The Challenge of Tradition (September 2000)

September 2000

The Challenge of Tradition ©

Jesus said that we must judge a tree, if we are to judge at all, by the fruit that it bears. Also, Jesus roundly condemned the tree that bore no fruit at all. It may be said that tradition is like a tree. It may be magnificent to behold. And aside from its visual appeal, it may provide comfort and a sense of security. It may even offer the illusion of protection from predatory elements. Yet ultimately, it must bear fruit. Eventually, it withers and dies and its vitality must shift to its progeny.

Similarly, tradition – no matter how spectacular and reassuring – must convey life.

Jesus reminds us of this in regards to religious practice time and again. Persistently, Jesus labels as hypocrisy gestures that are devoid of Love, which is the essence of the God they claim to represent. In a sense, his admonitions are a reminder that idolisation of tradition is a violation of the most sacred law in that it invites us to worship a false God – the throne rather than the sovereign.

The difficulty comes the moment we recognise the importance of tradition. Given the evident risks associated with tradition, one might be tempted to dispense with it entirely. But the reality is that the human spirit needs devices to keep it on course: tradition is one such set of devices.

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.
– Mark 7:8

If exercised in a manner that highlights rather than masks their meaning, traditions can liven and nourish relationships. Religious traditions can serve as reminders of our most fundamental obligations and of the joy that comes with heart-felt compliance with the will of God as expressed through the history of salvation.

But the other side of our human condition is that we tend to trivialise routines, and to regard them as mindless protocols. Once this begins to happen, traditions and rituals lose their capacity to communicate – religious practices lose their capacity to transmit spiritual life. We can compare tradition in such cases to a cup that has the required shape but lacks the necessary bottom panel. Sitting on a counter, it looks fine, but it is incapable of satisfying thirst.

In chapter seven of Mark’s gospel, we find a direct challenge to those who place more value on appearances than on attitudes. We find Jesus taking exception to those who judge others according to what they accomplish as opposed to what they intend; to the heart that motivates their actions.

Also, we find a powerful renunciation of worship that is correct in gesture but devoid of all sincerity: Quoting Isaiah, Jesus affirmed: In vain do they worship(…), teaching human precepts as doctrines.

This people honours me
with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.

– Isaiah 29:13

In reality, even with the best intentions, it is not always easy to apply religious beliefs to our secular life, particularly in a resoundingly hedonistic age. In truth, only the Christ alive inside us has the wisdom and fortitude to stay the salutary course prescribed in the gospels. Only through efficient prayer can we hope to remain faithful to the values that we know to be wholesome and fruitful. Only by being in union with God can we reach our full and satisfying potential.

Does this admonition regarding hypocrisy therefore apply chiefly to the contrast between public life and public worship? Not at all. In fact, it must be heard principally as an invitation to examine how we speak with God privately.

It is too easy for us to become complacent about our sincerity if we are easily satisfied with our prayer life. Particularly if that prayer life consists entirely of talking at God, rather than talking with God.

Frequent, yet superficial, prayer can lead to a lofty feeling of self-righteousness and give us a sense of immunity against the sham of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, such guile impoverishes us by causing a breach in the communications we pretend to foster.

In prayer, we may withhold that which shames us or fail to trust in the mercy and benevolence of God. Let’s face it – has our faith ever been as strong as that of those who, according to biblical accounts, went to God for healing, freed from the fear of failure?

Moreover, how many times have we been honest with ourselves, let alone with God? How many times have we looked into the mirror and faced with equanimity our weaknesses? What of our many gifts and talents? Have we ever seen ourselves as God sees us?

Yet Jesus is clear about honesty. The truth will set you free.

Tradition and ritual too have a relationship to truth and freedom. Tradition and ritual are meant to convey truth, which is the key to freedom. But traditions and rituals that have not been refreshed in the Spirit wither as do malnourished trees. Soon they are no longer capable of bearing the fruit that they were intended to offer.

Eventually, they become a lie; they offer the illusion of fecundity, but not the fruit. And illusion, like a mirage, not only fails to satisfy our innermost needs, it can lure us far of our intended course.

In effect, worthwhile traditions, whether public or private, are those that help us to live as Jesus lived. Worship is authentic and pleasing to God when it transforms our heart into his.

The human heart, as it approaches the divine heart, must have precedence over rituals and traditions for the heart is the true temple of the Spirit. It is the heart that gives meaning to worship, no matter how awkward the gestures or discordant the sounds.

Be doers of the word,
and not merely hearers
who deceive themselves.

– James 1:22

In the ancient Book of Deuteronomy, we find a clear statement from Moses regarding the importance of observing the statutes and ordinances of the Lord: You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’

The Lord offers these commandments, not to make our journey more difficult than it already is, but precisely to guide our feet through the wilderness, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.

But it is worth noting that Moses also warns that You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it.

What this says to me is that the Lord’s prescriptions, if read with an open heart and an unencumbered mind, are clear insofar as their intention and purpose are concerned. But if they are read with a heart hardened by self-interest or a mind clouded by fear, they are either read selectively or interpreted as requiring human elaboration, or more specifically, the application of humanly created conditions.

Frankly, I am tempted to read this verse as a warning against traditions and rituals that get in the way of God’s clear and direct word: Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

In fact, in the letter of James, we find the simplest of definitions for religion, spared of adornment, yet squarely rooted in the mystery of Jesus’ life: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Indeed, as the psalmist tells us, the righteous live in the presence of our loving Lord; they speak the truth from their heart.

The clean of hand and pure of heart,
who are not devoted to idols(…)they will receive blessings
from the Lord and justice from their saving God.
– Psalm 24:4-5

Blessed are the clean of heart for they will see God.
– Matthew 5:8

Simplicity of Worship

In a book entitled Simplicity, internationally acclaimed Franciscan speaker and writer Richard Rohr challenges us to distinguish between God and that which is constructed in the name of God. In the final analysis, though unquestionably faithful to the Church, Rohr invites us to distinguish between God and religion for the sake of our relationship with God.

“The first image of an idol was made by the first priest, Aaron. As soon as Moses came down from the mountain, glowing with the experience of the mystery, his brother Aaron quickly produced religion by making the golden calf. That way, you have God at your disposal, you have God in hand, we’re in control. The temptation of religion always consists in turning the tables so that we ourselves take charge of the situation. This the first mistake consists in confusing the Reign of God with the Church. We Catholics have been especially bad on this score.”

Elsewhere, he quotes Jesus to remind us that not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. And he notes that 400 years later, St. Augustine said “Many belong to the Church who do not belong to God. And many belong to God who do not belong to the Church.”

Finally, Rohr invites us to discover the true meaning of religion: “I believe that the religion of the middle class was always tempted to use Scripture primarily to dispense consolation. But the Word of God, like a mirror, must first confront us with ourselves. Second, it has to challenge us to live in a new way, to lead a life of authentic brotherliness and sisterliness – economically, politically, socially, and spiritually. Only after the Word of God has confronted and challenged us do we have the right to take consolation from the Word of God as well.”