Matthew 15:1-6 (NKJV)
1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” 3 He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— 6 then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.
The passage before us in Matthew is no doubt familiar, highlighting the tension between Jesus and the religious rulers of the day. As we see, one of the central controversies that divided Jesus and the Pharisees was the issue of authority: By what standard do we declare something to be right or wrong? Whose Word has the authority to bind the conscience and to direct the lives of God’s people? In our passage Jesus insists that in all things we must maintain a fundamental distinction between those things that are human traditions and those that are commandments of God. When we fail to make the distinction between these two things we inevitably run the danger, which the Pharisees failed to avoid, of substituting human traditions for the Word of God or of imagining that our own traditions have equal weight with the Word of God.
Traditions are not inherently bad. In fact, traditions are inevitable. They are one of those things that we cannot avoid. And when we try to avoid having traditions we simply end up with a new tradition – namely, not having traditions. Traditions are not the problem.
The problem arises when we don’t make a distinction between our traditions and God’s commands and we soon become incapable of differentiating them. This then leads us to the point where our traditions take precedence over the Word of God and we find ourselves incapable of seeing the way in which our traditions actually undermine the Word of God. This was the situation of the Pharisees. So much did they laud their traditions, that they could no longer see the way in which their traditions were making the Word of God of no effect – substituting spiritual sounding “This money is Corban, dedicated to God’s service” for the down to earth support of their parents who were in need and hungry.
This morning we have instituted a few changes in our liturgy. It is always good on such occasions to understand why we have done so. Among the various reasons one of the central ones is reinforcing the distinction between the Word of God and our traditions. We are firmly convinced that our basic order of worship is reflective of biblical principles laid out in the Old Testament sacrificial system. We are just as firmly convinced that the details of our worship, while also reflective of biblical principles, are nowhere absolutely commanded in the Word of God. They are our own local traditions – the methods by which we implement biblical principles. As a means of ruffling feathers and making sure that we don’t get so set in our ways that we imagine all the little details of our liturgy are found in Deuteronomy somewhere, we periodically change the liturgy.
And so, as we come into the presence of our Lord this day, let us remember to draw the distinction between the commandments of God and the traditions of men – and let us confess to our Lord that we have too often failed to make this distinction. We will have a time of silent prayer followed by our responsive confession.