Holding on to Tradition

“We have always done it that way!” I have heard that countless times in my lifetime and most often in the church. It might be something minor such as the colour of a hymnbook or more important in who may partake in the Lord’s Supper. I have had many discussions with church leaders over how and why traditions are practiced. Many argue it is about historical tradition regardless if there is no biblical support.

Many of us cling to tradition as if it were akin to the Bible. But we need to ask ourselves, “Should we cling to tradition?” Before we look at this, I want to point out when I say “tradition” I am referring to something closer to traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

So when I ask the question about tradition, I am probably referring more to traditionalism. This question is very relevant, especially in the Church, where tradition plays a very important role. Although tradition has become somewhat of a dirty word, many people still see it as something which they should cling. Should we do this?

In Zechariah 7:1-10, we read, “In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev. The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat the Lord by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? Are these not the words the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?’” And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

According to the Gregorian calendar’s calculation of time, verse 1 refers to December 7th, 518 BCE. This was two years after the rebuilding of the Temple began and two years before it was completed. A delegation from the town of Bet-El, located about 18 kilometres north of Jerusalem went to Jerusalem with a specific request. They wanted to find out whether it was still significant to commemorate the old Temple’s destruction back in 586 BCE by fasting since the new one was almost completed.

What that delegation wanted to know was whether tradition was still relevant in changing times. The Lord answered them with a counter-question, “Was it really for me that you fasted?” God did not say that fasting, that is tradition, was wrong, but enquired about the attitude behind it. Whether or not the people fasted was not as important as whether they did it to honour God.

A very poor holy man lived in a remote part of China. Every day before his time of meditation to show his devotion, he put a dish of butter up on the window sill as an offering to God, since food was so scarce. One day his cat came in and ate the butter. To remedy this, he began tying the cat to the bedpost each day before the quiet time. This man was so revered for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshipped as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers placed an offering of butter on the window sill during their time of prayer and meditation. Furthermore, each one bought a cat and tied it to the bedpost.

Woody Allen said, “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” It is easy to do things out of habit and forget its original meaning. We should always realize that our traditions: to do justice to everyone and that we should show compassion and love to one another. Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

It is not wrong to hand down good practices from one generation to another but is it wrong to consider those unchangeable values? We need to become known for being transformational rather than being traditional. We need to create the future rather than preserve the past.


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