What do you think of when you think of tradition? Do you think of a warm apple pie at Thanksgiving or do you think of the Pharisees tradition of washing hands? Perhaps many would think of the song "Tradition" from the musical Fiddler on the Roof which gave some insight into how Jewish tradition is valued. I think of the church buildings and the hierarchical structure of church leadership. Amish people are a group that are a prime example of the powerful influence of tradition. Though it is easy to see how the Amish are seeped in tradition, they are not alone, but our whole culture has traditions that powerfully influence us.
Before looking at some traditions that influence people, let’s consider the moral ramifications of tradition. Is tradition good or evil? I studied the Bible for information about tradition and found that most of the time it was spoken in a negative light. Christ put a light on traditions that were blinding people to more important issues. Tradition was also used to circumvent God’s word. There is a verse that tells us to hold onto good tradition. So there are good and bad traditions, but God’s word must take precedence over any tradition.
America has a lot of tradition. My family was shopping in a store where there was another Christian family. The mother had a headship veiling on and had a number of children. Another woman who was a shopper spoke to one of the little boys. The woman said, “Is Santa coming to your house?” The boy looked confused. The woman said, “You know who Santa is, don’t you?” The boy quietly told her “no.” The woman’s demeanor changed and she angrily told the boy, “You’re lying!” She then walked away. We can look back at ancient cultures and see the faults in people that had idols, but we have some very real idols in our American culture. I know there are Christians that hold Santa dear, but he is an idol that competes with the affections that children need to apply to Christ. The Scripture clearly tells of the need to cast “down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God." It would be hard for us to hear Christ say, "Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition."
The Amish have tradition that both knits families together and tears families apart. Most heart rending are the stories where people have sought to please God in their lives, but tradition conflicted with obedience to God, and families have been divided. Christ warning to the Pharisees about making the Word of God void through their tradition is lived out in many Amish communities. There is the testimony of Ephraim Stoltzfus, who wanted to have a Bible study with friends and share the gospel with the community. These things were not allowed in the Amish group he was a part of. He had a choice to make. Obey God or man’s tradition. The choice became clear, and he faced the consequence from man. He was excommunicated from his Amish community. Most Americans would have no idea what this would be like because most people are more independent from the lives of others compared to the Amish. After being excommunicated he felt the wrath of man, but came to know in a greater way the smile of God.
When reading the definition for “tradition" in Webster’s 1828 dictionary I found it interesting that it gives an example of a difference in the Roman Catholic church, Jews, and the Protestant church in relation to the authority of tradition. It states: “The Jews pay great regard to tradition in matters of religion, as do Romanists. Protestants reject the authority of tradition in sacred things, and rely only on the written word.”
This is the issue Jesus spoke of when he gave warnings against making God’s Word void through tradition. Tradition must never be given the authority of Scripture unless the tradition comes from Scripture. The Protestant Reformation helped bring to light the trap of human tradition.
The Jews believed that washing hands before eating was a large crime because of tradition. They made up a story of a demon, called Shibta, that dwelt on men’s hands by night would be authorized to be on the food of those that would eat without washing their hands. This evil spirit was believed to be harmful to those that didn’t wash their hands. Those that didn’t wash their hands before eating would be excommunicated. Jesus was found to be perfect concerning the law of God. It seems the best accusation that could be found against his disciples was this human tradition of washing hands. When the scribes and Pharisees brought this to Jesus’ attention, he brought to their attention how they had transgressed God’s command by their tradition. He told how they obeyed a man made tradition that allowed them to violate the command to honor their parents. He charged them with hypocrisy saying, “Ye hypocrites...” He clarified the situation by telling the multitude around him that it is not that which goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but that which comes out. Jesus had a way of clarifying issues.
Sometimes traditions are carried on, but people don't know why they do them. The story is told of a woman who was preparing a holiday meal. She cut a piece off the bottom of a ham before putting it in the pan to bake. When asked why she cut it that way, she replied, "My mother always cut the bottom of the ham before putting it in the pan." The question was asked to the mother who replied that her mother had always done it that way. They were able to ask the matriarch of the family why she cut the bottom off the ham before putting it in the pan. She replied that she cut the ham before putting it in the pan because the pan she used was too short for the ham to fit into.
Some traditions can be an unneeded burden, but others can be a great way for families and friends to make some good memories. May God grant us wisdom to discern which ones to hold on to and which ones to let go.