Modern Golden Calves: Our Traditions

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in…

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath. You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?…

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others…

– excerpts from Matthew 23

The Pharisees are the embodiment of hypocrisy in the New Testament. They are the embodiment of “do as I say and not as I do.” It is easy to tear them down for their theatrical demonstrations of faith and their political machinations, but there is one flaw upon which we seldom focus. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day are the archetypical traditionalists – set in their ways and immovable from them. To violate the tradition of the Pharisees was as grievous a sin as violating the Levitical Code.

Take the example of Matthew 12:1-14 where the Pharisees try to prove Jesus and His disciples violate the Sabbath because they have the audacity to glean for food (as given in Leviticus 23:22) and because Jesus dares to heal on the Sabbath. They so want to avoid violating the spirit of the Sabbath that they go out of their way to define exactly what constitutes work and what actions would violate the Sabbath rest. In a sense, they build a hedge around the law.

We do the same thing today. We want preachers to define for us “how short is too short” in regards to modesty. We want preachers to tell us how to dress for worship. We want them to tell us how much we should be giving, what movies  and television programs to avoid, what music to condemn, etc. As the Pharisees do not trust the judgment of the people to adhere to God’s law, we do not trust ourselves. We want those we trust with spiritual leadership to build a hedge around the Bible.

Furthermore, we have traditions in worship (many of which are derived from Catholic practices). I’ve seen few discussions more heated than those centered around auditorium seating, times of worship, number of services on Sunday, the order of worship – details that, by and large, are not covered in the New Testament texts. Our traditions give us comfort and security, but they do not define what it is to be scriptural.

The problem comes with binding these traditions upon others. As Paul illustrates in Romans 14, people are going to have different cultures, different opinions, different values, different perspectives. Yet we are quick to judge based on appearances. We want to convert others to God’s word as well as to our own traditional values and beliefs. We are quick to label a congregations a liberal or unsound when we see their worship structure differs from that to which we are accustomed.

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

– Mark 7:3-7

Those Pharisees of the New Testament are portrayed as trusting in their own teachings as much as God. Their traditions unintentionally supplant God’s word in their hearts, and they consequently make an idol of those traditions. We we hold up our ways, our traditions, our personal values as being as binding as the teachings of Christ and His apostles, we are guilty of the same. Whether they are the teachings of Homer Hailey, Max Lucado, C. S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, our local preacher, or “the way we’ve always done it,” the traditions of man still come from man – unbinding and uninspired by the Spirit.

We cannot let our traditions become a golden calf in our hearts and our congregations. Our hope is in nothing more than Jesus and His word; not the times of worship, not the length of a pair of shorts, not the media we consume, not the arrangements of seats or pews in an auditorium. These are distractions that supplant God in our lives. We do not need a hedge around God’s law. His word is all we need (II Peter 1:3).