Like every other idol we have considered, tradition can be, and often is, a good thing. While Protestant churches typically don’t elevate tradition to the same level of authority as other churches, we should be careful of quickly casting aside practices that the church has found helpful over the centuries. At the same time, we want to avoid idolising our traditions as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.
Matthew 15 records an instance in which the Pharisees rebuked Jesus for not insisting that his disciples follow the Jewish religious traditions. The particular traditions in question, which involved ceremonial cleansing prior to eating, were not Scriptural commands but inventions of Jewish religious leaders. These religious leaders, however, elevated their traditions to Scriptural authority, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (15:1–9). They were resistant to change, even when it could be clearly shown from Scripture that change was warranted.
Christians can fall into the same trap. We can become so enamoured with what we’ve always believed and how we’ve always done things that we can become resistant to change. Our favourite doctrines, or the way we’ve always conducted our worship services, become our golden calves and we do not allow Scripture to reform what we believe, how we think, or how we act. Our minds will not be swayed no matter how much evidence is presented from Scripture.
Of course, we will never be as crass as to admit that. We always claim to be open to whatever changes Scripture requires. But we resist change, not on the basis of any biblical exegesis, but simply because it does not fit with the way we’ve always done things.
In the text before us, there are at least three tell-tale signs that the religious leaders had idolised their traditions. We do well to examine our own hearts for these signs.
First, in their quest to preserve their traditions, they had ceased to care about people (14:34–36). The flow of the text is interesting. Jesus had just spent time healing people who had been afflicted by various conditions. The Pharisees did not even acknowledge the good he was doing. They jumped straight to criticism. Their tunnel-vision led them only to see how Jesus was violating their manmade traditions, even as he was pouring compassion upon the needy as Scripture required.
When our traditions become idols, we display similar tunnel-vision. We don’t care about people; we only care that our precious traditions are not being upheld.
Second, in their quest to preserve their traditions, they had ceased to take God seriously (15:1–9). They were obsessed with maintaining their traditions but blatantly ignored what God commanded. Despite God’s command for children to honour parents, the religious leaders had created a loophole whereby they could ignore God. The religious leaders taugt that, if your parents were in need, you could avoid meeting that need by claiming that the money available had already been promised to God. This claim relieved you from obeying God’s command to honour your parents. The Pharisees were happy to do that but were enraged that Jesus’ disciples were not honouring their manmade traditions.
The idol of tradition has a way of doing that. Even if reformation is promoted on the basis of clear Scriptural evidence, when our pet doctrines and practices are touched, we grow agitated. It matters not that the reformation is seeking to bring us closer to Scripture, and that we can offer no biblical argument against it. Our favourite tradition dare not be touched!
Third, in their quest to preserve their traditions, they—or, more specifically, the disciples, had failed to take the eternal view (15:10–20). The disciples were alarmed when Jesus publicly opposed the religious leaders. They were concerned that he was offending them. Jesus did not care about offending religious traditionalists if eternity was at stake. Those who blindly followed the traditions of the Pharisees were in danger of eternal condemnation and he was determined to rescue them from it.
Idolising tradition has a way of keeping our focus very much earth-minded. We so obsess about insisting that people think as we think and do as we do that we neglect the gospel, which prepares people for eternity. We act very Pharisee-like in our quest to protect our traditions.
As you reflect on these verses this morning, ask yourself whether you have perhaps been guilty of idolising your traditions and thereby negating the authority of Scripture. Repent, take Scripture seriously, and worship Christ alone.