In Sunday’s sermon, “Worship and the Word,” from Mark 7:1–23, we came to Jesus’ famous confrontation with the scribes and the Pharisees on the topic of human tradition. The Pharisees sought to take God’s Word seriously. If God told the priests to wash their hands in the temple, then why shouldn’t all of us wash our hands all the time (Ex. 30:19–21)? And why not wash the pots and couches too? They did many things like this, apparently.
Were they sinning? Or, from another angle, are traditions always bad? For example, is it wrong for us to have a certain pattern to our worship service, or to our giving, or to how we go about shaping church life week to week? Is it wrong to have a certain way of dressing or an ear for a certain type of music? No. We are encultured people. Traditions can be a little goofy from the outside, but they aren’t bad. Then, what was the problem? Remember Jesus’ math. Having made too much of their traditions they handed down, they made void the Word of God (7:13).
How, then, can we know when human tradition has become a problem for us? On this point we got some help from Michael Garland in his commentary on Mark. He offers three ways:
Traditions become evil when they run counter to God’s purposes expressed in the ethical commands of how to relate to others. Traditions become dangerous when persons are blind to how they undermine God’s commands. Traditions become corrupt when people become more devoted to upholding them than obeying God’s direct commands. As [it has been put], “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
To this explanation, Garland adds this colorful illustration:
One may compare tradition to the shell of the blue crab. To live and grow it must shed its shell from time to time. Until it creates a new shell, the crab is extremely vulnerable. But if the shell becomes so strong and rigid that the crab cannot escape, that is the shell in which it dies. Losing traditions that make one feel safe and comfortable can cause great anxiety. But hanging on to traditions so that one becomes ‘hard-shelled’ is fatal.
So, here’s something we can aspire to as a church: to be a blue crab church. Let’s embrace our traditions without elevating our traditions so that we can’t shed them as needed. Let’s do the old math that knows adding to the Bible means subtracting the Bible itself. Let’s ask God to establish his rule in our church by his Word, even if that makes us a little uncomfortable sometimes.