When I was probably 7 or 8, I decided that spaghetti is the right dinner on Halloween prior to trick-or-treating. Why? Because we had it two years in a row, which made it a tradition.
I’m also pretty sure that “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” must be sung on Easter, preferably with a full processional or it just isn’t Easter.
I love tradition. Traditions offer meaning and depth, and they connect us through space and time to others who have walked similar paths.
But, traditions can get in the way of what really matters.
Matthew and Mark give two very similar accounts following the walking on the water incident, first of Jesus healing people and then another when he was approached by the Pharisees and Scribes.
The Scribes and Pharisees don’t often show up in our Sunday school lessons, it’s usually just dialogue and we prefer to tell the stories that have some action in them. They’re also messy, but the conversations that Jesus has with them, which are sprinkled throughout the Gospels, are crucial to our understanding of what Jesus was doing.
In this incident, Jesus was questioning the “tradition of the elders.” The leaders, those in authority, called out Jesus for not washing his hands before eating, which was part of Jewish custom.
They have a weird exchange in which Jesus seems to say: “Well, you’re breaking this other law, so we don’t have to listen to you. This is a silly rule anyway.” Jesus then goes on to explain that food doesn’t make us unclean.
God wants more for us than old traditions but it’s hard for us know what really matters when it feels like some traditions are arbitrary and meaningless. Sometimes the elders forget to pass on the “why,” sometimes we’re just overwhelmed by the weight of it all, and sometimes it feels like certain traditions contradict the main thing: to love one another.
This is when we must go through the difficult process of discernment, which often involves some trial and error. What happens if we set this tradition aside for a while? What happens if we tweak this one? What happens if replace one tradition with another?
This is how we learn; it’s how we take the faith we’ve been given and make it our own. We’re not called to be disciples of our parents or our Sunday school teachers, but of Jesus. Asking questions and wrestling with what’s been given to us is a critical part of discipleship, so that we can discover Jesus for ourselves.
When we peel back the layers, we often do find Jesus at the center, but sometimes we don’t, and we just need to be honest when happens. They still might be worth keeping for other reasons. Personally, I think washing our hands before eating is a good tradition. But, I need to remember that it’s for my physical health, not spiritual.
That’s the hard thing with traditions. Some of them have value outside the spiritual realm and some may have had value at another time and place. Most difficult for us is that some traditions might carry significant spiritual meaning for some people because that’s where they encounter the living Christ, while for others the same practice is a pointless ritual.
So, what are we to do? Jesus made that part clear: in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.
After college, I wandered away from the UMC for a few years into a church that didn’t regularly celebrate Holy Communion and when they did, they said a quick blessing and passed around the cups and plate of wafers. A snack, in my opinion (and not a very good one).
I suddenly needed “real” Communion and announced to my in-laws that I would be going to the Methodist Church the following Sunday. My mother-in-law asked how I knew they would have Communion. I paused. It was the first Sunday of the month, of course they would have Communion, they’re Methodists!
And they did, with all the necessary (to me) words of institution that transform a little snack into a holy meal, into a sacrament where I found that Christ was present.
Traditions matter. It was the tradition of the sacrament of Holy Communion that brought me back into the United Methodist Church and where I found Jesus for myself.
Read Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23
What are some traditions that you like?
What are some traditions that bring real meaning to your spiritual journey?
What is the difference between a long-standing tradition and a rule or law? When “long-standing” means hundreds or even thousands of years.