited by Scripture.
We need to remind ourselves that tradition is not necessarily wrong. Traditions may be wise, expedient, accommodative, etc. The question is — what kind of mindset do we have when someone is practicing a tradition that is different from ours? How do we see brethren when they alter something that is merely customs? Are we to criticize them? Are we ready to dis-fellowship them? Are we going to “write them up” as liberal? This is the spirit of Pharisaism.
Much heartache was caused because well-meaning brethren could not differentiate between “law” and “tradition.” Is there a way to help change this situation?
We must develop a deeper trust in the Bible as an inspired revelation from God. This is the full and final source of spiritual authority for all that we teach and practice. We must always be careful to measure our behavior by its standard alone.
We must become more committed students of the Scripture. We will lack direction if we are uninformed about sound procedures in the interpretation of the Bible. We must be able to differentiate between ‘law’ and ‘tradition,’ ‘essential,’ and ‘incidental.’
We need to educate ourselves about problems and movements within the Church. Prevention is the best remedy for disease — physical or spiritual.
Ultimately, we must cultivate a greater sense of tolerance for brethren whose practice, in the areas of judgment, vary from ours. There may be opinion procedures that one may not like, but they must not become obstacles to Christian fellowship. When we get radical, we do nothing but fuel the flames of communism. We must cultivate discernment and work for peace without a doctrinal compromise in the body of Christ.