Summary: Too often our living and worship become steeped in tradition and ritual. This sermon is a call to examine what we do and more importantly WHY we do it in an attempt to keep us from elevating the traditions of men above the law of God.
Tradition for Tradition’s Sake
(This message was preceded by singing "Joy to the World" as the opening hymn and the theme of "tradition" was introduced by a video clip of Fiddler on the Roof - from the prologue 1:55 (as the fiddler begins to play) through 3:57 (as Tevye says, "...and what God expects him to do.")
According to Tevye, tradition is what keeps the people of Anatevka balanced. Tradition tells them what to wear, what to eat, how to sleep and how to work. Tradition guides their daily interactions, giving guidance to who does what when, where, why and how. Tradition gives the people their identity in the community and also in the eyes of God. The multi-tiered traditions of Anatevka are followed in order to show the faithful’s devotion to God. And yet… where did these traditions come from? How did they begin? Well, Tevye would tell us, but he doesn’t know and I would venture the educated guess that no one in Anatevka really knows why or how these traditions began. Yet, each day traditions are carried out. Letter of the law. I’s dotted. T’s crossed.
Tradition for tradition’s sake! And that’s that!
We all have traditions that we do simply for the sake of tradition. Take, for instance, this morning’s opening song. How many of you wondered why we were singing “Joy to the World” in August? “Joy to the World” is a Christmas song, right?! Has your pastor has lost her mind? No, not completely. But I do challenge you to point out to me what makes “Joy to the World” a song to only be sung at Christmas.
Is there any mention of Bethlehem, shepherds, angels or mangers? No.
Is there any mention of the infant Christ child? No.
In fact, the second, third and fourth stanzas probably make this “Christmas” carol more appropriate for Easter, Ascension Day and Christ the King Sunday. But, tradition for tradition’s sake, relegates this song to be sung only on Christmas Eve! Now, trust me, I’m not asking to change that tradition - I can’t imagine a Christmas service without singing “Joy to the World,” - but deep down I wonder why we only sing it then.
I did some research trying to find out about the Chrsitams tradition of “Joy to the World” and much like Tevye not knowing the origins of his traditions, little is known about the beginnings of this song, although it is often attributed to Handel due to its similarities to Handel’s Messiah in musical composition and the words of the refrain. Since there are so few known facts about who wrote “Joy to the World” and why we sing it at Christmas, that many musicians ask the same question I have posed to you… How did this song about Christ’s second coming get stuck in the celebration of Christ’s birth?
The answer is simple… Tradition! (Of course).
And who are we to question tradition? Let’s just leave it as it is, so no one will get angry. We will go on singing “Joy to the World” at Christmas time. Tevye and the citizens of Anatevka will go on living their daily traditions. And everyone will know who’s who and what’s what.
But our gospel teaching today discourages us from living a tradition for tradition’s sake type of life. Jesus wants us to be aware not just of how we are living, but WHY we are living that way.
The Pharisees noticed that Jesus’ disciples did not participate in the washing of their hands before the meal. Now, this hand-washing was not concerned with health, sanitation and hygiene. This was the ritual washing of the hands. Like so many other aspects of the Pharisees’ life, the way to wash your hands was prescribed to them, handed down as tradition. One source described the ancient handwashing ritual went like this: First you would hold your hand with fingertips pointing up and pour the water down them until the water ran down the wrists. Then you would clean the palm of the hand with the fist of the other. Finally, with fingertips pointing downward you would pour the water until it ran off your finger tips. Then you’d switch hands. According to tradition, this was the ritual handwashing that was pleasing to God.
The Pharisees were very upset that Jesus’ disciples did not participate in this handwashing ritual before eating. They could not believe that these “good Jewish boys” didn’t live according to the traditions of the Temple and the elders. To which Jesus turns the tables and asks them why they live according to the traditions of men rather than by the commandments of God.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Pharisee’s hand-washing ritual at some point in history was indeed born out of the commandments of God. Yet through the years and over the centuries and millennia the tradition remained while God’s commandment was forgotten.