A question on Christian tradition
Pastor’s notes for 22 Feb 2015
Last week’s WHAM verse(s) of the week were 1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matt 15:1-3)
Matthew 15:1-19 is personally challenging for me. The issue was a complaint by religious leaders as to why Jesus’ disciples were not more stringent in keeping the tradition of the Jewish elders. The “tradition of the elders” is a reference to a body of oral traditions that was passed down from generation to generation. The intention was noble – to help the people obey God’s commands.
The tradition of ceremonial cleanness had the purpose of reminding the people about the need for purity of heart because God is a holy God. This was a good tradition. But sadly it became it took the place of the Law because the outward cleanliness ritual became the sole focus.
Hence Jesus’ harsh response where he accuses them of being hypocrites who were scrupulous in externals rites of cleanliness, yet did not take the same care to be clean (holy) internally.
One example Jesus gave was how they broke the commandment of God to ‘Honor your father and your mother’ by making a tradition that actually replaced the basic obligations of this sacred command of God. And to cement his point, Jesus applies the words of the prophet Isaiah as describing them – insincere in worship and only acting holy; making rules that were not from God to suit their own personal agendas.
This passage is challenging to me because we need church tradition and rituals to help us worship God in our thoughts, attitudes and actions. Good tradition and rituals are helpful applications of God’s commands. But they can sometimes be a distraction and can usurp the biblical principle in question. How do we keep good traditions and yet not allow them to replace the commands of God?
Two simple examples related to prayer:
Giving thanks always to God is a command. Giving thanks to God for the food we eat is an excellent tradition. But saying “grace” can sometimes be just nice words that do not come from our heart. Have we for example found ourselves in the habit of saying “grace” before a meal (giving thanks for it) but soon after be often found complain about the meal?
Opening in prayer before a meeting or Bible study, humbly asking God to guide us and be with us, is a wonderful tradition based on biblical teaching. But it can become meaningless. Have we for example been guilty of coming to meetings or studies with closed hearts and minds and with a spirit of pride?
We should often humbly pray to God for grace and discernment in this matter.
WHAM verse of the week:
17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.