Tradition, Tradition, Tradition!

In preparation for my sermon on Matthew 15, I had to pause and think over the trouble with “the tradition of the elders” being set up here (1-6) to be shot down. What is it about “tradition” that’s the issue?

In Matthew 15.1-2 the “Faith-Faultfinders” (Pharisees and their scribes) come to Jesus doing what they do best – carping and complaining, griping and grousing. They come to Jesus, not to hear from him, not to receive his Gospel and Goodwill way, but to throw into his face that his followers aren’t living up to their long-established “standards” of social sanctity. Now before we mishandle what’s here, understand that there’s nothing inherently wrong with tradition and traditions. Traditions are shaping, defining teachings that are passed on from one generation to the next. Standing at the National Anthem, placing your hand over your heart, and singing or being silent, is a tradition.

Even the New Testament has traditions. Paul writes to the young church at Thessaloniki, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter…Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3.6). These traditions are the teachings and expositions of Jesus and his Gospel, and how to read the Old Testament with Jesus as the center, which the Apostles passed on; they are “the pattern of the sound words that” come from the Apostles, which we are to follow; and the “good deposit entrusted to you”  that we are to guard, which we must then entrust “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 1:13-14; 2.2). This tradition goes along with Scripture, accords with Scripture, and is actually written into Scripture [for more, see these two short posts: "Irenaeus, Tradition and Scripture" and "Basil the Great: Tradition should Follow Scripture"].

There are other traditions within Christianity as well, a secondary level of tradition if you will, like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These don’t trump Holy Scripture, but flow from Scripture and shape the way we read and apply Scripture. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states in a bold move, “All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (XXXI.iii). That means that the Westminster Confession of Faith itself, scripted by a council, is not the rule of faith or practice, but is a help in deciphering how Scripture applies and works out in life and faith.

But these traditions of the elders in Matthew 15, this body of ethical instruction from ages past, are a catalog of casuistry that reaches and stretches way beyond God’s good word that gets down into the fine print; settling down into the cracks, crevices, rumples  and wrinkles of life, like a fine dust that begins to clog things up and leaves a grimy film. On the one hand the tradition of the elders is being used to find fault with others’ faith; and on the other hand, as Jesus points out, it’s being used to give the religious elite room to wiggle their way out of what God wants, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (15.3)? And so Jesus slaps things back into their tight-lipped, puckered faces, “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (6). And there’s the problem with their traditions – they gut God’s word, hollowing out its chest cavity so that it lies lifeless on peoples’ hearts.

And that is the warning to us as well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with our traditions, as long as they are not being throw up as a “holier-than-thou” standard by which we can run around and run down other believers’ faith; and as long as they don’t – in effect – gut God’s word, leaving it lifeless on the hearts of God’s people.


[If you would like to re-post this piece, you have my permission; but please, give credit where credit is due. Mike]


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