“making the Word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down” (verse 13).
This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching this morning. He is so concerned that people not exchange the Word of God for the traditions of men that He goes so far as to call the Pharisees hypocrites. It’s easy for us to root against the poor Pharisees. They seem so stiff, so self-righteous, and such hypocrites that it’s easy to despise them . . . and not realize that we are sometimes the Pharisees.
Maybe too often we’re ironically like the Pharisees, saying to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”
It’s easy to look down on the Pharisees and even ridicule them. After all, they’re safely dead, and they can’t talk back to us or threaten us in any way. But I wonder if there are any modern-day Pharisees amongst us?
Some would immediately say there are. “Just look at those people who think they have to worship God by using a book of prayers they read. Everyone knows that you can’t mean a prayer unless it comes from the heart. And if you keep repeating the same prayer, it’s vain repetition.” And so they might pray: “Dear Lord, I just pray, Lord, that you would deliver me from the Pharisees, and I, thank you, Lord, that I’m not a Pharisee! I just pray, Lord, for a fresh anointing of your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus . . . Thank you, Jesus . . . Thank you, Jesus.”
Being an Episcopalian (Reformed, he’s quick to add!), I’ve seen too much attention paid to the externals of liturgical worship. I do believe that there is a temptation in the historic, liturgical traditions to sometimes care more about the outward appearance of things than the Word of God. Those of us in such churches need to guard our hearts.
But I also believe that there is a temptation in the non-historic, non-liturgical traditions to also make the Word of God of no effect through their traditions.
Here are some of the human traditions I’ve observed that don’t always guard the Word of God.
“Thou shalt not read set prayers or repeat the same prayers every week” (even though undoubtedly every first-century Jew, including Jesus, did this).
“To be a good Christian, you have to have a vivid testimony of the exact moment God converted you.”
“You aren’t full of the Spirit unless you’ve spoken in tongues.”
“We should observe quarterly communion to make sure it’s special” (why not have worship or sermons quarterly to make them special?)
“Music is the worship, so we have to have 30 minutes of singing at the beginning of the service.”
“To worship God you must be dressed right” (I’m not denying we should dress our best for God: only that it’s essential to worship).
The flowers on the altar can’t be higher than the cross.
In other words, we are all susceptible to human traditions that may, in fact, block the Word of God in our lives or crowd it out.
I believe that every tradition has a problem with the tradition of “going to church.” What I mean is that many people, regardless of how the worship is conducted, are just “going” to church. Maybe they go to be seen, maybe they go because their friends are there and it’s an important social interaction. It’s people in general, and not just Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Baptists or non-denominational Christians, who have a problem with “going to church” and not going to truly worship God.
Finally, the most seductive and devastating tradition that trumps the Word of God is the non-church tradition. “I can worship God wherever I want. No one time or place is holier than any other. As long as I say I have Jesus in my heart, I don’t have to go to church – and you can’t make me. If I do go, I reserve the right to leave whenever I want to. I’m under no obligation to give a certain amount of my income to God. We’re all priests, so no one at any church can tell me what to do.”
Christian researcher George Barna has written in his book, Revolution, about the trend of Christians in America wanting to be the Church without going to church or being part of a local congregation. The scary thing is that he seems to approve of this, having been disappointed by the local church himself. What we are seeing is a major new tradition of Christians who see no need for the local church, its ordained ministers, its historical connection with the Church for 2000 years, or its accountability. Make no mistake, though: it’s a tradition of men all its own, and one Jesus would have been the first to denounce.
Every tradition has its own particular kinds of temptations to exalt the traditions of men over the Word of God. The point is not to point the finger at someone else but to examine yourself and the church you’re in. Is there anything in your tradition, either personal or ecclesiastical (related to the church), that is keeping you from God and His Word? That’s what you should be concerned about today.
Prayer: Forgive me, Lord, if I have been a Pharisee. Forgive me, if I have presumed to take the speck out of my brother’s eye before taking out the log from my own. Help me to see You again and to hear Your Word. Remove from my life any obstacle that I have put in the way of my knowing You better. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- Examine yourself. What traditions are you keeping without either understanding them or intending them to lead you to God?
- Have you used this passage or others like it to keep you from participating in the lawful traditions of the church that are intended to lead you to participate in God?
Resolution: I resolve to reflect on my traditions, personal and ecclesiastical, and to examine what traditions may be keeping me from God and His Word.
 George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL:Tyndale House Publishers, 2006).
Image of flowers, cross, and altar from Fr. Charles Erlandson