************ Sermon on Matthew 5:21 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 1, 2001
Matthew 5:21-48; 15:1-9
verse 21a, 22a
Topic: TraditionsThus, we see, the symbol or tradition was preserved but it no longer meant anything. The forms became more important than the faith they were meant to convey.
Subtopic: Of Men
There was this man, a devout Christian, who had a cat. He used to spend several minutes each day in his bedroom reading a portion of Scripture and a devotional book, followed by a period of silent mediation and prayer. As time went on his prayers became longer and more intense.
He came to cherish this quiet time in his bedroom, but his cat came to like it too. She would cozy up to him, purr loudly, and rub her furry body against him. This interrupted the man's prayer time, so he put a collar around the cat's neck and tied her to the bedpost. This didn't seem to upset the cat, and it meant that the man could meditate without interruption.
Over the years, the daughter of this pious Christian had noted how much his devotional time had meant to him. When she began to establish some routines and patterns with her own family, she decided she should do as her father had done. Dutifully she, too, tied her cat to the bedpost and then proceeded to her devotions. But on account of her busy lifestyle she couldn't spend as much time in prayer as did her father.
The time came when her son grew up and wanted to make sure that he preserved some of the family traditions which had meant so much to his mother and his grandfather. But his busy lifestyle did not allow for elaborate devotional proceedings. So he eliminated the time for meditation, Bible reading, and prayer. But in order to carry on the religious tradition or symbol, each day while he was dressing he tied the family cat to the bedpost.
I want to ask this evening if our traditions are the same way: do they still mean anything, or are the forms more important than the faith they are meant to convey?
A As we look at our Bible reading from Matthew 5, we see that our Lord makes six statements: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder'" (vs 21); "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery'" (vs 27); "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'" (vs 31); "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord'" (vs 33); "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'" (vs 38); "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'" (vs 43).
After each and every statement the Lord says, "But I tell you ..."
We have a formula then: "It has been said ... But I tell you ..."
Some interpreters think that Jesus is referring to Moses and the prophets. They claim Jesus is making a sharp contrast between the Old and the New Testaments; they claim that Jesus changed the law of Sinai into something new. But Jesus was NOT speaking against the teaching of the Old Testament. Whenever Jesus quoted directly from the Old Testament He introduced His quotation with the phrase, "It is written." But that is not the phrase Jesus uses in the passage before us. Rather, He uses the phrase, "It has been said ..."
B What is Jesus referring to here? Who is he quoting? Jesus is referring to what was said by the rabbis and the Teachers of the Law.
You probably realize that the rabbis of Israel developed an elaborate explanation of the law of Moses. Over the years and centuries it became a long list of detailed prescriptions and rules which were not laid down in writing, but were taught orally. One of the great characteristics of the teaching of the rabbis was the significance they attached to these prescriptions and rules of the fathers before them. They were always quoting the fathers and they made their students repeat these quotes endlessly.
This oral law was referred to as "tradition" or, as Matthew 15:2 puts it, "the tradition of the elders." It was also called the "Halacha" – the Hebrew word for "to go" or "to walk." It was developed to guide the Israelites in their walk with God. It was developed to keep the Israelites from transgressing the letter of the written law of Moses.
It was not until the end of the second century after Christ that the rules of the "Halacha" were fixed and put down in writing. But during Jesus' days the Halacha or traditions was still entrusted to the rabbis.
Six times Jesus said, "It has been said by the men of old ..." Jesus wants to make it perfectly clear that what He is talking about is the traditions of men.
C I am sure you realize that we also have our traditions. We also follow man-made rules and regulations and guidelines. I am not saying there is anything wrong with having traditions. I am not saying our traditions are unbiblical. I am not saying our traditions are unimportant. In fact, many of our traditions are good. But we should recognize that our traditions are traditions and that they are NOT the Word of God.
Some of our traditions are national traditions. Our celebration of the fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving Day and the way we celebrate them are all based upon tradition. Exchanging gifts at Christmas and giving flowers on Mother's Day are also traditions.
We also have personal traditions. In many Christian homes there is a tradition of prayer and Bible reading at meal time and bed time; these are traditions because the Bible itself does not command this or even suggest this. The way we observe Sunday is a tradition among Christians. The fourth commandment speaks to Saturday; the New Testament doesn't speak to a day – it merely tells us not to neglect worship; so, it is tradition that dictates we meet on Sunday. In the same way it is tradition that says we should avoid working or shopping on Sunday. And, it is tradition that tells us to dress up for Sunday worship – again, this is not something you find commanded in the Bible. It is tradition that treats the sanctuary, this part of our church building, as being something special; it is tradition because the New Testament teaches it is God's people, not a building, that is holy today.
The Christian Reformed Church Order requires worship on Prayer Day, Ascension Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, Old Years, New Years, and Good Friday. That too is tradition.
Look at our order of worship sometime. Most of it is based upon tradition. The Bible doesn't command a call to worship and a silent prayer. The Bible doesn't command God's greeting or blessing or that only an ordained minister can raise his hands and pronounce them. The Bible doesn't command confession of sin, assurance of forgiveness, and a guide for thankful living as part of the worship service. The Bible doesn't command a long prayer. The Bible tells us to give our gifts but it doesn't command that deacons pass collection plates. The Bible doesn't command the use of the Apostles' Creed. The Bible doesn't command the service ends with a moment of silence. The Bible doesn't command the kinds of Christian songs we are to sing. All of these: they are traditions.
Our sacraments and the way we do them are based upon tradition. The Bible itself doesn't tell us how to pass the elements or how to welcome visitors or how to baptize a child or adult.
II The Danger of Traditions
A Six times Jesus said, "It has been said by the men of old ... But I tell you ..." This evening Jesus is telling us, He is alerting us, that there is a very real danger to traditions.
Consider the case of the "Halacha," the tradition of the elders. By the time of Jesus it was put on the same level as the Old Testament itself. It was accepted and proclaimed as the very Word of God. This sad state of affairs occurred because of the Babylonian Captivity. In Babylon the children of Israel not only stopped using the Hebrew language but even became unable to use it. When they came back to Palestine their language was Aramaic. They were not familiar with Hebrew so they could not read the Law of Moses in their Hebrew Bibles. The result was that they were dependent for any knowledge of the Law upon the teaching of the scribes.
But what the scribes taught was not the Law itself but only their tradition about the Law. What the scribes taught was the interpretations and traditions they had added to the Law throughout the centuries.
This is very similar to the state of the church before the Reformation. At that time, if you remember, the Bible was in Latin and the people could neither read nor understand Latin. So the people were totally dependent upon the priests for their knowledge of the Bible. But what the church taught the people was not the Bible itself but only their tradition – their twisted interpretation of the Gospel.
Jesus attacks this approach to tradition in the portion of Scripture I read from Matthew 15. The Pharisees and scribes were upset that Jesus' disciples were breaking "the tradition of the elders." They were not washing their hands before they ate. Their holy, all-important traditions were being broken and they were upset!
Jesus was not upset that tradition was being broken. What did make Him upset, however, was that God's Word was being broken for the sake of tradition. "Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?" asked Jesus (Mt 15:3). Jesus went on to explain how God commanded children of all ages to honor their parents. In obedience to this command, it often fell upon children to provide for the needs of aged parents. Don't forget, at the time of Jesus there were no pension plans or social security. The tradition of the Pharisees said that if children devoted their money to God then they were excused from helping needy parents (Mt 15:4-6).
B Jesus had and has no use for such tradition. He says, "you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Mt 15:6). And then, to hammer home His point, He quotes from the prophet Isaiah:
(Mt 15:8-9) "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (9) They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"Isaiah, it seems, had the same problem with tradition that Jesus did.
Consider also the words I read from Matthew 5. Six times Jesus said, "It has been said by the men of old ... But I tell you ..." What Jesus is doing is contrasting His exposition of the law with the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is contrasting truth with falsehood. Jesus is contrasting tradition with the Bible. Jesus is contrasting what was said by men by what was said by God.
C What does this teach us, what does this tell us, about tradition?
First of all, it tells us we can't have any traditions that nullify or violate or break the command of God. To do this is to put traditions on a par with the Word of God. Our traditions must always come under the Word of God. Our traditions can never be equal to or above the Word. Any traditions that threaten the primacy of God's Word must be cast aside. This includes, by the way, our Creeds and Confessions – these traditions come under and not above the Word of God.
Second, we can't have mindless traditions. We need to rethink our traditions to make sure there is a reason for them. It is not good if we do things a certain way only because "we have always done them that way." We need a better reason than that. We need to know the what, when, where, why, and how of our traditions. And, we need to teach our children the what, when, where, why, and how. In other words, our traditions need to mean something to us and to our children:
Topic: TraditionsHow many mindless traditions do we have? Are there things that we do a certain way only "because we've always done them that way"?
Subtopic: Of Men
In 1903 the Russian czar came upon a lonely sentry standing at attention in a secluded corner of the palace garden. "What are you guarding," asked the czar. "I don't know. The captain ordered me to this post," the sentry replied.
The czar called the captain. His answer: "Written regulations specify a guard is to be assigned to that area." The czar ordered a search to find out why. The archives finally yielded the reason. Years before, in 1776, Catherine the Great found there the first flower of spring. "Post a sentry here," she commanded, "so that no one tramples that flower under foot!"
One hundred years later, sentries were still guarding the now barren spot ...."
Third, traditions are important but they are not sacred, inviolate, sacrosanct, and unchangeable. Only the Word of God is divine; only the Word of God is infallible; only the Word of God does not change. Tradition does change and must change because people and circumstances change.
In one of the churches I served a handful of members got really upset about the smallest change to tradition. They objected to saying or singing the Apostles' Creed. They became upset if the Ten Commandments were not read from Exodus 20. They saw no place for children's sermons. Things like the advent wreath and banners got them so upset they stopped coming to church.Looking back on it I can't help but observe that they gave tradition far too much weight.
I also can't help but make an observation about many of those who have left the Christian Reformed Church. Almost without exception their first efforts are to preserve or to go back to the old traditions: they adopt the old church order, use the old psalter, go back to an old Bible translation, and use the old order of worship. As I said before, there is nothing wrong with most traditions. However, Jesus tells us this evening that even more important than these traditions is obedience to the Word of God.
Let me end with a warning. Do you know why the tradition of the scribes was in conflict with the Word of God? Do you know why the Jews at the time of Jesus confused tradition with the Word of God? Do you know why they ended up with meaningless traditions? The reason is that they did not read the Word of God. The reason is that they depended upon religious professionals – the scribes and Pharisees – to tell them what the Word said. The same thing happened at the time of the Reformation. The people did not read the Word of God. They depended upon religious professionals – the Roman Catholic priests – to tell them what the Word said. The result was tradition that was in conflict with the Word of God. The result was tradition confused with the Word of God. The result was meaningless traditions.
Do you see what happens when God's people do not read the Word of God? Do you see what happens when God's people do not have the Word of God in their everyday language? Do you see what happens when God's people rely on experts or professionals to tell them what God's Word says instead of reading and studying and memorizing it themselves?
I have said it before – and undoubtedly I will say it again – but our elders are alarmed that there is no time made for regular devotions in too many of our homes. This can have only one result – that we walk down the same road as the Jews of Jesus' day; that we walk down the same road as those at the time of the Reformation.
Spend time with the Word every day. Read the Word in your own everyday language. Or else you end up with wrong or meaningless traditions. That's what Jesus says to us this evening.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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