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?
We are a people enslaved to tradition. No matter what anybody says, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, tradition rules over us. We can’t help it. We don’t like change. We don’t like surprises. We don’t like when things are outside of our control.
Tradition ensures that everything will always be exactly the way it always has been.
This is not to say that tradition is a bad thing. It’s not. Traditions can be very good and helpful. Setting aside one evening each week to spend alone with your family is a wonderful tradition. Visiting the same campsite each year can help build wonderful memories that will last a lifetime. Washing before a meal is helpful and healthful. Spending time in the word (almost) every day and then blogging about it is a fine habit to form.
But not one of these things has the power to make you holy. The passage above from Matthew 15 is a debate that Jesus had with the Pharisees. They challenged his apparent lack of respect for religious traditions. And he challenged their holiness, obedience, and faith. For the Pharisees, religious tradition had become law, and they, being teachers of the law, prescribed judgment on those who broke with tradition.
But Jesus points out their mistake. He goes on to say that their traditions were hindering their love for others. Their invented laws about holiness were actually contributing to their unrighteousness.
In the church today, the Pharisees might have been preaching that daily quiet times were required by God, or that certain songs must always be done a certain way, or that Christians must vote for or against particular issues.
What Jesus is getting at here is that elevating tradition to the level of law actually demeans the gospel and the glory of God. When anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus preaches that a particular tradition is binding, they undermine the Gospel.
And before we get critical of the Pharisees or one another, we have to realize that we all do this. We all have our issues. Be it environmental concerns, diet, music, education, or anything else. We all have traditions that we view as law.
The Gospel helps us overcome this tragedy and kern to live with love for both God and others. Jesus frees us from blindly following our own laws to see the glory of a life lived in light of God’s liberating love.