“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home . . . And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word . . . Tradition.”
“Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as . . . as a fiddler on the roof!”
And so begins the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof, the story of a Jewish father trying to keep his family Jewish in Imperial Russia. Oppressive tradition vs. spontaneous love. It was Footloose before Kevin Bacon.
In Mark 7, Jerusalem sent an envoy of fiddlers to investigate Jesus. They caught Jesus and his disciples eating with “impure” hands (vv1-2). Jesus did not abide by the strict “tradition of the elders” requiring the meticulous washing all the Gentileness off their hands and dinnerware (vv3-4). He kept them off balance on the roof.
They questioned Jesus about his obvious disregard for their traditions (v5). Jesus had been waiting for this (vv6-8):
“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mk 7:6-8; cf. Is 29.13).
Jesus provided a case study to prove their expertise in hypocrisy (vv9-13). Moses commanded Jewish children honor their parents, speaking well of them and caring for them as they aged. But the Pharisees created a loophole, claiming it was a pious tradition. They declared the resources that should be reserved for their parents’ care as “Corban” (or “given to God”).
For example, Pharisee John has a sizable savings account earning good interest. His father is no longer able to work and provide for his mother. Instead of using his resources to care for his parents, John declares his savings for the temple upon his death. In modern terms, he shelters his assets in a charitable trust without extending his own parents charity. He keeps living off the interest until he dies while his parents languish until theirs.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for doing “many things such as that” (v13).
Jesus did not categorically dismiss tradition. He established traditions of his own. He warned against traditions that ignore, disregard or even replace clear biblical commands. Traditions are good until they replace the virtue or worship they’re intended to protect (hyper-traditionalism).
The corrective for hyper-traditionalism is not anti-traditionalism (a la Kevin Bacon!), but in maintaining tradition as means to an end, not ends in themselves.
The church has long tried to navigate between the extremes of hyper-traditionalism and anti-traditionalism. There are, however, four traditions in modern church life we should honestly reconsider in light of Mark 7. They might well be our version of Pharisaical washings.
- Altar call vs. Lord’s Supper. Most (Baptist) churches insist on a weekly altar call while observing the Lord’s Supper far less frequently (often quarterly, at best). The altar call is a tradition while Jesus commanded regularly (weekly?) observing the Lord’s Supper (cf. Lk 22.14-20; 24.30; Acts 2.42, 46; 1 Cor 10.14-22; 11.23-34). If we have altar calls more frequently than the Lord’s Supper then we have “set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mk 7.9).
- Pastoral titles/hierarchy vs. plurality. Most churches insist on a pastoral hierarchy with professional titles while Jesus commanded the plurality of pastors/elders/overseers. Churches often assume ministry depends on a Senior Pastor with subordinate staff. But that idea derives more from corporate America than Jesus. If we insist on pastoral titles/hierarchy more than actual Jesus-commanded pastoral ministry then we have “set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mk 7.9).
- Concerts/events/programs vs. congregational prayer. Most churches have far more events and programs than they have congregational prayer. If a church does have a regular congregational prayer assembly it is probably the least attended of all church gatherings. Many churches find most anything else to do besides praying together. Yet, the early church was always praying together (cf. Acts 2.42, 46; Col 4.2-3). If a church does not pray well or often together then her overhyped events will leave little-to-no eternal footprint. If we crave and attend events and concerts more than congregational prayer then we have “set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mk 7.9).
- Rededication/rebaptism vs. church discipline/repentance. In many Baptist churches, the wayward professing Christian is often encouraged to “rededicate” their lives or even be rebaptized after “getting it right” (I speak from personal experience). However, Jesus has prescribed how the church handles the wayward professing Christian: through church discipline and repentance (cf. Mt 18.16-18; 1 Cor 5; Titus 3.10). If a professing believer wanders from the gospel then the church must lovingly and patiently discipline them. We strongly encourage their repentance, not an emotional, episodic “rededication.” If they return then the church does not rebaptize them (cf. Eph 4.5), but restores them to Christian fellowship (cf. 2 Cor 2.5-11; Gal 6.1). We must not use re-baptism as a way of correcting what we should’ve done by church discipline. If we encourage “rededication” more than repentance, use “inactive” membership instead of church discipline, or perform more rebaptisms than restorations, then we have “set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mk 7.9).
Traditions are important, but not ultimately so. We’ve succumbed to Phariseeism when biblical teaching/principles are considered novel or hostile to our traditions. When we substitute secondary (at best) means of grace for primary ones. Sounds crazy, no? How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word…Jesus.