Traditions in and of themselves are not bad. Some are God-honoring and can be helpful for us on our walk. Based on Jesus’ teaching, traditions can be acceptable as part of our spiritual disciplines and in worship if they meet two broad qualifications: that they do not contradict Scripture and that they are not taught as though they are in Scripture.
In Mark 7:1-13, Jesus is confronted by Scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus’ disciples, asking Him why they do not wash their hands before they eat in the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:5). This question was not raised by those religious leaders out of some sort of concern for hygiene. They were upset with Jesus’ disciples because to them, they were breaking a religious law.
The religious leaders’ tradition of washing before a meal might have been rooted in the Mosaic law of ritual cleanliness that the priests were required to perform before ministering before the Lord (Exodus 30:20). There was nothing sinful about the act of washing before eating, but it became sinful when it became an idolatrous requirement that had to be performed by all Israelites before eating.
Jesus then continues and reveals more about the sinfulness of the religious leaders’ hearts when He confronts them, saying:
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) – then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do (Mark 7:10-13).”
There was nothing prohibiting giving to God; in fact, there are many commandments to give to God (e.g., Exodus 13:2, Malachi 3:10). The problem was that the Pharisees had created a special financial vow – the “Corban” Jesus referred to in verse 11 – that allowed the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12) to be overridden with a human commandment. The Corban allowed someone to give the financial resources that should go to support their parents to the temple instead. This elevates human tradition over God’s direct commandment.
Application for Today
To help see how we can fall into the same trap, we can think about following a tradition such as Lent. It can be a meaningful and humbling way of drawing near to Jesus before celebrating His death and resurrection. It becomes a sinful human tradition when it is taught that it must be honored and that practices such as eating meat on certain days during Lent is sinful. This sort of teaching puts a burden and guilt on Christians that God has never commanded and has elevated human tradition over the Bible.
It can be easy to take an action that on its own is not sinful and elevate it to an idolatrous tradition of man. When it is not a blatant contradiction of Scripture, it can be hard to distinguish when the line is crossed. In those cases, it might be helpful to ask yourself some questions such as:
- Do you feel like you could not worship God the same without following the tradition?
- When you see someone not performing the tradition, do you feel as if they are sinning or feel superior to them for performing the tradition?
- If you were shown undeniable biblical proof that the tradition was a sin, would you still try to justify doing it?
These are just a few questions to consider. If you are still unclear, it is always a good idea to ask your pastor or another theologically mature Christian (Proverbs 1:5). Let us all pray that we might not become like the Pharisees who fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy becoming those who, “draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men (Isaiah 29:13).”