Leading Question: “How do we know which traditions to keep and which ones we can safely ignore?”
Introduction to the issue. When addressing the questions of what laws and traditions we should retain and which we should lay aside, Jesus’ teaching and example gives a glimmer of insight, but not much more. In Matthew 15:8-9, he notes that the worship of God’s people was marred by the fact that they worshiped in vain, “teaching as doctrines the precepts of man” (RSV).
Among Protestants, the word “tradition” is usually viewed with suspicion, if not outright alarm. It has often represented the contrast between the Protestant attempt to remain faithful to Scripture over against the Roman Catholic claim that “tradition” is also valid. But the term actually can be quite neutral, simply referring to that which has been “passed down.”
The Gospels reveal that Jesus was often quite ambivalent on the question of whether “tradition” should be valued and preserved. In Matthew 15:1-6, it is clear that Jesus was not supportive of the tradition involving ritual washing before meals. And when accused of allowing his disciples to ignore the tradition, Jesus pointedly told the Jewish leaders that he had indeed made Scripture of none effect by their tradition. His example involve that matter of dedicating property for sacred purpose, thus making it inaccessible for the purpose of supporting ones (aging) parents. This custom of declaring property to be under the protection of “Corban” enabled wealthy Jews to avoid the application of the 5th command in ways that would be helpful to their parents. In this case, tradition was clearly leading the people astray.
But in at least two other instances recorded in the Gospels, Jesus seems to have supported Jewish tradition:
- Seat of Moses. In Matthew 23:1-7, Jesus refers to the fact that the leaders sit in the “Seat of Moses.” Surprisingly, he tells the people to do as they say, but not as they do.
- Tithing and moral issues. In Matthew 23:23 Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders for “tithing mint anise and cummin” while neglecting the weightier matters, “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
If one is tempted to think that exceeding the righteousness of the leaders (cf. Matthew 5:19-20) involves following a better and more comprehensive check list, perusal of the six antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) uncovers a massive argument against such a check-list religion. That chapter will be the focus of our attention in lesson #4.