Insisting on Tradition

Matt. 15:1    Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8     ‘This people honors me with their lips,
        but their hearts are far from me;
9     in vain do they worship me,
        teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”


The Pharisees and scribes in Jerusalem were those with the most religious authority. They were concerned because Jesus’ reputation had spread far and wide. This man was preaching to and healing thousands of  people. Their power base was being undermined by this man and something had to be done. With unbridled scrutiny they began to examine Jesus and his disciples, looking for the right opportunity to pile on their criticism.

Accusations came from tradition, rather than God’s law. The requirement was for priests to purify their hands before eating — not ordinary people. By expanding the law of God and creating new traditions they held people accountable to their near-impossible standard. Ultimately the problem was that they did not love God, but the traditions that they had created. Exploiting their rules they bent them to their own benefit and to the detriment of their own family members. Under the guise of ministry they tied up their financial holdings in “offerings” so they would not have to use them to support their own parents. In reality they maintained control of the funds and spent them on themselves.

While appearing to be spiritual, their hearts were hardened and their behaviors extremely self-centered. Trying to deflect blame they wanted to point a finger at Jesus. His message was getting too close to the heart of things and this was dangerous. The Pharisees and scribes were willing to sacrifice knowing the heart of God, for the sake of their tradition.


When Jesus confronted the Pharisees and scribes they were probably completely taken aback. I’m assuming that they were convinced that they were doing what was right, and he was wrong. What Jesus points out is that they are following the letter of their law, over the heart of God’s law. Sadly, they wouldn’t have seen this because they had become so absorbed in what they were doing. The truth of Jesus’ words was probably lost on them.

If we were to strip away all of the tradition in our religious practices, what would we be left with? Quite possibly most of our religious experience may be our traditions. Jesus was calling his disciples, and he is calling us to a life in which the law of God is written on our hearts. We are driven by God’s love which overflows and sometimes comes cross-wise with tradition.

Love for God and our neighbors must drive the way in which we engage in the world. Sometimes that love may put us in circumstances that just don’t seem logical, or may go against our traditions.

Please, hear me out. I love tradition, but we cannot allow the ways in which we have always done things to put us in such a box that we miss out on participating in God’s mission. The Pharisees and scribes missed out on the joy Jesus’ miraculous intervention in the world. We just may do the same when we remain stuck within a religion of our own construct. Let’s not insist on tradition, but on following the heart of God into our world.


Lord, please help me to have a sensitive heart and ears that will hear your leading. Amen.


  1. I fully agree with you. Our tradition has been hardened for one century. It will take some work to enrich it and to update it. Writing about it is a good start


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