In this passage, Mark recounts one of many instances in which the Pharisees challenged Jesus for violating the Law and Jesus' less than cordial response to their accusation. The charge pertains to the ceremonial washing of hands prior to eating, which the disciples neglected to do. The tradition of hand washing had been passed down through generations of the Jewish people and was so commonplace that the Pharisees (who were the most well versed of all Israel in the Law of Moses) could no longer even recognize this tradition as distinctly separate from the Law.
"Tradition" is defined as an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or social custom). Traditions are, indeed, some of the most powerful forces of human experience. Not all traditions are inherently evil, but the vast majority, if left unchecked, produce devastating results. These traditions are like cockroaches - sneaky, resilient, and prone to damaging everything in their path.
The "cons" list of tradition is nearly endless, but we will take a look at a few of the most significant problems traditions cause and discuss how to combat their negative effects in our lives. The plague of tradition has been one of the most powerful tools of the adversary since the beginning, and we must arm ourselves with knowledge of how it functions to effectively fight against it.
We all hold to a variety of traditions - some related to family customs, others to certain days or events, and many others especially related to religious practices. Often, these traditions serve a valuable purpose of reminding us of something meaningful, but more often than not our traditions hold us hostage in a number of ways.
We could spend hours listing traditions, but for our purposes we will examine some of the traditions surrounding only one subject - prayer. If I asked you to list some prayer traditions, chances are your list would include things like praying before meals and bed, closed eyes and folded hands, kneeling, being sure to say "In Jesus' name" before "Amen," and poem prayers like "Now I lay me down to sleep" and "God is great, God is good..."
At first glance these traditions may seem harmless (and even good), but when we consider them in more detail we discover that they are actually detrimental to spiritual growth. This is the immense power of tradition. On the surface it appears beneficial, but in reality it is anything but helpful.
In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts tradition with the "precept of God." In other words, the Pharisees put the letter of the law above the heart of the law. In holding to their tradition, they missed the boat completely.
This is exactly what happens in the case of nearly all religious traditions like those involving prayer. When we make it a habit of praying before every meal and at bedtime, the initial goal is to make prayer a habit so we won't forget to do it. What happens in reality is that the prayer becomes so routine that we forget what we're even praying. We say the same prayer, word for word, before every meal ("God is great, God is good") and before long we don't even realize what we just prayed. Even if the prayer is varied, the habit of routine leads to complacency and we end up only praying at certain designated times as opposed to praying "without ceasing" as Paul advises. The tradition of praying at designated times, then, produces two of the major pitfalls of tradition - complacency (laziness) and mindlessness.
Likewise, when we hold to the tradition of always closing our eyes during prayer, we inevitably run into problems. For some, closing their eyes during prayer is an effective way to block out distractions and get a better mental image of their prayers, but for those who view closing their eyes as a requirement during prayer, their focus produces negative feelings toward prayer altogether. The feelings of guilt and bondage from having to close their eyes produces feelings of resentment. For these people, prayer is nothing more than another work that must be followed in order for God to listen to their prayers. The tradition of closing eyes is a good example of how traditions often cause feelings of guilt and bondage.
Many Christians believe they must include "In Jesus' name" before they conclude their prayers in order for God to even hear them. While praying to our Father in His Son's (and our Lord's) name is certainly not a bad thing, it is ridiculous to believe that the Almighty Creator of the universe is incapable of hearing our prayers if we omit a three-word phrase. This prayer tradition is a breeding ground for foolishness among Christians.
Most importantly of all, the many traditions surrounding prayer produce an unhealthy level of pride and arrogance. When we adhere to ironclad prayer traditions and uphold them as requirements, we inevitably judge all those who don't adhere to the same traditions. We self-righteously accuse them of not being heard if they don't say "In Jesus' name," and we view them as heathens if they don't pray before meals or close their eyes. Contrarily, we view ourselves as righteous and don't hesitate to point out the flaws of those who don't hold to the commonly accepted traditions of prayer. Pride and arrogance were the dominant sins of the Pharisees in Mark 7. They held a tradition in such high esteem and viewed themselves so righteous for keeping it, that they condemned the disciples for not observing what they had come to view as a practice equal with the rest of God's Law.
Prayer traditions serve as a model for the devastating effects of religious traditions in general. Whether it's traditions of prayer as in this article, or hand washing as in Mark 7, or nearly any other religious tradition, the results will always be the same. Among many other problems, adherence to tradition produces (at the very least) complacency, mindlessness, guilt, bondage, foolishness, pride and arrogance.
If after examining your own life you discover that you are plagued by tradition, commit to forsaking those traditions which hinder your spiritual growth. If your prayer life is routine, stop praying before meals and bedtime and pray instead at various times throughout the day. If you close your eyes during prayer out of a sense of obligation, pray with your eyes open. As a general rule, view tradition as the opposite of grace. Take a long, hard look at the traditions in your life and commit to doing the opposite of those traditions you realize are more damaging than helpful.
© 2012 by Stephen Hill