Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 22, Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Tradition, good and not so good

[For a sermon on the reading for this Sunday from the Song of Solomon, see Arise, my love, my fair one.]

[For this topic of "tradition", see also Do Christians believe in progress?; and on scripture and tradition see Scripture: Christ the key to interpretation; and on freedom and tradition in the church see Spirit and apostle: two witnesses? ]

Do you like things that are "traditional" or prefer what is "modern", or do you enjoy both? How should your opinions and preferences be described? Are you "conservative" or "liberal"? Or do you think those labels don't fit very well? Would you be both traditional and progressive, in different ways about different things? Do you think it is unfair to be accused of being afraid of change, that old hat about "future shock" and all that? Does "truth" matter to you in the things of faith; or will you agree that what we believe is all a matter of opinion? Perhaps you prefer something like "being faithful", or you would like a different emphasis like "risking the way of Jesus". Would you consider your beliefs "orthodox" or "alternative". If you take the Bible seriously, you might be accused of being "fundamentalist" and not like the description, but then perhaps you do wish to emphasise biblical truth; or you might not like being called a "liberal" when it appears to mean libertarian.

Have terms like "conservative" and "liberal" have lost much of their meaning? They certainly have different meanings in different situations. Yet, I suppose you still want to conserve, hold onto and protect, those things that in your understanding are good and in some sort of danger; and at the same time you will wish to enjoy freedom and recognize human rights and wish to live in a "free society". It is rather confused, now, just what we mean by these things and terms like them. Such descriptions tend to be used as terms of abuse in controversies. "Conservative" is a sort of swear word in some circles; "liberal" can also be used as a weapon. Such labels when used politically can be means of stigmatizing or putting down opponents when ideological tensions run high. You can be both attacked and defended for trying to keep a tradition. What should be a Christian's attitude to tradition?

There is no doubt that from a Christian point of view concern with tradition can sometimes be a bad thing, getting in the way of faith and Christian service. The gospel for today gives us an example from the teaching of Jesus, although that is not all there is to it. When Jesus was accused by the Pharisees of failing to follow the "tradition of the elders" (Mark 7:3), he counter attacked saying to them,

It might seem to us a point of no great concern as the "human tradition" he referred to was the custom of washing one's hands before eating. We in fact teach our children to wash their hands as a measure of hygiene, and the Jewish practice probably had some benefit in that regard, but it was being taught then as a ritual for purifying oneself spiritually, least one should have come into contact, perhaps at the market, with something unclean, or with an unclean or foreign person. It was not required by the ancient Jewish law but was a special extra measure of care then being advocated by some of the rabbis. It was a tradition being passed on from teacher to pupil, and thus a human tradition. As it did not come directly from scripture, Jesus was saying it was not a commandment of God, but human tradition. He then went on to contrast their care in such a small thing with the ease with which they arranged to break the commandments about looking after their parents (Mark 7: 9-12). They made the scriptures subject to their teachings,

So one thing we might infer is that Jesus advocated a higher place to scripture than to human tradition. Fair enough, you might say, but have a little think about the way we interpret scripture. How much do we make our acceptance of scripture subject to what we already believe? There are many traditions in Western society today (and in the East, but with different emphases). We have a strong tradition of individual liberty which can be opposed to the acceptance of discipline in personal matters, thus making some words of scripture difficult. We also have a tradition of rule by law, which in contrast sometimes makes it difficult to allow sufficient freedom to another in accord with the requirements of love. A great deal depends on which elements of tradition you emphasise; and it becomes quite complicated when one part of our tradition is called "traditional" and another is called "progressive", for both are traditions; but both these tendencies are human traditions, which might or might not agree with scripture. It is not a simple question, but it would appear from the example in Mark 7 that Jesus would expect his followers to make a distinction between human tradition or custom on the one hand and commands of God or his own teaching on the other.

It was a distinction which was being made among the early Christians for whom Mark and the other evangelists were writing, and it helps in understanding what he wrote to see how those to whom he wrote were thinking and arguing. Many of the controversies they faced came out of concern with the question of whether the Gentile Christians should follow Jewish practices in such things as what they eat, and that was also part of a much bigger of question of how we are saved, whether through keeping the law of God in the Hebrew scriptures or by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. (See last week's Food for eternal life re: the concern with Jewish law among Gentile Christians.) So Mark later in this Chapter interprets the teaching of Jesus to address that question:

There is more here to think about, but for the moment, to get the point about human tradition rather than a command of God, whether from the scripture they then had or from the teaching of Jesus (and one of the points of this passage in Mark is that Jesus could deliver the word of God just a Moses could), look for a moment at a couple of examples which might be closer to our interests than Jewish dietary customs. Paul at times made a distinction between what he thought and what he had received as the words of Jesus in important pastoral matters like marriage, divorce and the status of women:

That is not yet quite a matter of tradition, but he said it was his idea ("my judgement") in much the same way that the Jewish traditions of the rabbis had developed from the judgements of their teachers. Paul sometimes made the distinction between his own ideas and the commands of the Lord explicit:

Jesus had a clear teaching that married people should stay together, but the church with Paul's help was working out what they thought its detailed implications were in way which would later become traditional. Paul knew that those traditions would not have the same authority as the commands of Jesus or the word of God. The authority of Paul the apostle was still considerable and not something to be lightly set aside, but Paul does seem to have expected his readers to consider his opinion seriously and then decide what they should do in the light all they know.

We even have some cases where nothing more than custom is advanced as a reason for certain things to be done in the Christian community. For example:

There was a custom of wearing hats. Trivia? OK, not the most important matter in itself whether a woman should wear a hat in church. Fifty years ago the daring young women in our society who decided in a recent generation not to follow the custom of their mothers and went bare headed into church might have thought too that it was not terribly important. Interestingly that was a time, at least in this part of the world, when church attendance and the commitment of youth to follow Christ greatly increased, not because they broke with tradition or custom that prevailed in the time of Paul, but because they had a perspective on the things that mattered which led them to such a commitment rather than simply to follow custom. They were not in the church mainly because their parents were there, and were there despite their parent being absent. What might then have been a sign of departure from the Christian tradition turned out to be part of a renewed commitment stronger than in the previous generation. So what price "tradition"? It depends upon what tradition you are talking about.

Let's look at another example. There is a more important piece about the role of women, which has raised major questions in recent times concerning leadership in the church.

Here Paul again appeals to custom, As in all the churches of the saints. The Corinthians are exhorted to do what others do. There was a tradition in the churches, which no doubt reflected the traditions concerning the status of women at that time and in that culture. We can still ask, as many sincere Christians in other traditions (that word again!) still do, whether it was only a matter of custom that women should be silent and not speak in public? Was Paul relying here on the same kind of custom that need not be followed universally? I think (and it is the official position of my church) that Paul wrote about the status of women in the manner of his time, that is according to tradition, and applied a general principal of modesty and avoidance of giving offense which was relevant to the circumstances of his readers, but did not spell out a universal requirement of all Christians everywhere. It seems to me that Paul put his advice in terms of culture not yet transformed by the gospel when he wrote,

Others still say, on the contrary, that here we are given a clear lead on how we should behave. Was it tradition in the sense of the custom of the people of his time and place or did it convey a truth that is equivalent to a command of the Lord. It is at points like this that there is a danger that a liberal interpretation of scripture can substitute a recent preferred tradition for the word of the God, so we need to be careful. We do, however, have a lead from Paul himself in this particular case, for he had written in the previous verse,

So here was a tradition handed on by Paul. Was it human tradition, the custom of that group of people, or was it more, the apostolic tradition witnessing to Christ as at other points in the same letter. We know that there was a tradition of the highest value, or as Paul says, of the utmost importance, in some things that he had handed on. For example:

"I handed on to you what I in turn had received": that is clearly a tradition, but one that is not simply a custom in which people do what others do; it is something going back to a source of authority for the truth about Christ. Further in 1 Corinthians 11, we have also the great tradition concerning the Lord's Supper, which gives us the words of institution we use with the bread and wine:

"I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you". That, like the word about salvation, is the apostolic tradition So there are traditions and traditions and there is the great tradition which brings to us the word of God and the means of his grace by which we are fed with food for eternal life. How do you know which is which, which is human tradition of limited value like the tradition of the Jewish teachers which Jesus questioned, and which is the great tradition through which the apostles made known the word of God in Christ? In the study of scripture it is something we have to struggle with, but the writers often give a clue us to the status of their writing. And Jesus gave us a clue too in what he said to the disciples after that episode concerning human tradition in Mark 7. It was a matter of the heart in which his commands prevailed. Should the Jewish laws about what one could eat bind his followers? Remember that was an important question among the people to whom Mark was writing. Jesus said, apparently claiming authority to modify what Moses had taught and what had been accepted as binding scripture,

Outward conformity was always less important in the teaching of Jesus than corruption or purity of motive. He put it another way, the other way around, in the Sermon on the Mount:

There are human traditions which might be good, bad or indifferent, but what matters is the tradition of the gospel that points us to Christ, and his love which inspires such love and thankfulness in human hearts that we can love and serve God. To him be the glory. Amen.

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