“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

Every Christmas, our family unwraps a brand new, bright red sphere to hang on our tree. And on that orb, we write (with a white marker) the significant events of the year: a son or daughter getting married … graduation from college … new jobs … the site of our annual family vacation.

Before hanging the new ornament, we dangle all the ornaments from past years. One by one, we read the story of our family—the first year of our marriage … the birth of our children … the places we’ve lived—and suspend our past on the Christmas tree.

It is a great tradition, something that relieves us from all the feasting and gift-wrapped-boxes and allows us to celebrate our family’s story. Our time together over the holidays would not be complete without this simple but significant ritual.

I love tradition. It can be such a healthy thing.

Why, then, did Jesus have such a problem with tradition? Some of his most heated interactions with the Pharisees involved religious traditions like fasting, hand-washing, tithing, Sabbath customs, and purity laws. The Pharisees always came down on the side of tradition. Jesus never did.

There is not a single occasion in the Gospels when Jesus spoke positively of traditions. He saw them as human inventions (“your traditions” … “your own tradition”). More, he saw traditions as habits permitting people to evade God’s desires and commands. Traditions were the means by which religious people could appear religious without actually being obedient.

“Why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” (Mt 15:3)

“You cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.” (Mt 15:6)

“For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition” (Mk 7:8).

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition.” (Mk 7:9)

“So you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” (Mk 7:13)

Is Jesus “anti-tradition”? Does he take exception to Jewish tradtions but not to traditions generally? Or is Jesus warning us that even good things (like traditions) can be corrupted and wind up preventing rather than encouraging relationship with God?

As religious people, we can confess to being bitten by the tradition bug. We love our habits and customs. Some of our most heated interactions (interestingly!) involve the subject of tradition. As disciples of Jesus, it might be good for us to pause from our rituals (and our wrangling over them) to hear once more what Jesus has to say on the matter.

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