Have Some Traditions Become Idols?
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”
The Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees, “you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition.”
Jesus had just been asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
In this specific instance Jesus pointed out that one of the traditions was a man-made rule to keep their own money so they wouldn’t have to give it to their needy parents, which was commanded in the Scripture.
I would hope none of us would stoop to that level, keeping money from our needy relatives, but we do well to ask, “Does Jesus’ statement apply to me?”
Many of the traditions that Jesus was attacking were “additions to the law” that were instituted or significantly amended during time between the Old Testament and New Testament. This period of 400 years is commonly referred to as the “intertestamental period.” During this time, many books were written to explain and develop spiritual concepts and methods of worship and law keeping. Methods for temple worship, Sabbath observance and such were rewritten, amended, and firmly established into the daily life of the Jews of that time. Theological organizations were instituted to study the law and develop these methods and systems, the best known of these were the Sadducees and Pharisees.
Sadly, despite all their traditions and books and methods and systems, which were intended to keep them faithful, when Jesus arrived, when the messiah they were longing for finally arrived…many did not recognize his coming.
We see something similar from the history of the church. We know that in the first 1500 years after Christ, the church deformed under Rome and descended into heresy and idolatry of tradition, not unlike that of the Pharisees. Then came men like Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and others who were used by the Lord to usher in the Reformation.
We can see it clearly when looking back at these two points in history, but what about right now?
The Reformation is widely held to have ended with the conclusion of the 30 Years War in 1648. That was 368 years ago. Perhaps it would be beneficial to consider that it has been roughly the same number of years since the end of the reformation until now, as it was between the end of the OT and the incarnation- when Christ first came.
What would Jesus think if he came back today?
Would we recognize him?
Or would he utter those words at us?
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
~ Mark 7-8
Let’s be honest. As Reformed folk, we have invested in the same things as those during the intertestamental time:
Many books, articles, essays, blog posts, doctoral dissertations, church orders, confessions, and masters theses, have been written, at great length and in far greater measure today, than in the time of the Pharisees.
Liturgy is just as well defined in our churches as it was then.
Patterns of daily and weekly worship have been developed and practiced, formally within the setting of denominational affiliations and local congregations; and informally through family worship, personal bible study and devotions.
There are bible studies, catechism classes, societies, and committees; theological organizations have been established to study and dissect and amend.
Patterns for law keeping and tradition have been just as firmly established into our daily lives as in time of Jesus.
None of these are bad things, and just like those before Christ, we also expect our traditions to help us better worship God. These things often do help with that, but even the most biblical tradition started with the sincerest intentions can be used to hide Christ rather than reveal him.
It must be stated that Jesus doesn’t condemn tradition. In fact, Jesus approved of tradition – when it was done with the right heart, with the right motives and for the right purpose.
He does not condemn tradition.
Instead, Jesus rebukes the sin of replacing faith with tradition.
When a tradition replaces faith, the tradition itself becomes the object of worship; that is idolatry.
I admit it. I have been guilty of this, we all have, I would assume. For instance, how often do we simply attend two worship services because we are supposed to? I make sure I am dressed up in the right clothes, sing the right songs, bow my head, give the offering…and how often do we just pray the same mindless prayer day in and day out?
In a sermon on Mark 12, from 2010, Rev. Wes Bredenhof gives us the hypothetical man in love with a particular tradition in the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC):
Imagine the man who loves the Genevan tunes and the pipe organ…
These are good things that can be used well for God’s glory. And certainly God’s Word calls for us to sing Psalms. … imagine a man who loves those things, not the Psalms as such, but the music that goes with them. When he comes to church, he comes for the traditional Genevan tunes and for the pipe organ. But when it comes to the Bible, he really doesn’t care. When it comes to the gospel, he’s heard it all before and it doesn’t capture his heart. He’s not interested. He doesn’t rejoice to hear about what Christ did for sinners. He doesn’t embrace the gospel for himself as often as he hears it proclaimed. So when it comes to loving God, he tends to think of God as a theological concept or a good debate. God is not even really real to him, and how can you love someone that’s not real? The Genevan tunes and the pipe organ are the ultimate mark of orthodoxy for this man. For the church to lose these would be a sure sign of deformation. The man loves religiosity or maybe religious music, but he does not love God, not at all…
I’m sure we could think of more examples beyond music in worship and some of them might hit a lot closer to home. We should also think of the love for one’s neighbour. How many love their religiosity, the outward trappings of church going and church membership, but don’t really love their neighbour? Something to think about.
Something to think about indeed.
When the Lord gave us the second commandment on Sinai, he did not just mean that we can’t worship anything or anyone but Him, rather we are taught that it is possible to worship God sinfully through our idols. As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”
The Pharisees used their traditions to justify having less grace for others. Is that something we do? Perhaps we put more trust in our traditions and less trust in God. Either way, the idolatry of tradition causes many to fall short of intimacy in relationship with Christ.
Recently I published a satirical news article about a fictional church that was supposedly in the CanRC. This fictional church had voted to remove the pipe organ and the Genevan tunes from use in worship. It was intended to be a pro-Genevan tune and pro-pipe organ article, but some people thought I was attacking these traditions of the CanRC. I wasn’t. That is the problem with satire. There was a small group that voiced their displeasure with me for “attacking the church”, others stated that they were offended, and still others were horrified at the title of the article and assumed that the CanRC was on the fast track to deformation and heresy.
Coming into the CanRC as an adult, these cultural traditions have never been that important to me. In fact they were a major distraction for me until I adjusted to them and they became normal. Now, I have grown to love them over the past 20 years. These traditions are intended to assist us in worship of God. But when they become the reason, or the only permissible method, or when we look down on those who have different traditions, or when we begin fearing the loss of these traditions, or we grow angered at someone poking them, we ought to examine ourselves and ask, “Why?”.
What is the reason that bothers me?
The satirical article was obviously false, when we consider the polity of the CanRC. Church Order article 55 makes that clear. But let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s say for just a moment that article 55 was amended so that member congregations were not required to use the Genevan tunes. Would that amendment to the Church Order bother me? Would it bother me if one member congregation in the CanRC then chose to sing the Psalms with melodies other than the Genevan tunes?
If my answer is yes, I do well to ask myself why. What is the reason it bothers me?
Change for the sake of change is not a good a thing, but change in itself, like tradition, is not necessarily wrong. If we decided to remove the Genevan tunes because we are kicking back at the traditions of the preceding generations, or just because we want change, that would be wrong. On the other hand, if we decided to change the tunes we used for Biblical reasons, out of a love for God and our neighbour, that would not necessarily be wrong.
Losing the Genevan tunes (or the pipe-organ) in worship would be a sad loss of a tradition for the Canadian Reformed Churches. Many of us have grown up with them, and they are dear to most of us… but to lose them would not be deformation; it would not be tragic. On the other hand, losing the Psalms in our worship would be deformation.. and that would be tragic.
Have our traditions become idols to some of us?
I don’t know the answer to that.
We do well to consider where we put our trust.
What is our response to Jesus’ rebuke: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”?
Here is my favourite version of Psalm 134 with the Genevan tune by the Psalm Project.