You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Matthew 15.6-9)
It took 30 years, five productions and several viewings of Norman Jewison’s superb film for me to warm to Fiddler on the Roof. Why the show held the top spot in Broadway’s Greatest Hits list for more than a decade was never a mystery. It’s a smashing piece of theater with enough heart and soul for a dozen musicals. As everyone knows, the songs are splendid—not a dud in the whole lot. Its greatest strength, however, is tough-mindedness. The poor Jewish milkman, Tevye, his wife and five daughters, and the rest of their tiny Russian village are very aware their way of life is slipping away. Peasants are deserting their farms for big-city factories. Urban diversity is dissolving ethnic ties, while young people flock to universities, where they learn to question time-honored values and customs. Political unrest hangs in the air. Soon the masses will seize power, hurling the entire nation into chaos. Although Fiddler has more laughs than most musicals scramble up, nearly every one catches in the throat. Laughing in disaster’s face can only be so funny for so long. Then it starts to hurt.
I got all of this when I first saw the show as a 12-year-old kid straining with all his might to be a “sophisticated” theatergoer. Looking back, laughing at disaster was the decisive criterion I used to measure a musical’s greatness—a reasonable position for an adolescent sensing a huge, potentially disastrous life-change around the corner. With hard-edged hits like Gypsy, Cabaret, Funny Girl, and A Chorus Line sending me into swoons, Fiddler on the Roof should have as well.
Why did Fiddler leave me cold? I couldn’t figure it out—until writing an essay on movie musicals a few years ago. Fiddler hews to the formula without fitting the mold. It’s not about defiant non-conformity. It’s about mourning loss of certainty as everything you’re told to believe swiftly fades into the past. The show’s opening number, “Tradition,” tells us all about the characters’ lives and expectations. When the final curtain falls, none of it remains. A young person can’t relate to such sorrow. One must rack up a few miles and experience a few losses to feel the full blow of watching tradition slip away. It’s a terrible, painful thing to face, which is why so many would rather cling to obsolete traditions than let them go.
Suppose we think about tradition for a moment—not specific customs, beliefs, and rituals, but tradition itself. It’s an odd, intriguing thing. Rarely does tradition burst to life unassisted. We call suddenly popular practices “trends” or “crazes” to indicate they’ll be short-lived, which most are. Tradition is typically introduced in adjunct with something greater: a principle, milestone, celebration, or imperative. Its initial purpose revolves around promoting the significance and continuity of whatever it’s meant to uphold. Yet over time, tradition tends to supplant what it was created to signify because social and scientific progress moves the culture away from its original reason for being. “God bless you” is a great example. It became the traditional response to sneezing as the result of medieval superstition that the millisecond a sneeze preoccupied our senses was all the time the devil needed to sneak into our bodies. “God bless you,” then, started as a counterstrike to diabolical possession. We stopped believing that when we discovered why we sneeze. But we never stopped blessing sneezers.
By and large, preserving hangover traditions that enhance our comfort and sense of continuity is a benign habit. In arenas of faith, however, misconceived or outmoded tradition can easily become the enemy of faith by creating confusion that fosters discord among believers. Isolating beneficial faith traditions from insignificant ones can be difficult, as transmission of faith from person to person and generation to generation most often occurs via tradition. Because faith—like love, truth, and patriotism—is abstract, a veritable garden of traditional symbols, rites, vocabulary, and (yes) superstitions crop up around its towering principles.
Enduring Christian traditions, such as baptism, Communion, and Lent remain sacrosanct due to their timeless significance; they’re immune to culture shifts and social progress. Yet there are also traditions many adamantly maintain that lost their value long ago. They now alienate believers and, in some cases, actually subvert Biblical principles speaking to issues we currently confront. Perhaps the most prominent examples exist in traditions that base ministerial rights on gender, marital status, and orientation. While scriptures can be found to justify some (though not all) of these criteria, opposing scriptures nullify such practices in principle. Thus, they’re doctrinally unsound. Furthermore, their legitimacy has always been dubious, as they were instituted as policies to safeguard church coffers from estate suits by spouses and children of deceased pastors. Given the shortage of dedicated ministers, abuses of power by men with no familial duties, huge advances in social equality, and the advent of the insurance industry, these traditions make no sense. They’re detrimentally unsound and obsolete. Yet they persist, rigidly upheld on the rickets of selective application of Scripture. And many, like Tevye and the other Fiddler characters, cling to them for no better reason than fear of letting go. In Matthew 15, Jesus confronts a group of tradition-bound Pharisees and boldly (some might even say angrily) challenges their customs’ significance—not that they were ever significant to begin with.
The unpleasant little dust-up starts with the disciples’ dirty hands. For centuries, Jews have practiced an elaborate washing-up ritual at mealtimes, presumably as an act of worship. No reliable Scripture supports their custom—certainly no bona fide law or commandment—yet over time the tradition has become regarded as law. At best, it’s an extrapolation of Temple protocol ordained in Exodus 30.17-21, which commands Aaron and his sons (the priestly caste) to wash their hands and feet before preparing food offerings. One might think of it as a lovely tradition that preserves worship in the home between high holy days—a nice-to-have, but certainly no legal obligation. Due to their makeshift existence, the disciples have no home. As such, the custom holds no significance for them. When some Pharisees and legalists learn the disciples often eat with dirty hands, they make a special trip from Jerusalem to accuse Jesus of irresponsibly allowing His followers to “break the tradition of the elders.” (Matthew 15.2) By the time He’s finished with them, they probably wish they’d stayed at home and minded their business.
Jesus gives them less credit than we have here. He doesn’t bother pointing out the exaggerated use of irrelevant Scripture that gave rise to the practice. Instead, He indicts their legalistic proclivity by refuting another tradition that has no scriptural basis whatsoever. He replies, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (v3-6)
Here’s what Jesus is talking about. In ancient Judaism, family wealth is held in common for all members of the extended family. What belongs to the father belongs to the son and vice versa. This is a divinely ordained practice per the laws Jesus cites (Exodus 20.12 and Deuteronomy 5.16, respectively), also evidenced in repeated commands to care for widows and orphans. Over time, however, some legal eagle devised a loophole that became instantly popular. If a son formally pledges his entire wealth will be given to the Temple at his death, he can refuse requests for assistance on the grounds all of his money is “devoted to God.” Designating his wealth as a “personal vow” (2 Kings 12.4) shields him from legal obligation to care about his family's financial security. And it's a major contributor to the widespread neglect of widowed mothers and abandoned orphans. (Essentially, it's a cleverly conceived version of current tax shelters that encourage people to hide their money rather than reduce their tax liability by writing off family dependents and charitable contributions.)
Jesus negates the nosy Pharisees’ challenge by questioning the validity of tradition in general. He says they're all worthy of reevaluation to test their legitimacy vis-à-vis principles of faith, not just legal acceptability or literal conformity to Scripture. Jesus sets the standard for tradition far above chapter-and-verse citation or customary beliefs and practices handed down over time. “You hypocrites!” He hisses. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” (v7-9; Isaiah 29.13) Jesus shows us it’s entirely possible to construct far-fetched scriptural rationales for attitudes and behaviors that directly oppose the principles of God’s Word. In the end, if our words, worship, and teaching contradict eternal truth consistently found in The Bible, we’re clinging to detrimental traditions at our peril. We’re hypocrites. We honor God with our lips, but our hearts are far from God. Dirty hands are one thing; distant hearts is another.
With regret for this post’s length, I believe it’s essential we prepare our hearts and minds for upcoming discussions that will deconstruct the “clobber texts” many use to condemn LGBT and other unorthodox believers. (We’ll begin in earnest next week, after a second prefatory post to ensure we’re approaching the texts from a balanced perspective.) What we see in Matthew 15 is an example of culture wars that often arise within the halls of faith. Adoption of traditions that transmit faith’s principles opens the door for other traditions that either blatantly contradict faith’s truths or outlast their usefulness. Without question, those who wage cultural wars of exclusion and condemnation within the Church fit the Pharisees’ profile. They go out of their way to attack anyone who doesn’t conform to customs and selectively upheld beliefs. Yet we must also recognize the majority of those who question our faith don’t fit the profile. They don’t come looking for fights. Nor are they adequately equipped to respond to many of the points we’ll raise against erroneous or obsolete teaching they’ve received. Despite the virulence of their words, they mean no harm. And even when they do, it’s our duty in obedience to Christ’s commands to do no harm. (We’ll cover that in the next post.)
As the Holy Spirit steers the Church back to the lavish inclusion, equality, and compassion that set it apart from every human institution—in keeping with God’s stated will and purpose—many who cherish baseless, outmoded traditions face the same kinds of sorrows we see in Fiddler on the Roof. Life as they know it is slipping away. They’re aware of that. Yet they’re uncertain what it means. What we hail as progress feels like loss to them. We hear notes of grief in their hostility, shrieks of panic in their insistence. They must go through this process for themselves, trusting God’s grace to bring them through. Our responsibility is threefold. First, we must uphold them in prayer and love. Second, we must remain steadfast in our humility and faithfulness, serving as worthy examples of acceptance and tolerance. Third, we must never yield our commitment to be obedient to God’s Word, His Spirit’s guidance, and Christ’s commands. Faith isn’t a matter of being right or wrong. It’s our means of being reconciled to God.
Blessing a sneezer is a prime example of tradition that outlasts its usefulness. Yet tradition is nothing to sneeze at. As the Spirit guides people of faith through change, we recognize the fears that accompany letting go of baseless, outmoded traditions.
Postscript: Fiddler’s “Tradition”
Fiddler on the Roof’s fabulous opening is something of a set-up. It invites us to relish the “balance” its villagers enjoy because of long-held tradition and then yanks the rug from beneath us by showing how clinging to tradition often causes us to lose our balance. The world turns. Times change. Progress pulls us along. Traditions outlast their usefulness and slip away. (From the 1971 Norman Jewison film version.)