The dangers of tradition

The reading at last Sunday’s service was from Matthew 15:1 – 20

In the reading some of the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem come to Jesus and ask, “Why do your disciples break our ancient tradition and eat their food without washing their hands properly?”

The scribes and Pharisees try to follow God’s way by following the customs and traditions that were handed down over the ages. Remembering what your mother taught you, you may well say these rules make a lot of sense. So why did Jesus not discipline his disciples for breaking them, just as your mother may have disciplined you for coming to the table without washing your hands? Instead, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees asking, “Why do you break God’s commandment through your tradition?” For the Pharisees have developed a ‘work around’ for the God’s commandment to ‘Honour your father and your mother’, and ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death’. The Pharisees have developed a corollary to this which allows  a man to tell his parents, ‘Whatever use I might have been to you is now given to God’, therefore he now owes no further duty to his parents. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, saying your tradition empties the commandment of God of all its meaning. Jesus then quotes Isaiah to describe the Pharisees: ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’.”

Quite the indictment! However, before we dismiss the Pharisees of old as simply a viper’s brood (Matthew 3:7), it is critical to ask who are the modern day Pharisees? C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Proposes a Toast suggest that 2000 years later we still have a fine crop of Pharisee wine. In this selection the senior and very experienced devil, Screwtape, rises to propose a toast. In his hand he holds a glass of Pharisee wine.

Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and their almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up there where the sun shone! How much more they hate each other now that they are forever conjoined but not reconciled. Their astonishment, their resentment, at the combination, the festering of their eternally impenitent spite, passing into our spiritual digestion, will work like fire. Dark fire. All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by “religion” every vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the the close neighbourhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt more successfully as on the very steps of the altar.  http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/screwtape-proposes-a-toast-SEP.pdf

So who is most in danger of becoming the Pharisee today? Why dear church goer, it is you and I. To paraphrase JB Phillips translation of Matthew 16:25, the one who want to save his life by simply following rules will lose his life; but the one who cedes control of his life to Jesus and loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it. So being a follower of Christ is not simply following a set of rules no matter how important they might be. Rather it is yielding control of   your life to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.