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In this series, “When Conflict Happens,” we explore interpersonal and intergroup conflict involving Jesus. In this way, we learn from the Lord Jesus how to respond to conflict.

In this article, we investigate a conflict about traditions. Traditions or customs permeate every nook and cranny of our lives. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a disagreement or conflict to arise over an issue of tradition.

To understand this type of conflict, we need to answer questions like the following:

  • What is a tradition?
  • What determines if a tradition is good, bad, or neutral?
  • How should we respond when a bad tradition is involved?

Before responding to these questions, let’s learn more about the conflict.

A Conflict

The incident of conflict we will examine is Matthew 15:1-20 (also Mark 7:1-23 and Luke 11: 37-41). Please take a moment to read and familiarize yourself with the text.

Here is Matthew’s record of the conflict (Matthew 15:1-9), which I have divided into three sections. I have underlined the three-fold repetition of the word “tradition.”

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"

The opening accusation of the Pharisees is a condemnation of the disciples. This is not simply a matter of personal hygiene; it is a ritual handwashing associated with purity regulations devised by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. For the Pharisees, these regulations were required practices to maintain purity. This condemnation implies that the disciples were breaking the “tradition” and, therefore, were disqualified as impure

Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' he is not to 'honor his father ' with it. 

Jesus confronts this implicit condemnation of the disciples by focusing on another of the Pharisees’ traditions. Jesus uses this other tradition to contrast “your tradition” with the “command of God” and what “God said.” This is an overt criticism of the Pharisees traditions in general.

The specific tradition in question allowed adult children to deprive their destitute parents of the children’s resources for the parents’ necessities of life: food, clothing, and such. If a child had devoted their assets as a gift to God— despite still retaining them for personal use— they could say, “So sorry, my assets are korban, a gift to God, and unavailable for your needs.”

This Pharisaical tradition directly contradicted God’s command, “Honor your father and mother.”

Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"

This tradition was harmful or wrong. Other traditions can be beneficial or good; perhaps some are value-neutral.

So, what is a tradition, and how do we discern whether a tradition is good or bad? 

What is a tradition?

Often, we adopt traditions or customs unconsciously. They are ingrained in us.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines tradition as:

A belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these beliefs, etc. in a particular society or group.

The word translated as “tradition” in our English Bibles is the Greek word paradosis— literally, “the content of instruction that has been handed down” (BDAG). This word occurs 13 times in the New Testament (Matthew 15: 2, 3, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 8, 9, 13; 1 Corinthians 11:2; Galatians 1:14; Colossians 2:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). 

One example of a simple tradition is the side of the road on which motorists drive. Vehicles in North America operate on the right side of the road, and in the United Kingdom, on the left side. Various jurisdictions legislate or regulate which side of the road motorists drive on. This is a tradition legally adopted for road safety.

How do you discern whether a tradition is good or bad?

Jesus judged a tradition as good or bad by its relationship to the heart of God. In this case, God’s heart as expressed by a proper understanding of the Law.

At the core of the Law is love. The first four commands are responses of love to God; the last six of love for our fellow humans. Jesus confirmed and summarized this when asked, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He responded with (Matthew 22: 34-40):

" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

The Pharisees’ tradition of korban referred to earlier was bad because it contradicted God’s desire that we love our parents, which is at the core of the command to “honor your mother and your father.” 

Paul refers to traditions that are positive or good when he writes (1 Corinthians 11:2):

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings [or traditions, paradosis], just as I passed them on to you.

What follows in 1 Corinthians 11-14 is guidance for loving community life— practices of love toward those within our community. Those traditions included how we worship as redeemed males and females, how we engage in the Lord’s Supper whether we are rich or poor, how we exercise our spiritual gifts, and so on.  

So, in general, traditions that guide, motivate, and embody (biblical) love for God and love for your fellow humans are positive or good. Whereas traditions that misdirect, undermine, or contradict (biblical) love for God and love for your fellow humans are negative or harmful.  

A couple of case studies

Let’s consider a few traditions closer to our time and cultures.

Example #1: In The Mission of God (p. 184), Christopher Wright writes of a practice in India that might be thought innocuous.

When people celebrate a birthday or other special event, the guests are offered gifts of sweets or fruits called prasad. Wright explains that these gifts have been offered “first to the gods in their home or place of work.”

When one realizes that these gifts are first offered to gods— not the One True God revealed as Jesus Christ, the tradition of prasad contradicts a fundamental element of “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

I conclude that tradition is negative or bad. 

Wright continues, “In the West, gods and idols take more subtle forms, but similar issues may arise.”

Example #2: In North America, a tradition has developed called “Thanksgiving,” an “annual national holiday … celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year.”

Presuming that the One True God revealed as Jesus Christ is being thanked, I conclude that tradition is positive or good. After all, that’s the reason it began.

Admittedly, these are simple issues of tradition. Some are more complex. Perhaps you have a situation involving a tradition you want to investigate or test. Let me know the details (contact).

The Aftermath

Here are a few comments on Matthew 15:10-20.

The Pharisees were like the fabled emperor parading naked in imagined robes of presumed superiority. Jesus had spoken the truth, cut through their distorted traditions, and exposed them for what they were— hypocrites. 

In verses 10-11, Jesus speaks to the observing crowd with a brief expression of the truth about cleanness and uncleanness: 

“Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

Then, in the company of the disciples, the Lord Jesus teaches on at least two matters.

First is his response to the disciples’ question, perhaps their caution (v. 12):

“Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

We need to hear the Lord’s answer in our modern Western setting. Often, when a person or group proclaiming “their truth” is challenged and confronted with the truth in a factual, logical, and sound way, they react peevishly by saying, “You have offended us.” 

Of course, followers of Jesus should not be offensive in their words or behavior— we do not try to offend. But that differs from a person or group saying they are offended when confronted with the truth that contradicts them. We do not sacrifice truth to preserve a person or group’s feelings.

Jesus does not backpedal when he is informed the Pharisees are offended by his statements. Instead, he explains to his disciples in the language of a parable (v. 13-14):

“Every plant will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

This is reminiscent of the parable spoken a little earlier (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43) about the weeds or darnel being pulled up— a picture of judgment.

Second, Jesus instructs the disciples on the issue of cleanness and uncleanness. It is a matter of what proceeds from the heart, not what goes into the mouth. It is a matter of internal, heart purity, not external “soap and water.”

In Conclusion

We have gone over this incident quickly with only a few observations. Hopefully, this post has got you thinking about traditions and how to discern whether they are good or bad. 

What do we learn from Jesus in this scene that equips us to become more conflict-competent followers of Jesus?

Looking at it from a different perspective, what if you are challenged about a tradition you hold and practice? How would you respond? How should you respond? Would you be teachable or offended?

I would like to hear about your experiences, ideas, and challenges. Please write to me using this link.

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO What We Can Learn from Jesus’ Response to the Pharisees

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