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Tradition Shapes the Heart

We need to challenge and be challenged by our traditions

Remember the song “Tradition!” from the Fiddler on the Roof? Tevye sings the play’s theme of how to have balance in life in a rapidly changing and threatening world. Tradition gives structure and stability. Tradition forms our identity (being) and direction (doing). Christian Courier is a tradition, and this issue explores other traditions. Tevye says that, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as . . . as a fiddler on the roof!”

Matthew 15

Tradition can also silence the music. It can make us adept but also slow to adapt or adopt. Pharisees challenge Jesus in Matthew 15:2 (NIV): “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus counters, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (v.3). Jesus also challenges them on honouring your father and mother. The Pharisees had created a work-around whereby they could declare their funds dedicated to God, not their parents. Jesus concludes, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (v.6), and quotes from the tradition of Isaiah: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (vs. 8-9). 

Choosing traditions

It’s helpful to ask yourself three questions when choosing traditions. First, is the tradition scriptural? The Pharisees’ practice of handwashing was not scriptural. It was their extension of priestly washings to the home setting. Jesus also challenges them regarding setting devotion to God over honouring their parents. 

But the scriptural test by itself is insufficient. Jesus seems to be challenging some scriptural practices when he says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth” (Matt.15:11). Mark adds the editorial comment, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). 

Therefore we must also ask, what is the principle? Jesus compares the traditions in terms of their principles. As with all practical case law, practices can vary according to time, culture and traditions, but principles do not. Jesus emphasizes that the principle is holiness and that holiness is defined by how you treat your neighbour, with your parents being your closest neighbours. The commandments that Jesus references here (v. 19) and has already explicated in the Sermon on the Mount are all about whether your actions create or destroy human community. The Pharisees’ traditions divided “us from them,” and even child from parent.

Although Jesus emphasizes human community, it is not “go along to get along.” Attack problems? Ignore problems? Jesus challenges. He causes offense and warns of following blind guides into destruction. He challenges Peter’s lack of understanding.

Lastly, we must ask: what is in the heart? Jesus wants to get to the “heart” of the matter. He picks up the quotation from Isaiah that spoke of the people’s hearts and says, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them” (Matt.15:18). In Biblical language, the heart is not the seat of emotions. The heart is the centre of one’s being that directs one’s will, conscience and purpose. The heart is one’s character.

Tradition shapes the heart. The tradition of sin divides our hearts and leads to destruction of community. We have hard hearts, but Jesus and his Spirit at work within new community changes hearts and some traditions.


The Christian Courier community is part of the Reforming tradition. This tradition both shapes and limits. We need to challenge and be challenged. I encourage you to be a reforming progressive conservative or a reforming liberal traditionalist, valuing and thankful for tradition and change

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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