Quotes from the Pharisees: Tricky Traditions

As we continue to look at things that the Pharisees (sometimes with others) said in the Bible, we should remember that the “Pharisees” of today aren’t always obnoxious atheists or secular governments who oppose religion.  (By the way, if you are a non-theist or agnostic visiting this site, I welcome you and hope that we can have civil discourse.  It’s just the angry and rude people who claim the same “description” as you do: I sometimes get frustrated with them.  In return, I would like to apologize for people of the Christian faith – including me – who sometimes behave quite unlike what Jesus demonstrated and taught.  Salvation through Jesus Christ doesn’t make people’s behavior perfect.)

To understand what might make someone’s behavior “Pharisee-like”, let’s consider their history.  (I encourage you to read this encyclopedia article, which provides what I feel is a fairly fact-based history of this movement and its impact on Jewish history, without too much editorial content:  From this article, we find that the Pharisee movement started about 200 years before Jesus’ ministry (although its roots went back further), and that its adherents considered the written Law of Moses to be only a part of God’s revelation.  As a result, they incorporated more content of their own (with good intentions, I suspect) into what they taught should be done by God’s people (who, in this context, were religious Jewish people).

This brings us to one of the questions Jesus was asked:

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”
Mark 7:5 NLT

This ceremonial hand-washing was one of those things that the Pharisees had added to the Law of Moses, as one of their practices.  Now, there are good traditions and bad traditions, but let’s look to Jesus before we try to judge between the two.

Jesus’ response can (and should) be read in Mark 7:6-13.  However, I’d like to call out one verse that captures a key point:

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”
Mark 7:8 NLT

Here, we find a criterion that identifies an unhealthy tradition: It replaces God’s law.  If a tradition is entirely compatible with the Word of God, and helps us live more like Jesus taught, then it isn’t inherently bad.  Good traditions must be compatible with God’s will.

(I also think that traditions should be appropriate to us.  That is, one person’s tradition that helps them draw closer to God may not be required – or even useful – for another person.)

Some might argue that Jesus was changing the Law of Moses (or adding to it like the Pharisees); however, a more careful study of the written Word, along with Jesus’ own teachings, confirm His message in Matthew 5:17-20.  After all, Jesus was the Word of God (see John 1:1-5), and therefore God’s Word continues to be the standard for all of us to live by, even as Jesus revealed – and implemented – more of God’s plan than was previously accessible to the Pharisees.  Our goal is still to make our life choices based on the Word of God; however, in this phase of history, we have both the written Word of God (given to the prophets and writers of old), and the Word of God as the living Savior, Jesus Christ.

So, who else claims to have unique knowledge of how to do the right thing to please God (or, any number of other gods) in our world today?  This certainly includes the gatekeepers of certain Internet sites, as well as those whose influence determines what is “popular” and who is not.  Governments, company policy-makers, and school boards do this, too.  However, this list would be incomplete if it did not also include those who follow Jesus while claiming a higher standard for their own traditions than the Word of God itself.  I’m not throwing out advice from any individual source or person wholesale, but we must insist on evaluating every one of them against the Word of God.

If you live according to the message of Jesus (which is substantially less complicated than that of the Pharisees, as well as many modern worldviews), some will push back on you, and ask why you don’t do the extra things that they (or others) have added to their own beliefs.  When this happens, we have several points to consider:

  1. First, what does the Word of God say about this practice?  Before classifying something as a “tradition”, we should be sure that we understand what the God has already said about it.  We should listen for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and study the truth from the Bible.  Some traditions have purpose and value (whether to us, to others, or both), and may be useful, even if not required by God.
  2. Sometimes, it is appropriate to accommodate someone else, for their own good (especially someone else who is trying their best to walk with Jesus).  This isn’t putting a tradition above the Word of God.  It is voluntarily putting God’s love for others (as reflected by us) above our own freedoms.
  3. Other times, it is appropriate to just continue to live in our freedom.  Like Jesus’ disciples, we must not allow someone else to hamper our worship and service to God (and to others) with their extra rules, unless there is some benefit to the Kingdom of God.

However, questions are opportunities, and just as Jesus took this question as a chance to teach, we may be able to explain why we aren’t constrained by unnecessary traditions (or even talk about our own practices, whether we call them traditions, spiritual disciplines, or healthy habits).  Perhaps when asked why we aren’t bound by extra rules, we can free others from them at the same time!

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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