…all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders… Mark 7:3
Is tradition good or is it bad? Actually it can be very good. It can also be very bad. And sometimes, I believe, it can be neither good nor bad…almost kind of neutral in value.
Tradition basically means to hand something over, especially words or actions. If it means anything that is handed down from one generation to the next, then it can even describe the handing down of Holy Scripture…which is of the highest good. If on the other hand tradition means that which has been invented by men and handed down from generation to generation, then it can be either good or bad. This is how the word tradition is employed in our text…something invented by men and handed down from one generation to the next.
In Jesus’ day one such tradition of the elders dictated that the Jewish people had to wash their hands before a meal. This washing of the hands was not done for sanitary reasons; it was done for ceremonial/spiritual reasons.
It is easy to understand how such a tradition came to be. God himself had established sacred washings. For the priests, God had commanded that they daily wash their hands and their feet before performing the tabernacle liturgy (Ex 30:18ff). By thus cleansing their hands, God purified them to be able to handle the holy things and the holy food in His house. By cleansing their feet, God allowed them to walk in His house. God also required that the “unclean” (any “unclean” Israelite, not just priests) bathe in water before they could be declared clean (See e.g. Lev 14-16). When we then encounter verses such as Psalm 24:3,4 (Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…) we hear the emphasis on clean hands. No wonder the elders established their tradition of hand-washing, ultimately attempting to mandate it for every Jew. Such man-mandated hand-washing stood to remind God’s people that He required purity, as indicated also by His washing mandates. Thus we see a possible positive value in such a tradition.
Today we also have salutary traditions, such as bowing the head and folding the hands for prayer, burning incense, making the sign of the cross on oneself, kneeling, employing a processional cross and facing certain directions during worship. And though our entire liturgy is scripturally based, yet it too is a large example of salutary human tradition. Such traditions are supposed to magnify God and His Word, magnifying especially Christ’s life, death and resurrection. They are also observed to encourage reverence in our worship settings. Yet they are not specifically mandated by God. If they are enforced as some kind of law, then there is a very real danger they could mislead God’s people, perhaps giving them the impression that by doing these things they merit God’s favor.
As Christ indicated in our Gospel, tradition can be very bad either if it is considered essential or if it supersedes that which is essential. He warned, You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men [v 7]. We now have the “commandments” of Jesus which we are to keep (Mt 28:19f). His Gospel-oriented commandments, drawn from His cross and empty tomb, include the command to baptize, to do the Lord’s Supper, to pray, to absolve, to preach and hear the Gospel, to love one another as He loved us and to continue in His Word. None of these are human traditions. Any human tradition that detracts or is given to supersede these commandments is bad. Any human tradition that supports and encourages the keeping of these commandments is good, for it is a tradition that ultimately magnifies Christ and His work of salvation.