The pharisees accused Jesus and his disciples of eating without washing their hands. I don’t mean their hands were covered in grime and dirt. I mean they didn’t perform the ceremonial Jewish washing of hands, bowls, cups, copper vessels, and dining couches. If Jesus was supposed to be such a great man and the Son of God, surely he’d follow the Jewish traditions.
It’s not like Jesus marched around and disregarded every tradition. The Bible has plenty of accounts of Christ adhering to the traditions such as the various feasts that he attended. But, unlike the pharisees, he didn’t put a lot of stock in them. After all, traditions don’t save.
And we all laugh at the traditions. The ceremonial washing of dining couches sounds silly. But the church nowadays is just as riddled with traditions. Every Sunday we often follow the same steps of worship. What are those if not traditions of man? Pastors wear special apparel and the altar is dressed in a certain fashion. What is that if not tradition?
Tradition can be a good or a bad thing. Not because of itself, but because of our sinful nature. Our sinful nature is inclined to often make tradition and ceremony more important than God. We go to church and often focus or get upset over the wrong things. Our attention is misguided toward the practices of man.
It is well-known that there’s a “worship war” in the church. Which side are you on? Traditional worship or contemporary worship? What do you sing? Hymns or praise songs? Despite their names, both are a form of tradition.
God isn’t interested in tradition. He’s interested in genuine faith and honest worship. Christ doesn’t care if you’re singing hymns or praise songs, if you’re wearing robes or suits, or if you follow certain steps in worship. These are not God-ordained practices.
Despite God’s disinterest in traditions, we’re certainly concerned about them. We don’t like that we follow certain steps in worship or that we sing certain types of music. People get so worked up over these things they actually leave the church! The sad thing is that these are not reasons to leave a church, just as they are not reasons to join a church. These things are man-made and therefore, adiaphora, which is just a fancy word that means that God doesn’t command or forbid it.
Traditions in the church are a wonderful and helpful thing when they serve one purpose: Pointing man to Christ. The reason we follow the certain steps in a worship service is because every step serves this purpose. Every part guides worshipers to God’s word and promises. That’s a good thing. However, once these things start causing us to fall away from God, or if we start seeing them as more important than God and his word, then we have a problem. That’s when we become like the pharisees.
We can read all this and agree with it honestly, but that doesn’t stop us from upholding tradition above the Lord. We all get worked up over petty things and worry more over the little things than what really matters in worship — receiving God’s word and sacraments.
When Jesus is confronted by the pharisees, he doesn’t scold his disciples for not adhering to the Jewish traditions. Rather, he scolds the pharisees. Their hearts are in the wrong place. They are placing the traditions of man over the word of God. We’re just as guilty. Christ doesn’t care about these minute human things. He’s worried about you. The reason for worship isn’t grounded in man. It’s grounded in Christ for man. Worship is where Christ gives you his body and blood and where the fruit of his cross is given to you through his word.
But it’s not fair to only point the finger at a worship service. Traditions extend into our personal lives as well. We all have traditions or habits that we follow. Some are good. Some are bad. Maybe you read your Bible every day. That’s a good thing. But what if you only read it because you want to be able to brag to your church friends that you do it and they don’t? So you go to church, but you don’t really want to. You don’t ‘get anything out of it. You just do it because it looks good to the neighbors. These examples are traditions of man that influence our personal lives. Our sin can distract us from truly reading the word of God, genuinely worshiping, and receiving the blessings of Christ at church.
Thankfully God is good to us. Jesus Christ came just as traditional texts said he would and lived a perfect life — less worried over the traditions of man and instead completely adherent to the will of God. He broke the traditional meaning of what it meant to be king and God, allowing himself to be killed on a cross — making the prophecy of Isaiah true and giving meaning to the traditions of the church.
Through Christ we’ve been saved. His Spirit opens our ears to hear his true word, our eyes to his true works, and our mouths for genuine praise. Our worship has purpose. It’s not what we offer to God. He doesn’t need anything from us. Worship isn’t about what we do, but what God does. It’s what God offers to us. All that we need — forgiveness, faith, life everlasting.
Rev. Logan Landes is associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.