Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 27:45 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Okay: let’s see how divided we are by tradition. Are you ready? Raise your hand if your family opens presents on Christmas Eve. Raise your hand if your family opens presents on Christmas Day. Now, as much as one of those traditions can become a point of contention, especially perhaps between the newly married at their first Christmas, it finally doesn’t matter all that much. It’s a family tradition that is important within the family, but good luck trying to convince anyone outside your family to abide by your tradition! Those are human traditions, and we all have them, around holidays and all sorts of other things.
Now we might be inclined, after hearing the first half of Mark 7, to think that Jesus is against all human traditions. He has some harsh words to say to the Pharisees and scribes about their traditions. First of all, He denies that their traditions are divine. They believed that they had been handed down from Sinai to Moses, all the way down to them. But Jesus calls them human traditions; your traditions; the commandments of men; the traditions of men. But the problem with those traditions is not that they are traditions. It is not even that they are human traditions, which, again, we all have.
The problem is, first of all, that they put more stock in observing their traditions, the traditions of the elders, than they do in observing the actual commandments of God. But it’s worse than that. They think that by their human rules and regulations, they’ve put a fence around the Law of God. That if they stay far enough away from the Law itself, they won’t break God’s Law. If they keep the fence in good repair, the yard will flourish and the house will stay upright. But Jesus points out that not only have they put more emphasis on the traditions of the elders than on the commandment of God, not only are they replacing the Law of God, they are actually breaking the commandment of God by keeping their traditions.
Jesus’ example is the Fourth Commandment, which says that we must honor our father and mother. God takes it so seriously that the penalty for disobedience in the Old Testament is death. But the Pharisees and scribes have said that if you have money or other possessions that you would use to support, honor, and help your parents who are in need, and, instead, you tell them that it’s too bad but those things are “Kor-ban,” or an offering to the Lord, you are actually breaking the commandment of God in order to do something that appears more holy, like giving money in the Temple. In fact, Kor-ban means that since that money is going to a “holy” purpose, it can’t be used for ordinary things like helping your mother and your father.
Nothing wrong with giving money as an offering to God, but when it’s at the expense of doing what God actually commands, then it’s no longer neutral; it’s evil. Nothing wrong with washing your hands ritually, in itself. Washing hands has become something of a ritual for all of us in the last two years, though for different reasons than the Jews! But as soon as that human rule becomes an opportunity to question the holiness of someone else, then it’s no longer neutral; it’s evil. Then these otherwise neutral, harmless human traditions begin to encroach on the holy and divine word of God.
It would be as if we said that everyone had to open presents on Christmas morning—or Christmas Eve—in order to be a good Christian. True holiness consists in opening presents at just the right hour, in order to faithfully and completely honor Jesus’ birth. That seems silly, but we should be honest: we are often more drawn to things that we make up for ourselves than the things that are given to us. Our own human traditions will very often appear to our sinful flesh to be better and holier than the works and words that God has commanded and spoken to us. The little rituals we invent for ourselves to show God and everyone else that we are good Christians often mean more to us than the actual commands of God. Maybe this is why we are so quick to condemn others when they are caught in the sins with which we most struggle.
The question here isn’t about traditions as traditions. It’s not even about human traditions. It’s about the relationship between God and His people, which the people have corrupted, and so their traditions have gone wrong. Isaiah says that the people speak nice words and do nice actions in the general direction of God, but their hearts are somewhere else. And Isaiah was prophesying a long time before the Pharisees showed up. This isn’t a Pharisee problem or a scribe problem; it’s a sinner problem, which means it’s our natural, default problem. What the people had actually forgotten is not the right words or the right actions—which, we should remember, God Himself had instructed and taught them; what they had forgotten was that they were the people of God. Just as the Church forgets that it is the bride of Christ. If it is within a new marriage that a husband and wife have to figure out when they are going to open Christmas presents, infinitely more important is the relationship of Christ and the Church for what traditions are delivered to the children of God. If the relationship is wrong, the traditions will be wrong.
“Tradition” means nothing but what is handed on. The question isn’t whether things will be handed on or not. The question is, what is handed on, and why. And are those traditions—the things handed down—do they stay at the level of our lips, on the surface? Or are they the description of the relationship God has remade with us Christ? He has not given us only new words, but new hearts on which is inscribed His instruction, all the things that Jesus has said and done.
Paul follows Jesus exactly. In Colossians, he has strong words of scorn for those who hold to human traditions as measuring sticks of holiness. There are those, Paul tells the Colossians, who say, “Do not handle; do not taste; do not touch.” They hold certain days as holier than other days, certain festivals as more necessary than others, etc. But Paul says all of that, especially the things commanded in the Old Testament, was only the shadow of Christ. Does that mean that all those things are expendable, unnecessary? No; they are the shadow of Christ, the outline and substance of which Christ is the fulfillment. You could no more discard everything God says before Jesus than you could discard Jesus. You can’t actually erase the shadow. It is when people claim that human traditions make people holy, instead of Christ, then they are leading people astray. Don’t be lead away from Christ by human tradition, Paul says. The bond that God has made with you in Christ is the context for all His words to you. If you miss Christ and His marriage to the Church, which includes you, then you miss the entire point.
When it comes to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, Paul has some other things to say about traditions. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul commends and praises the Corinthians for maintaining the traditions even as Paul had delivered them to them (11:1). And then, a little later in the chapter, tells them explicitly what one of those traditions was: I delivered to you what I also received from the Lord: that on the night when He was betrayed, He took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to the disciples and said, “This is My Body, given for you.” And He took the cup, blessed it, gave it to them and said, “This cup is the new testament in My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (11:23-26).
This is the first tradition Paul mentions. The second is in chapter 15, when Paul says that he delivered to them as of first importance what he also received, that Jesus was crucified, buried, raised from the dead, and appeared to many, even to 500 at one time (15:3-8). The only two traditions that Paul explicitly mentions are these: that, of first importance, Jesus is risen from the dead; and, second, that that crucified and risen Jesus gives His Body and Blood in the bread and the wine for forgiveness and salvation. And for maintaining those traditions—even though they made mistakes in both these areas—Paul commends them.
Along the same lines, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, whether by our letters or word of mouth (2:15). Then, again, that they keep away from any brother who is not walking according to the tradition that Paul delivered to them (3:6).
For Christians, then, the question is whether our traditions uphold and deliver the Word of God and the Gospel of Christ. Anything that does is good, and anything that contradicts or undermines that is bad. And if it’s not commanded, it’s open. But not all traditions are created equal. And the Church of Christ should do whatever keeps Christ and His Word and His forgiveness continually in front of our eyes. What proclaims Christ? What delivers Christ? What says to sinners, “Here is Christ, crucified and resurrected, for you”?
If you look at the explanations to the Lord’s Prayer in the catechism, it says things like this: “God’s name is holy in itself, apart from our prayers.” “God’s will is done, even without our prayers.” “God’s kingdom comes, even without our prayers.” But we pray that God’s name would be holy among us, God’s will would be done among us, God’s kingdom come among us. In a similar way, God’s Word and Gospel will continue to be handed down from generation to generation whether or not we do it. But we do it for our sake and for the sake of our children and for the sake of their children, that the most important thing we hand down to them—that we tradition to them—is Jesus and Him crucified and raised for them, who give them His very self and life. Everything else is secondary; everything else must give way. Because the other translation for this word tradition is “hand over” in the sense of “betray.” If we are not handing over Christ for us and for them, then we are betraying His Word and Gospel, and betraying the next generation of Christians. What will we hand on, and why?
Someone once said, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The dead faith of those who just do what they always did because they always did it. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition, he said, is the living faith of the dead (Jaroslav Pelikan). This is the living faith once delivered to the saints by Christ Himself, and they have faithfully delivered it to us. And we live now, not by a tradition as dead words handed down, but as the life of Christ in and by which we ourselves live. It is the living faith in which they died, and in which—God grant it—we will die. Christ is alive as the life of His Church, and so the Church will continue to live until the divine tradition comes to its completion when Christ returns and raises us as He Himself was raised.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/19/21