Tradition

Text: Mark 7:1-13
Date: Pentecost XII (Proper 16) + 8/23/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

From the beloved and award-winning musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the song, “Tradition!”—

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home? The Papa! Tradition!

Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa’s free to read the holy books? The Mama! Tradition!

At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.
And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks? The daughter! Tradition!

The Papa, The Mama, The Son, The Daughter! Tradition!

That could be the theme song of today’s Gospel where the word “tradition” is repeated no less than six times! “For the Pharisees and all the Jews…hold to the tradition of the elders.” “There are many other traditions that they observe.” They ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?” Jesus calls them hypocrites and answers, saying, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” And He points to the Fourth Commandment and accuses them of “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”

Tradition. Now we usually don’t mean anything really very important at all when we talk about our traditions. Our family tradition of opening Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, for example, may strike some as odd who have the tradition of opening them on Christmas Day, but it certainly doesn’t amount to a big deal that at all changes what the holiday is all about. The “tradition” of the elders of the Jews were all the regulations developed ostensibly to help God’s people act like God’s people in accord with the Ten Commandments. By this time these rules and regulations numbered 613. 613 rules that covered almost every aspect of daily life! In our text the Pharisees and scribes have in mind specifically the laws regarding ritual cleanness. This text shows that Jesus is not much concerned with the “traditions” or rules about ritual defilement. God did not demand the kind of purity which necessitated withdrawal or separation from ordinary humanity. They weren’t complaining that the disciples of Jesus were eating with dirty hands. They were complaining about the religious ritual of dipping the fingers in water, sort of like making a rule or law about praying before a meal—a good and pious thing to do but by no means a required necessity.

Many of these rules originally were intended not for the people in general, but only for the priests (Ex. 30:19; 40:13). However, in a confusion similar to what we see today, namely confusing “the priesthood of all believers” (the Christian service and dignity of all) with the “office of the ministry” (the vocation of only certain appointed men) so that it is wrongly said “everyone a minister,” even the rules only for the priests were applied to everyone. With this confusion then God’s good and gracious Law turned into only suffocating legalism. To this day the biggest problem of fallen, sinful, people, in their spiritual blindness, is and always has been legalism, turning the Gospel back into Law (if one even ever knew the Gospel in the first place), that is believing that a person becomes godly or saved by means of living right, following the rules and doing good works.

Now, having said all that, you should also know that not all tradition is bad. Listen to St. Paul urging the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter,” and his command that they keep away from those who do not walk “in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). Here the “traditions” are, clearly, the gospel teachings or doctrines, the truth. So the word “tradition” by itself refers simply to any teaching that has been given or handed over from teacher to pupil. These teachings can either be “of God,” as in Bible stories, the catechism or the liturgy, or they can be “of man,” such as the rules spun out on top of, beyond and even in contradiction to God’s revealed Word.

We all felt a little sorry for Tevye in “Fiddler” identifying with him even as we expect things to change and the new to replace the old. I have felt like poor Tevye more and more these days, for instance, as technology seems to be simply passing me by. I mean I really have no need to “text,” “blog” or “tweet” or anything beyond email! But certain things ought not change. Doesn’t the Bible say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6)? There is one way, one truth, one life, one true doctrine of Law and Gospel. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).

But what do we see? Today “change” has become almost an article of faith, a “religion” for those pushing either the latest political agenda or, in the Church, the Church Growth Movement. In fact, unwillingness to “change” is judged as a negative, anti-growth, anti-missions attitude. Of course it depends on what is changing. A baby needs to have his diapers changed or you could be charged with child abuse. On the other hand one hopes for no change in the results of a Computerized Tomography or CT scan looking for cancer cells. As one beloved pastor observed regarding change and growth, “remember, cancer grows, too.” No, not all change or growth is good or to be desired.

The fundamental problem with the Pharisees’ and scribes’ mishandling of the Law, and of almost every exotic, “new” teaching or “wind of doctrine” that comes along, is that it always reverts to mankind’s propensity to try to be justified before God by means of works and work-righteousness. Any system of thought, action or judgment meant to identify, regulate or rate a person’s morality, sanctity or holiness is, by definition, a road-block to the Gospel that requires, as of first importance, the confession and admission of our sin and weakness, our total depravity. As we said in the Confession this morning, “that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition.” Only then, when forgiveness and reconciliation with God is given and received as a totally free gift, without any merit or worthiness on our part, only then does God get all the glory, praise and thanksgiving for our salvation.

Now this criticism of Jesus’ disciples by the Pharisees and scribes was, in truth and at its heart, meant as a challenge against and criticism of Jesus himself. In fact, this was just the beginning of that diabolical opposition of the Savior that would culminate in His being put to death, and of all the persecution of the righteous for His sake ever since then. Yet this was always God’s plan—to take our very sin and separation and death into Himself in order to destroy it and thus to reconcile Himself to His world and His world to Himself. So also for all suffering borne for belonging to Christ, God, having already won the victory, calls us to “rejoice and be glad,” to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). For “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

Tradition. Some tradition is good. Some tradition is bad or at least not helpful. Therefore some traditions need to be let go of, but others to be held to firmly. The Commandments of God are meant for our good and reveal the heart of God’s good and gracious will for us and for our salvation. Any “loopholes” only avoid the necessary operation of God’s Law in our hearts, namely, first to kill us, that is, to destroy the Old Adam, the old, sinful nature, in order that God can then create in us the new heart of the new nature. This is what St. Paul meant when he said, “I have been crucified.” “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20).

May you be enabled to discern all tradition (old or new) that is against and undermines the life-giving Gospel of Christ, and to hold on to that which is good. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). And the peace of God be with you always.