When reading through the Gospels, it is very common to find the Pharisees continually accusing Jesus as a violator of the Torah (the Law). But what we find is that the conflict is not with the Torah, but rather an issue with tradition. For the Pharisees especially, tradition was held in higher regard over the intent of the Law. Tradition trumped intent.
Jesus was very stern and harsh with the Pharisees. He says things to them such as “you brood of vipers”, “woe to you”, “hypocrites!”, etc. It is clear that they are not seeing and understanding God and the Law in a right manner.
It is not difficult to observe these encounters in the Gospels and say to yourself something like, “Wow, yeah, they sure are hypocrites. Unbelievable! Why can’t they get it right?”, while we fail to introspect on how we too might be missing intent over tradition.
As Christians, we are always taking things in from our churches, from discussions with others, from Christian books, and from simply observing other’s words and actions. So with many things, our views, the way we think about things, the way we do or say things, the way we pray, and so on, originates from observances outside the Bible. Most of those things are trusted, and not directly studied to find the original intent. And this is where oral tradition originates from.
Tradition is not bad in and of itself, but if never tested or re-examined, it can stray from its origin, and understanding of its intent can be lost. This is the case with the Pharisees, and I would argue will always be an issue to varying degrees in any belief or religion. I insist that we must be mindful of that, especially in Christianity. So when we read about the Pharisees, let it be a reminder to us to think about ourselves and examine the things we do, say, think, and believe to make sure we are understanding the intent behind it.
Here are some examples of this that I have encountered and thought about:
It is very common for Christians to pray before meals. Doing this is not a wrong or bad thing. However, it is obvious that there is an element of feeling a legalistic requirement to do it. I have heard many mealtime prayers that are very rushed and meaningless and seem to be done just for the sake of doing it. There is also an observance of others. I have heard some people question if others are Christians because they didn’t see them pray before they started eating. There is no command or requirement to pray before every meal. This has become a tradition, and many are missing the intent of prayer in that situation.
99.9% of Christian prayers I hear end with “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” It feels awkward to end a prayer without it. If people don’t hear you say it if you are the one praying, they may question your prayer. This has become a tradition to say. It’s not bad to say, but it has become a mantra, and there is a high probability that often times when it is said, it’s said simply to be said, and not because the sayer is truly thinking about what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. Praying in Jesus’ name is supposed to be an actionable thing, a mentality, an understanding, not simply a short phrase tagged onto the end of every prayer. I think many lost the true meaning and intent because of that.
The concept of “daily devotions” is interesting these days. Many people feel a sense of requirement to do it, and they feel guilty if they don’t do it. Many think that devotions is sitting down for a few minutes and reading one of the now thousands of devotional books out there that take one Bible verse and tell you a fluffy story about it. This has become a Christian tradition that has in some cases become legalistic and has lost the intent. Being devoted to God isn’t about a daily small time slot. We ought to be devoted with our lives, all day, and be working towards that. It’s great to take time during the day to devote ourselves to prayer or reading of the Bible, but if it is to fulfill a legalistic requirement, then the intent is lost.