Tevye, the poor milkman from Fiddler on the Roof, straining to hold on to what he cannot keep, cries out: “Traaaditiooon!” The accented bellow sounds almost like he’s cursing the word itself. And perhaps he should.
Our traditions, maybe more than anything else in our churches, have the potential to drag us away from the commands of God.
A professor of mine used to comment: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Generally, they blur together and assume the same moniker. To be clear, I am all for the former. Rather, by “traditions,” I mean those positions and practices of the latter, often held higher than the life of faith itself.
Old ways can become like well-worn shoes, they feel good and comfortable to us. However, if we face-off our old ways with what they looked like when they were new ways, more than likely they wouldn’t recognize each other.
I just started wearing a new pair of sneakers. They are the exact same shoe as my old sneakers. I bought two pairs eight months ago when they were on sale. The old ones have seen maybe a thousand miles of road walking. They have tears, and they rub on my heel and the sole is worn thin. But, they felt and fit perfectly fine…until I put on the new pair.
Wowza! Comfort. Traction. Stability. I can walk again. Though I had been walking, I had no idea what I was missing.
Traditions can be like that. Mostly, they start with pure motives and good intentions of obedience to God’s commands. But, over the years, sometimes even a generation or more, the practice takes precedent over God’s precept and a tradition is born.
Jesus quotes Isaiah in Mark 7:6-7:
“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” (ESV).
Jesus follows up with this: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (v. 8).
Traaaditiooon! Curse you!
The confrontation was about washing up before a meal. Jesus clarifies to His disciples, He’s more concerned with what comes out of His disciples then what goes in. What goes in—to their mouths that is—is munched up, swallowed, and a day later…well, you get it. What comes out—again from their mouths—is born in the heart of humankind. It becomes evidence of what really is brewing at the deepest driving center of our being. Our language. Our attitude. Our actions. They all give away the condition of our heart.
In what we do and say, are we for Jesus or for ourselves? Are we for God’s commands, or for our own traditions? Just imagine life beyond the latter.
The story Mark included in the context to help us catch the point is of a Syrophoenician woman. This foreigner sidles up to Jesus asking for a miracle. Jesus’ response startles us. Did he just call her a dog? How rude.
Not rude. It’s a test. Tradition says this Gentile woman is second-class; born into a life without divine promises. God says this woman is a neighbor, a human; she was born in His image. Jesus knows her heart and the point He needs to make.
She came boldly to make the ask. She’s not one who is duped by tradition. She seems to have knowledge of God. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28), she replies to Jesus.
Aha, she’s been listening in and watching from a distance. I imagine Jesus smiles real wide. She believes with everything in her who Jesus is and what He has come to do; He makes old broken things new, traditions and souls alike.
This woman gets it, and she articulated it better than anyone within earshot. Her faith in God’s command to love your neighbor is held higher than an old tradition of man. Ethnicity aside, traditions out of the way, here is one live soul who truly believes in Jesus’ will to love and to redeem. And Mark tells us Jesus does just that.
Now, it’s our turn.
What are our long held traditions that need to be realigned with what God says?
What in our well packed theology or discipleship tracks need to be calibrated to what Scripture reveals?
What lies, tired and ages old, across our paths blocking a life of freedom in Jesus and obedience to God’s highest command of loving Him and loving our neighbors?
May I encourage you, even challenge you, as we lead into this new school year, to consider these questions and then lay the answers down before God, and watch as the fullness of life and joy return to your days?
ANDY WEEDA has been serving young adults for 20 years. Currently, he is Pastor of Emerging Adult Ministry at Sunrise Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, where he leads The Branch: an emerging adults community, and directs LEAD Academy, an academic leadership initiative of the local church. You can read more from Andy on his blog.