Why Do You Not Keep Traditions?

Jesus was different. He reached out to those who were shunned by others, and He ignored some commonly accepted religious requirements. People noticed. On one occasion, “The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with impure hands?’” (Mark 7:5).

The Pharisees were not thinking of washing hands just for sanitary purposes, the way we do. They engaged in a number of ritual washings to purify themselves from potential contact with people they believed to be morally or spiritually unclean. Mark mentions some of their practices in verses 3-4.

The real question here was one of authority. The “tradition of the elders” was a collection of opinions and rulings about how the Law of Moses should be applied (cf. Galatians 1:14). In practicality, it had become more binding than the Law itself. Some even believed that God had given two laws through Moses: a written one (the Torah, the opening books of the Old Testament) and an oral one, passed down merely by word of mouth. Their attitudes parallel modern thinking that what various church officials say is just as valid as what the Bible says.

Jesus’ answer was stern. “And He said to them, ‘Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.’ He was also saying to them, ‘You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition’” (vv. 6-9).

Jesus clearly rejected putting men’s rulings on par with God’s revelation. He noted three consequences of doing that.

First, it has the practical effect of doing something other than what God’s law says. It may be approving what God forbids, forbidding what God approves, or simply adding to what God authorizes us to do (doing that is also forbidden). Men have no lack of ingenuity in explaining away simple Bible instructions! Jesus called it invalidating the word of God (v. 13).

Second, it makes us hypocrites. A hypocrite is an actor, a pretender. When we elevate our preferences above God’s, we demonstrate that we are really serving ourselves, not Him, regardless of what we claim.

Third, it makes our worship vain. Vain means empty or futile. Religious activity that is self-directed instead of God-directed is just that—futile. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21).

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