When a Baptist preacher announces that he is about to preach a sermon focused on tradition you can usually guess what is coming up. Said preacher will be looking to encourage the trading of stale churchy traditions for new “attractive” ones. But I’m not going there for many reasons including one very simple one. When Jesus spoke about tradition he did not go there. He had much bigger fish to fry. There was a much greater problem with tradition that he needed to address:
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. ’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition Mark 7:1-8 (emphasis mine)
We should be struck by the possibility that we too might “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (v.8). The word tradition literally means “to give over” or as we more commonly think of it, “to hand down.” What traditions are handed down to us that are in conflict with the things God would have us think and do? What traditions are handed over from people around us that likewise do not lead us to honour God? The tricky thing with traditions is that we often keep them without thinking about them or questioning them. It is so easy to just keep doing the done thing without realizing that in doing so we dishonour God. Do the accepted traditions of our families, friends, and society honour God?
9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die. ’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) — 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this Mark 7:8-13 (emphasis mine)
Jesus gives an example of people declaring that something was dedicated to God as an excuse for not helping their own family with their own wealth. So the accepted tradition of the day distracted from the keeping of what God had said ought to be done. This is just one example: “you do many things like this” (v.13). The question for us is: do we also do many things like this? Do we ever distract from and “make void” the Word of God through traditions we keep? Here are some possibilities:
- We make void the Word of God when we justify sinful practices by appealing to a few verses of the Bible rather than looking to the whole message. A very sad example can be given of those who would use the Bible to justify slavery. The following of Jesus meant a transformation of slavery. We see an example of this in the wonderful and short book of Philemon where Paul encourages Philemon to welcome back his thieving runaway slave Onesimus: “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” (Philemon 15,16) Yes, slavery is found in the Bible, but so too is the focus on serving others as Jesus served, including slaves. Jesus is our example. To appeal instead to the traditions of the societies of Bible times is to make void the Word of God.
- We make void the Word of God when we allow church-taught traditions to usurp or confuse Biblical belief and practice. As examples, traditions around purgatory add confusion to what the Bible teaches about salvation. Traditions around praying to the saints, no matter how meaningful some might find the practice, adds confusion to what the Bible teaches about prayer. We must be careful we root our beliefs and activities in God’s Word, not church tradition.
- We make void the Word of God when we allow misconceptions to persist. For example there is a common misconception that God is judgemental and mean in the Old Testament, but nice in the New. God is consistently represented as holy, therefore a God of justice and judgement, and gracious, therefore a God of mercy, in both the Old and New Testaments. The expression “God is love” is consistent. Misconceptions can become traditions that are handed over or down, making void what the Bible really teaches.
- We make void the Word of God when we keep society’s traditions around conversation. There is a tradition in Canada that we would rather talk about weather, hockey, and politics than about religion. And if we do talk about religion we certainly do not want to talk about sin. This tradition runs so deep in our society that it is sometimes even kept in churches. We say things like: “Jesus welcomes everyone, so don’t talk about sin or people won’t feel very welcome.” The intentions are good, the result is not: God is dishonoured by our sin and our sin persists in part because we are not talking about it. The Bible talks about it. We make void the Word of God when we don’t.
- We make void the Word of God when we allow media to tell us what Christianity is all about. If you were to base your knowledge of Christian theology on what is said or sung in popular culture you would think that Christianity is focused on “good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell.” Rather, Christianity is focused on Jesus Christ. It is not just about getting to heaven and there are no good people who can get to heaven anyway. It is about Jesus being alive and Lord. It is about relationship with God made possible through Jesus dealing with our sin on the cross, relationship that changes everything now and in our lives beyond death. We make void the Word of God when we make popular media our source of Christian teaching rather than the Bible.
So should we trade stale churchy traditions for new attractive ones? The more pressing questions are: Are we abandoning the commandment of God to hold to human traditions? Are we making void the Word of God through our human traditions?