Tradition, Tradition

I have been a Colts fan all my life—literally. I have this very clear memory of watching TV with my Dad while the Baltimore Colts were being introduced on TV. He pointed to Johnny Unitas and said, “That's the greatest quarterback ever.” I was probably 5 years old, and from that moment on, I was a Colts fan. And from that moment old, the Colts have been breaking my heart. Losing to the Jets in 1969. Bert Jones and the overtime loss to Raiders in 1977. Sneaking out of town under the cover of darkness for Indianapolis in 1984. I tried to be a Steeler’s fan when they were winning and a Redskins fan when they were winning. And I was a 49ers as long as Joe Montana was the quarterback. But my heart always belonged to the Colts… and they kept breaking it. So last night was nothing more than the continuation of a longstanding tradition. Sigh.

Speaking of tradition, our reading for today in Matthew 23 has Jesus begin to pronounce a series of woes on the Pharisees. Their slavish following of a received tradition caused them to “shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces” and “travel over land and sea to win a single convert.” Their tradition was making it harder and harder for people to see and follow God. Their tradition was at the same time a series of rules and regulations that enforced spirituality on people and it was a series of dodges and loopholes that allowed them to act as they pleased. And Jesus wants them to know that God is not pleased.

Now, tradition itself is not a bad thing. The now famous quotation from Jaroslav Pelikan affirms the basic truth, "Tradition is the living faith of those now dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living." We do indeed learn from the faith of those who go before us. Tradition, both that of historic Christianity and that received from our immediate mothers and fathers in faith, can help to give our faith substance and expression. But that can be a double-edged sword if we do not keep our eyes on Jesus. J. I. Packer says this--

All Christians are at once beneficiaries and victims of tradition—beneficiaries, who receive nurturing truth and wisdom from God’s faithfulness in past generations; victims, who now take for granted things that need to be questioned, thus treating as divine absolutes patterns of belief and behavior that should be seen as human, provisional, and relative. We are all beneficiaries of good, wise, and sound tradition and victims of poor, unwise, and unsound traditions.

We decide whether our received traditions are a blessing or a curse to us. If they nurture and inform us as we seek Christ, then they are a blessing. But if they cause us to judge others and keep us from reaching out to all others who seek the Christ, then our tradition is our curse. When tradition points to Jesus, it is doing its job. When tradition points to itself and isolates believers, then tradition is doing the work of the evil one.