If you’ve seen “Fiddler on the Roof” you’re sure to remember the song “Tradition.” Before the song breaks out in earnest with the papas, the mamas, the sons and the daughters each singing about their traditions Tevye gives a little explanation:
And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition! Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started. I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, everyone of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
As a father of five daughters Tevye is struggling to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences start to encroach on their family’s life together. Three of his daughters want to marry for love and their choice of husbands doesn’t exactly fit the family tradition. So what to make of Teyve’s explanation? Are traditions a good thing that help us keep our balance? I believe most of us would agree that traditions are good. They bring comfort and stability. They can make it easier to pass values on to the next generation. Tradition can give us roots or Tevye’s words, keep us balanced.
But traditions can also be a source of contention as each generation evaluates their relevance to their own time and place. And in particular, religious traditions can have a dark side when through time they are elevated to “God’s Law” status. Jesus dealt with this in Mark 7 when the religious leaders attacked his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. “Why do your disciples not live according the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Here is how Jesus replied (Mark 7:6-8):
He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "'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.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
As much as I don’t want to admit it, I get it. When someone wants to change my tradition it can make me uncomfortable. It can throw me off balance. But Jesus, as always, points us to the heart of the matter. The question isn’t “what makes me comfortable,” but is instead “what is God’s will in the matter?” And as modern day disciples the big question should always be this: how can we surrender to God’s will and reach the most people with the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ? Traditions will come and go; the word of God and the gospel abide forever.
The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever. – Isaiah 40:8
Don’t confuse tradition with the word of God. Then, when it’s time to let go of an old tradition for a new one, as hard as it may be, LET IT GO! God will still be on His throne in heaven and you might just enjoy it!