By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 15:1-11, 15-20
One of the noble traditions of our church is Confirmation. Leaders spend countless hours seeking to prepare young people for discipleship and membership in the church. Usually, confirmation includes the following: classes, sponsors, worship experiences, trips to visit other churches or faith communions, retreats, and membership Sunday. In the South Georgia Conference, we are blessed to have yearly confirmation events at Epworth By The Sea. Truly, one of the great moments in the life of a confirmand, parent or guardian, sponsor, pastor and church is to witness these young people becoming full members of the church of Jesus Christ.
To say the least, confirmation is a good tradition.
But in our scripture lesson, Jesus is giving us an example of an unfortunate or counterproductive tradition.
Before mentioning that, however, we need to be clear about the words: commandment and tradition. We are told that a commandment is by its nature God-given, absolute, binding; not subject to debate. On the other hand, a tradition is human-made, and therefore, at least in theory, nonbinding, of limited authority, subject to much debate and negotiable.
The Pharisees had pulled a switch. They treated the commandments of God as though they were traditions and regarded their traditions as though they were commands of God. They were successful until they met up with Jesus.
At this point in our discussion please review Matthew 15:4-9. As we are aware, the Old Testament Law required sons and daughters to honor their parents. That is clear from the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12). But along with other responsibilities, this same parental command required grown children to provide for the material needs of their aging parents. Scholars inform us that it all centered on the Hebrew word “corban.”
According to scholars, “corban” literally means “given to God.” When an individual vowed to dedicate his/her money or material possessions to God, thus limiting its use to only sacred purposes, this act of dedication was called, “corban.” So, if a son or daughter was greedy or became angry with a parent or parents, he/she could simply declare his/her money and property “corban.” Knowing that the Old Testament Law clearly states that one must never break a vow made to God, that person’s money could not be used for the financial assistance of the parents.
Jesus said to the Pharisees, “So, for the sake of your tradition you make void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6). And, of course, this is only one tradition of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and there were others. In the hundreds of years between Moses and Jesus, an enormous number of traditions had grown up around God’s law, some of them good while others were counterproductive.
For another example, read Matthew 12:1-8. According to their traditions, the Pharisees who witnessed the plucking of a few heads of grain equated it with the harvesting of an entire wheat crop which was an act forbidden them on the sacred seventh day. Evidently, the Pharisees enjoyed putting people under unbearable loads.
Traditions are good if they bring us closer to God and an understanding of the Scripture. However, when those traditions take the precedence – when we elevate them above God’s word, then they get in the way and are counterproductive.
The Importance of God’s Word
Without doubt, Jesus Christ is God’s best gift to us. But what is God’s next best gift to us? It has to be “The Law.”
An important truth to remember is that the Ten Commandments, which are the centerpiece of the Law, are introduced in a relational contest. And this relational context should sway everything that follows. God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (Exodus 20:2) Do we see it? God chose Israel, not Israel God. God graciously gives before we ask. Specifically, the commandments come from a specific god, their God, who delivered them from bondage.
We are told that the Ten Commandments were central to Israel’s understanding of their relationship with God. They were the core of the Law and were the primary contents of the Ark of the Covenant. Note that the Ark was the holiest object in Israel, occupied the Holy of Holies and represented the presence of God.
So, the law of God was given to the people of Israel in the time of Moses. When Moses went up into the clouds to meet with their God named Yahweh the commandments were bestowed as a blessing. They were given to constitute a bond between Yahweh and his people. If the Israelites lived by the commandments, things would go well for them. If they didn’t they would fare poorly. The Ten Commandments are the rules of life and community, and anyone who follows them will experience freedom and joy.
Scholars tell us that to illustrate the importance of God’s Law, we need only to observe the location. Where we place a thing reveals a great deal about its value. For instance, when we host a special dinner party we have it in the dining room. We get out our china plates and silver. Otherwise, we just eat in the kitchen or in front of the TV and use ordinary utensils.
It is the location of the law that points out its importance. I will give a few examples. The Ten Commandments were housed in the Ark of the Covenant. In both the Tabernacle and the Temple, that Ark was set in the Holy of Holies – the exclusively sacred spot where only the High Priest could enter, and only on the most holy day of the year. When the Israelites would set up a camp in the wilderness, the tabernacle was deliberately placed at the center of the tent community (Numbers-2:17). When they traveled the ark went ahead of them (Joshua 3:6). God wanted the law to permeate every area of their lives (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). The Israelites were to discuss the law with their children, wear it on their bodies and meditate on it day and night.
And what did Jesus say about the law? Very clearly, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Now, for the people of God to learn God’s word they had to be taught. Some lessons were taught in the homes by parents while other lessons needed to be taught by teachers, interpreters, and commentators. These latter folks were the experts in God’s law. And all these lessons were derived from the law itself. But at some point, a respected teacher would suggest that the best way to observe this law is so-and-so and then a tradition would emerge.
Point to remember! The law comes from God while traditions come from human beings. If the tradition is good, it will bring us closer to God and a deeper understanding of the Scripture.
A meaningful discussion of modern-day church traditions might center in three areas: “Musical traditions,” The Ways and Practices of Celebrating Holy Communion,” and “Sunday school literature.”
Dr. Brady is a retired South Georgia Conference pastor who lives in the Atlanta area. His non-profit organization, Hal Brady Ministries, focuses on preaching, teaching, conducting seminars, and inspiring others to lead and serve. Contact him at email@example.com.