READ : Matthew 15:1-20
Where do you go for your ideas about God and religion? Few things are more traditional than religion, and that’s good. But Jesus warns us that tradition can also be bad. We need a higher authority for our beliefs and practices – the Word of God.
In the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, a humble Jewish milkman from the Russian village of Anatevka, explains the meaning of the film’s title. The year is 1905, and life in Russia is precarious, especially for Jews. As Tevye loads the milk cans on his cart and climbs up behind his horse, he turns to the camera and speaks to the audience.
Here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! Tradition, tradition – without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as . . . as a fiddler on the roof!
Tradition can be a very good thing. It can help us keep our balance in a world of rapid change. It enables us to remember who we are. The apostle Paul once wrote to the Corinthians,
. . . that I delivered to you . . . what I also received: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day.
1 Corinthians 15:3
That is tradition in the best sense: passing on to others the truths that we ourselves have received. So Christians too depend upon tradition, in fact, our whole faith is built on it. The gospels themselves were passed along from mouth to mouth for years before they were written down.
But tradition, especially religious tradition, can also be a bad thing. Jesus shows us how that can happen in an encounter he had with the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ . . . But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”
As usual, in this instance Jesus’ enemies are looking for some grounds on which to criticize him. They seem to find it in the laxity of his disciples’ behavior. “Why don’t they wash their hands before they eat?” the Pharisees demanded. The issue here was not personal hygiene; no one in the first century knew about the existence of germs.
The issue raised here by Jesus’ critics had to do with ceremonial purity. Among pious Jews the custom had arisen of washing one’s hands before a meal as a symbol of one’s devotion to God and an expression of the desire to be clean before him. This act, though, was not commanded in the Old Testament law. The law only prescribed that priests should wash themselves before offering sacrifices to God, but it said nothing about ordinary people washing before meals.
In response to this attack, Jesus comes back with a question of his own, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
He goes on to explain what he means in the next verses. The custom had also arisen of devoting a gift to the service of God by taking an oath of commitment, speaking a word. The rabbis taught that anything devoted in this way had to be given, no matter what. The gift could not be rescinded, even if the donor changed his mind, even if circumstances changed and the money was needed for another purpose. Look, says Jesus, you are even breaking the commandment about honoring and caring for your parents by insisting on this tradition of yours. “So for the sake of tradition,” he says, “you have made void the word of God” (v. 6).
This exchange between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees shows us clearly what the dangers of religious traditions are. Here’s one: an over-insistence on tradition invariably produces legalism. A religious legalist is one who insists on everyone following the customs and rules of the tradition as a matter of obedience to God.
In Jesus’ day the tradition of hand-washing had a long pedigree. There was biblical warrant for it, based on the example of the priests. It was beautifully symbolic of purity. It echoed the prayer of the psalmist, “Wash me, and I shall be clean.” In other words, you could make a strong case for suggesting that everyone who was truly dedicated ought to follow this practice. There was just one problem with it: God had not commanded it.
Think of some of the unwritten rules in your own religious tradition. In mine, a lot of the rules were about what you could and couldn’t do on Sunday. Or maybe your rules have to do with what’s allowed (or forbidden) in worship, or with certain social practices and customs. Our traditions may have long pedigrees, there may even be good reasons for carrying them on, they could be based on biblical principles, but if we elevate them to the level of God’s commandments, we do violence to Christian liberty.
Here’s another danger, an even greater danger, with religious tradition. An excessive attachment to tradition can actually make us go against the word of God, nullify it, “make it void,” as Jesus says. The early reformer of the city of Strassbourg, Martin Bucer, wrote these words: “A man is rarely to be found, who pays an excessive attention to human inventions in religion, who does not put more trust in them than in the grace of God.”
Think of the condition of the church at the end of the Middle Ages just on the eve of the Reformation. The long growth of various customs and practices in worship, combined with the development of a domineering priestly caste, had almost completely obscured the gospel of God’s grace. Access to the Bible was denied the common man. Church offices were bought and sold. Salvation was turned into a commodity to be dispensed by the church. Remission of sins could be ensured by purchasing an indulgence. Only the recovery of the word of God brought needed reform.
Think of your own church today. Think especially of those five words that spell the death of any congregation: “We’ve never done that before.” Someone has said that tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. The heavy hand of traditionalism can choke the life out of any church by making the commands and promises of scripture null and void.
So here Jesus exposes tradition’s dangers. But he also makes a positive point about our true authority in all matters of faith and life, which is the Word of God. One of the great watchwords of the Reformation is expressed in the Latin phrase,
sola scriptura, “scripture alone.” That is to say, the Bible alone is our ultimate source of authority as Christians, not the Bible plus human traditions. In the classic Reformed formula, scripture is “our only rule of faith and practice.” And this whole exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees could have the title written over it, “
sola scriptura.” This is what the Bible teaches about itself.
In 2 Timothy 3:16 the apostle states that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (nrsv). The Bible offers us “the heart of God in the words of God,” as Gregory the Great said. The words of Scripture have God’s breath behind them just as surely as the words I’m speaking have my breath behind them, and this is what sets the Bible apart from all other words that have ever been uttered or recorded on earth.
And because the Bible is God-breathed (that’s the literal word that we translate “inspired” because it comes from him, its words are true, that is, they always correspond with reality. “Your word is truth,” exclaimed Jesus (John 17:17). So the Bible never misleads us or gives us false information. It is utterly reliable and trustworthy in everything it intends to teach.
So the supreme authority of Scripture flows from its nature as God’s inspired and truthful word. All Scripture is inspired, therefore all Scripture is true; and because all Scripture is true, therefore all Scripture is authoritative.
The Bible is to be used, says the apostle, “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” This means that we don’t make up what we want to believe about God. I don’t decide for myself what is right and wrong for me. Though that’s the attitude of our culture, as Christians, we are different. We are people under authority. The Bible, not our speculation, is what teaches us the truth about who God is and about what he has done to save us. The Scriptures rebuke us when we have done wrong. It is the Bible that stirs our conscience and appeals to us and sets us straight, correcting us when we go astray. God’s Word is like a lamp to our feet, said the psalmist, and a light to our path. It always shows us the right way to go in our walk with God.
So where any human opinion, custom, or practice or tradition is in conflict with the clear teaching of scripture, our choice is plain. We will believe what the Bible says, and do what it teaches. Only then can we be sure that our doctrine is the word of God, and our actions are the will of God.