"Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? …Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?" - Matthew 15:1-3 (NIV)
My Pentecostal/Holiness upbringing was full of religious traditions and restrictions. No cooking on Sunday (though you could warm up what was cooked on Saturday). For women, no make-up, no sleeveless attire, no pants and no dresses/skirts above the knee (or they could be called a Jezebel). No parties with worldly music, no dancing (except the ‘holy dance'), no sports on Sunday (no time anyway, since we were in church from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.), and no root beer (because it had the word beer in it).
No one questioned any of these traditions. They were deemed sacred by virtue of their longevity and by the admonition of the church elders.
But contrary to what I was taught, Jesus never assumed that a religious tradition and a divine commandment were one and the same. Much to the consternation of the religious elders, Jesus defiantly did the work of healing a man's withered hand on the Sabbath…thereby illustrating the truth that the Sabbath and religious traditions were never meant to take precedence over the value of human life.
Traditions continue to play significant roles in religious and civic life. Southern tradition is enshrined in confederate monuments. Patriotism expects the salute to the American flag at the sound of the national anthem. And marriage has long since been solemnified as the sacred union between one man and one woman.
But the burning question for every tradition we observe is still the question voiced by Jesus: Are we honoring longevity…or life?
Lord help us to know when our traditions violate your commandments. Amen.
Kenneth L. Samuel is Pastor of Victory for the World Church, Stone Mountain, Georgia.