It’s interesting to think about the traditions that we have. If I could hazard a guess, I think that tradition has more a significant role in our lives than we often think it does. Many people eat the same kinds of foods at Christmas time. I know of families that always go on holiday to the same campsite, in the same location, every January. We have traditions around birthdays. At birthday parties we sing a song, cut a cake, and blow/clap out candles. We have traditions around weddings. The bridal party almost always does a slow walk down an aisle to the front of the ceremony. Plenty of traditions are fun, and give you a sense of occasion. Traditions can give us a sense of belonging, whether its to the past, family or a community.
I think we’re often too dismissive of the good that tradition plays in our lives. For instance, I’m glad I’m a minister in a church with a long tradition. I belong, our church belongs, to the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. I happily agree with and love the things handed down to us from the past: creeds, catechisms and confessions of faith. We have certain views on worship, and ways of understanding the Bible, and of expository preaching. All wonderful things I didn’t come up with but have been handed down to the church today.
It is good for Christians and churches to remember the past, to have a place for tradition, and to make sure we’re not to make things up as we go along. Tradition, in this way, is a good thing.
And yet, in Mark chapter 7, Jesus speaks against a view of tradition that undermines true faith in God.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
While tradition can be good, tradition is a terrible master. For the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the traditions they held onto became more important than God. Tradition masked hearts that were far from God.
External appearance, how we appear before other people, can become more important than true faith in Christ. Making ourselves look good, saying the right thing, being involved in church programs and activites, these things can give the appearance of healthy piety. However, they can be used to disguise what’s going on inside of us: a coldness toward God.
Jesus wants true religion, true piety from the heart. He can and does change us, so that rather than serving tradition we can serve him. He changes our hearts, by his grace, so that we can both honour him with both our hearts and our lives.