Summary: Religious traditions are dangerous. We can easily be satisfied by them. Passified by them so that we go to sleep and do not follow God's call. May God deliver us!
Matthew 15:1-20 has been a key passage to point out the danger of vain worship by following man made traditions instead of God's word. I have often heard this passage applied to the activities that we do in our church services, but Jesus' application is actually much broader. So just what is a tradition anyway? Thank-you for asking. Well, a tradition is a routine way to practice what you believe in. We all have them. In fact, what we are doing right now is a tradition. The hours of Bible class and worship services... where did those come from? The order of our services, our church buildings, the songs we sing, having a song leader, the way we do our prayers, the way we dress up for church, the emphasis we put on preaching instead of scripture reading in services, having a paid full time preacher, youth and family minister and staff, the way we pass the trays of bread and the multiple cups instead of all rising and coming to gather at the table, the invitation at the end of the sermon, and basically, everything we do... and everything we don't do: these are our traditions. Can you show me a Bible verse for each of the things we do here? Yes, I can show you a Bible verse for singing, praying, giving, communion, preaching, gathering, fellowship, teaching, learning, growing, evangelizing, etc. But the specifics of how we do it are largely traditions.
Now, we do try to follow biblical principles as we build our specifics. But the Bible actually allows a lot more freedoms in how we perform our church services than many would like. We are not a machine, we are a family of faith. We are a living body with various members. We are a Holy Spirit filled temple of the Lord. The Bible is kind of like a genetic code, it determines an amazing number of our features and characteristics but it also allows for an amazing flexibility to function with variation within many kinds of environments and contexts. It is these functions within those contexts that we would call traditions. Our traditions should be shaped by and formed under the guidance of God's word. And because we are alive in Christ and growing, we sometimes take off certain traditions and take on others.
How many of you wash your hands before you eat? As I grew up when we came to the table to eat our meals I remember being told the same thing. It was a family tradition. Mom would say as she put the food on the table, "Everybody wash your hands and come and eat!" Or, if you showed up to eat before she could give that command, there was the question: did you wash your hands? If you didn't, then the command came: then go wash your dirty hands before you eat! Sometimes the command was proceeded by or followed with the admonition: You know better than that!
And we did know better. It was our tradition! But we didn't always do better. If I had paid more attention to what the Bible says in this passage I might have gotten myself into trouble by saying that Jesus didn't wash his hands before he ate and he said it didn't matter! That probably would not have gone over well in our household in my early childhood. My mom had an honor code about what she called: "Talking back." I don't hear it as much today, but when I grew up "talking back" to your parents was dangerous. It meant you were disrespecting their authority or "disputing their word." By the way, if we said something like, "Do I have to?" or especially something like, "I don't want to," wow! I remember mom would sometimes say, "Don't you dispute my word!" When she said that it meant you were close to being spanked for disrespect because you "talked back" or rolled your eyes or something like that. I learned early in life to talk respectfully to my parents and even show respect by my demeanor or else there was a price to pay. These were some of the traditions in our household.