Traditions!

Pentecost 14B
August 26, 2018
Mr. Rick Stark-Vicar of
Trinity Lutheran Church,
7210 Lisbon Street
San Diego, CA 92114

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The play, or movie, “Fiddler on the Roof” is a classic story about a Jewish-Russian family in the early 1900’s, just before the great revolution in Russia.

It’s one of those stories you don’t forget. One thing the story does is that it gives you a feeling for the Jewish love of tradition.  The Jews, especially the Orthodox Jews, have a very prideful sense of history.  They love their traditions. They love their festivals. They love their rituals.  Of all the people on earth, the Jews are some of the most tradition loving people that we know of.

The main characters are Tevye, the old, bumbling Jewish patriarch, and a poor farmer; his wife, Golda, the resilient Jewish mother; and their five lovely daughters, three of whom needed to be married.  The plot of the story is the marrying-off of these three daughters.  So Tevye and Golda employ a matchmaker to match their three daughters to prospective husbands.  The twist is the girls don’t want to use the matchmaker; they want to choose their own husbands based on love.  Those old traditions are beginning to crumble.  

Can you imagine? People actually wanting to choose their own mates and marrying for love, that’s unheard of for the times! Their traditions are changing!

 

In the opening scene, Tevye tries to explain their traditions, he says:

“…In our little village of Anatevka, you might say everyone of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. 

You may ask, ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word, TRADITION!”

Tevye goes on to explain, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years… we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God.

You may ask: How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you… I don’t know, but it’s a tradition! And, because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

Oh really Tevye?  “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do?”  

Is tradition really such a clear indicator of God’s will? Is tradition even a good thing?  You may not think so after listening to Jesus in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus seems pretty set against tradition. 

Listen again to what Jesus says. First, He calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” and then He rebukes them, saying, “You have let go of the commandment of God and you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” Then He said to them, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” He goes on to say, “You nullify the Word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”

It sounds like Jesus is thumbing His nose at tradition.

So, if that’s the case, if tradition is bad, then what should we do about this in the Church today? Some might say we need to get rid of our traditions. Many “new age” churches are doing just that. Some churches have rid their sanctuaries of any crucifixes or any crosses; they’re afraid it might turn people off.  They say let’s get rid of the liturgy. We don’t need our pastors to wear these hot robes. Let’s get rid of the organ and these old hymns we sing. Oh, and let’s stop making the sign of the cross.  Many would say these things are old and boring, and a lot of it is just way too Catholic.  Many of these people would point to today’s text in Mark, chapter 7, to support their case. 

But many of these things are something our good pastor would refer to as “adiaphora,” How many of you have heard him use that phrase?   Adiaphora are those things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. You’re not commanded to make the sign of the cross to remember your baptism. You’re not commanded to use the liturgy as laid out in the Lutheran Service Book. You don’t have to worship in this style. And, you don’t have to do any of these things to gain salvation.

But what was it that Jesus was really objecting to? Was Jesus attacking the tradition or was there something more to the story?

Let’s see what the Bible says and we’ll allow Scripture to speak for Scripture.

The Bible tells us that Jesus Himself kept many of the Hebrew traditions. 

  • Jesus went up to Jerusalem for annual pilgrimages and festivals 
  • Jesus regularly attended synagogue – the Gospels state “as it was His custom”
    • As did many of the apostles after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection
    • Custom is another word for tradition

So it appears Jesus was not completely against “traditions.”

The word “tradition” means “something that is handed down from one generation to the next.”  It could be a traditional teaching or it could be a traditional practice. But the teaching or the practice is neither good nor bad simply because it has been handed down as a tradition.  There are other factors that come into play.

St. Paul uses the word “tradition” many times in a positive sense. In his first letter to the Corinthians, in chapter 11, Paul said, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Here Paul is talking about good worship practices. A little later in this same chapter Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” Paul said, ‘This is what I passed on to you.’ That’s tradition!

Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 15, Paul writes, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved… [Paul says again] for I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”

Does that sound familiar? They should. Paul’s words – the tradition that he passed on -found its way into the church’s creeds. Those creeds have now become tradition within the worship of the church.

Paul is speaking of passing on that which has been received. And this “tradition” reminds people they are saved and this “tradition” gives hope to those that want to be saved! Tradition does this when the teaching or the practice passed along is one that is centered in the Word of God, the teaching and work of Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. This is tradition in the good sense.

There are many passages throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament, commending tradition, and yet, Jesus speaks against it in our text today. Why? 

We’ve established it’s not tradition in itself that is bad, but the reason behind the tradition, what is being honored in the tradition, and why it’s being done that Jesus calls into question in today’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus wasn’t attacking tradition; He was attacking the Pharisees’ for the heart in which they did the traditions and for sticking to their traditions despite the obvious contradiction to God’s Word.

The primary lesson for today raises the question of conflict between the will of God in the lives and performance of his people, and how those people actually interpret and follow God’s will. 

The Pharisees and scribes wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands in accordance with the traditions of the elders. They were serious about their question – for the Jews there is a huge distinction between the clean and the unclean – a sharp religious distinction that was established by God. There were “unclean” people – for example a woman after childbirth, a leper, or a Gentile (a non-believer). And Jewish people became unclean if they had any contact with any of these people. The type of contact was hard to avoid in a crowded marketplace like it explained in our lesson, so by deduction, everyone coming from the marketplace was considered indirectly “unclean” through mere contact with others. To compensate for this, the tradition of the elders spelled out the rules and procedures to restore oneself to a state religious cleanliness, such as the washing of one’s hands, body and clothing; this was not done for hygienic purity (to actually get clean), but more for the way the hands were washed which was purely for the sake of ceremonial purity. 

So for the Pharisees, these “man-made” traditions were seen as necessary. You had to wash your hands at certain times and in a certain way before you could eat. But this specific tradition was not something that was commanded by God. It was a tradition that was created by the elders. Jesus made the point that these traditions were not absolute as though they were coming from God.

Secondly, these traditions were seen as meritorious, that is, by doing these things you were somehow earning your salvation, or at least contributing toward it.  This was another thing wrong with these traditions; the idea that if you did these things, and followed the traditions you were taught, that somehow you were piling up points with God.  

Don’t we all devise our own reasons in an attempt to justify ourselves and our actions before God? Don’t we all use our traditions to appear more pious before others so that when we come across people that do things differently, the way we do them is always right. 

This is exactly what Jesus meant, this kind of attitude, Jesus describes as an effort to “honor God with our lips.” When we do our traditions in an effort to secure God’s confirmation, or at least our own confirmation, that we’re OK with our values and ideas and we refuse to open our hearts to His changing, invigorating Spirit. We want God to say “Amen” to us and our actions rather than speaking and living our “Amen” to His will.

The truth is, we are all broken people in a broken world and we as sinners cannot keep God’s commandments, let alone all the extra traditions men have added on.

So, when man-made tradition is taught as being absolutely necessary, when it is done in order to earn merit before God, or when it is used to take precedence over God’s clear Word and commandments, then that kind of tradition is definitely wrong. That is what Jesus condemns and that is what we should condemn as well.

But that is not the case with many of the good traditions that we have here in the church. Those traditions we would be wise to keep and pass on to the next generation. For example, included among those good traditions would be the Creeds. In the Creeds we have the teaching of the apostles, passed on for centuries in the church, and preserved for us in a concise, memorable form. The Creeds pass on the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have received, and in which we stand, and by which we are saved. 

What tradition could be better than the Nicene Creed, for instance, which teaches us of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was crucified also for us,” and who “rose again according to the Scriptures,” and so on?

You see, that is the Gospel itself, which is what the apostles preached, and which is what we believe, and which is what delivers to us all the saving benefits of Jesus Christ. Our works won’t gain us entry into heaven. Our hands, like the disciples, are defiled with sin, and all the hand washing, and all our self-chosen works cannot and will not get that stain out. Only the blood of Jesus, God’s own Son, will do that. And it does! Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all our sins. The washing God does in Holy Baptism applies the forgiveness that Christ won for us on the cross. This is the Gospel! And this Gospel has been passed on to us in Word and Sacrament; this Gospel delivers all the salvation that we need. This is the value of tradition in the good sense. This is what we should preserve and pass on the next generation.

And so our liturgy, the Lutheran Church’s historic liturgical form, handed down and shaped over many centuries – yes, the structure and texts of the Divine Service, which we have and use every Sunday, the hymns and the organ music – this is something worth preserving and passing on. The church’s liturgy has stood the test of time. The liturgy both expresses and teaches the beautiful Gospel of Jesus Christ better than anything else that some individual could come up with on his own from week to week. So there’s no need to throw out the liturgy. It’s better to learn and use it and to do it well. It’s a good tradition that we have received.  The liturgy is what makes us Lutheran, not what makes us Christian.  And lest we forget, we are Christians by faith and Lutherans by practice. It does good to remind us of who we are and Who’s we are!

Our friend Tevye would tell us, “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Well, not exactly. If our traditions get in the way of the Word of God, then no, the traditions of the elders are bad. But when tradition serves the Word of God, to help pass along the one and only saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we can say – and sing out without shame: “Tradition!”

May the Peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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