37 “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.
38 “I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.”
Tradition is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, tradition can give us deep roots in the past, an anchor against changing tides that seek to threaten righteousness and sound doctrine. On the negative side, tradition can perpetuate human institutions and legalism, and trap us in patterns of behavior that have no place in God’s kingdom. In the good cases, Christian tradition can help us better understand and appreciate the message of the gospel through sacraments and rituals. But sometimes, with some people and in some churches, the rituals become more important than the message they are meant to convey, and the gospel of peace is distorted into a message of self-righteousness and prejudice.
We walk a fine line between trying to retain the things we have been taught by the church fathers and trying to teach the gospel in a modern context. There are those who would jettison traditional sacraments altogether, for they fail to see the significance of such rites and services. They ask questions born from today’s social context:
* “Why bother with a marriage ceremony when divorce rates are so high?”
* “Why get baptized?”
* “Why go to church? Can’t I simply believe and be saved?”
* “I follow the Ten Commandments closely. Isn’t that enough?”
In Jesus’ day, there were many who pointed to the traditions of their fathers and said they were doing the right things. Like the rich young man mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (19:16-22), they felt like they had always been doing plenty to get right with God. And then along comes Jesus to tell them that’s not enough.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus again and again tell people “You have heard it said…” and then our Savior would go on to teach something seemingly opposite to what they understood. Our Lord tried to show people how God views such traditions and sayings, how they ought to back up their “righteous” actions with truly righteous faith. That really is the point of traditions: to reinforce right faith. For example, when we go through a water baptism, we have to understand that it is not the water itself that washes away our sins, and we cannot rely on that momentary “rapture” to induce lifelong change. Only the blood of Jesus washes away our sins, and that comes only by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus as our Lord and our Savior. Repentance is an act on OUR part, not an act performed by God to remove our instinct to sin. Yes, when we accept Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us, but even the best Guide is only so good as the ears that listen to Him. As Jesus also often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Of course, there is another side of the traditions of our fathers. I’ll let Rogers and Hammerstein say it for me:
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
(From “South Pacific”)
Traditions also teach hate and fear and prejudice and oppression. Jesus expresses it so well in today’s verse when He says, “you do what you have seen with your father.” We carry on the bad behaviors we see as children, and although we are not judged for the sins of our fathers, by continuing in those sins we bring judgment on ourselves. That is the root of the idea of what some call a “generational curse,” that we have patterns of sinful behavior ground into us so deeply by our parents that we cannot break free from those sins and receive salvation. We carry on the prejudice and sinful attitudes – like pride, greed, and lust – of our forefathers, and instead of following our Father in heaven, we follow in the footsteps of our earthly fathers and give nothing more than lip service to ways of God. That is when the positive traditions of the church become distorted by the negative traditions of human behavior, making the good traditions worthless, meaningless, faithless. The only way to break such a curse is to embrace Christ so fully that the voices of our parents no longer register with us, to become so much of a new creation in Christ that our old life is utterly destroyed.
Jesus is calling us to embrace a “new” tradition that is older than time: the love of God. The Savior is trying to teach us to root out the old things that trap us in the past and to inform our new lives with the grace and faith that only come through submission to God. Christ is encouraging us to live lives of service to God and our fellow men – not in order to buy our salvation but because we our salvation has already been bought for us. Jesus is reminding us that it is high time to back up our human traditions with proper faith in Him, and to discard those traditions that are not founded in faith. Our Lord is trying to teach us that we ought to listen to HIS Father more than we listen to our own.
Gracious heavenly Father, we praise You for the grace You have given to us. Thank You for the love which You share through Your Son. Use me, Father God, and in matters of faith and love, teach me to be more like Your Son and less like my forefathers. Let me embrace the values of my own father that best reflect what is important to You, my Father in heaven. Amen.