It’s hard to beat Ray Stevens’ “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” when it comes to mocking sanctimonious hypocrisy. The imagery of a traditional setting invites all kinds of opinions. You can view the video here:
Unfortunately, the conversation of how church should look, feel, and operate is more often tied to preference than scripture. So how should we measure “traditions”? Well, Jesus gave us a great example…let’s see how He handled it:
1Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2“Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” 3He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’;and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’5But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— 6then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. 7Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 8 ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. 9 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” 10When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” – Matthew 15:1-11 NKJV
- The Law – Moses received the 10 Commandments and much more directly from God. He recorded it in five books – “The Pentateuch”. This was the basis for Jewish laws and customs.
- The Mishnah – In addition to the Law, there were many oral traditions that rabbis put into formal teaching and requirements. This is what Jesus’ disciples were accused of transgressing.
- Hand Washing – The issue here was ceremony, not hygiene. Mark’s account (Mark 7) even goes into some detail.
- Corban – Setting aside assets as a “gift to God”, thereby rendering it not usable for taking care of aging parents, or similar things.
The Jewish leaders questioned Jesus, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” (v.2) Here are two thoughts regarding their words:
- They assumed “tradition” was at a level where violation was a “transgression”. In modern times, we often get confused too identifying what’s tradition and what’s from scripture.
- There is no reference in the gospels (that I can find) where the Jewish leadership ever took Jesus’ teaching to God in earnest prayer to seek His guidance. How much of a difference that would have made, and could make in our current church environment.
Jesus didn’t seem interested in debate over details of hand washing. However, He did take charge of the conversation and point out two things:
- He redirected their attention back through the complex “stuff” of Jewish life to highlight one of the original 10 commandments being broken. Here they were mad about a violation of men’s instructions, while rejecting God’s instruction! (Mark 7:6-9)
- He identified that it was not only of questionable value (Corban); it was specifically causing a commandment to broken. (v.3)
According to Jesus in Matthew 15:18, the heart is what defiles. Motives are always where we should be looking, not necessarily the practice. When evaluating a “tradition”, we should be asking questions like, “Does this activity further the Kingdom?” or “Who gets the glory from this event?”
There are a lot of traditions in church life. As a believer, we need to be able to look at scripture, pray through what it says, and then be submissive to God’s lead. Think about these examples:
- The Lord’s Supper: We’re commanded to observe it (as an ordinance), but the choices of cups and linens are not
- Christmas Eve Service: Corporate worship is commanded, but specifically on December 24 is not
- Music: Worshipping through song is commanded, but the publisher and melody is not
You get the picture. These are wonderful God given activities, but personal preferences can overshadow important truths. At the end of the day, it’s really not about you or me. The real concern isn’t how the past was or what the hipsters across town prefer; it’s about what the Bible says. So when discussions arise over practices; filter it through God’s word (including attitudes) and then make a decision. It sounds like the right place to start to me!
Series: “The Questions of Jesus” – Lesson VII