Reflections, Saints

Is Jesus Blasting Tradition?

Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

This morning, I’d like to briefly comment on the topic of Tradition. When we hear Jesus say things like: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition!” we might begin to wonder — is Jesus blasting all Tradition? What about Catholic traditions — are they safe? What does he mean by all this?

Catholics, of course, hold that both Scripture and Tradition — the two of them bound intimately together in harmony — form the fullness of Divine Revelation. Vatican II says that they “flow from the same divine wellspring.” In other words, we can’t have one without the other.

Scripture apart from Tradition would lose all ground for authority — Without the living Tradition of the Church, we’d have no idea which writings are inspired, and which aren’t. The Canon of Scripture relies on the authority of the Church’s Tradition. On the other hand, Tradition apart from Scripture would forsake one of the most important ministries the Church has been tasked with: that of interpreting the Word of God faithfully, through the Holy Spirit. Scripture is the beating heart of all organic development of doctrine and theology.

Even so, passages like the one we heard in our Gospel sometimes get oversimplified — and we hear many of our Christian brothers and sisters blasting any shred of “tradition” as if it were only human, only a distortion of the real Gospel, only a distraction to the life of faith. The cry “Sola Scriptura” — “Scripture Alone!” was a familiar rallying cry among the Protestant Reformers. To many, Tradition is unfortunately suspicious and unnecessary.

But this logic is simply not true… not to mention self-defeating!

For one thing, Jesus’ words from our Gospel passage this morning come to us out of a long and venerable tradition. The Gospel of Mark was not dictated directly by the Lord. In fact, Christ never mandated that his life be recorded on paper (at least not in his recorded words in the Gospels, which if you want to appeal to something beyond that, you have forsaken Sola Scriptura). The apostles remembered the words and actions of Jesus and told all of it to the first generation of converts. There were no New Testament “Scriptures” — at first it was all by word-of-mouth. Monsignor Knox goes so far to say that “If no Christian had ever put pen to paper, there would have still been a stream of oral tradition which would have reached right down to our own day.” Now thankfully, all the various stories of Christ’s life and deeds — these “traditions” — got compiled into the Four Gospels we have today, and so we have the authentic words of our Lord to meditate on. Without a firm belief in something like Sacred Tradition, this organic process would not have been safeguarded or guaranteed to transmit the Truth!

Secondly, Jesus specifically warns against “human” tradition, thereby making a distinction between “human” and “divine” tradition. And even with this distinction, Christ doesn’t outright condemn human tradition for being human, but rather, for being opposed to God’s Law. He condemns the Pharisees for ignoring God’s commandments in favor of their human traditions. Here’s a quick example: Celebrating birthdays is a “human tradition” and we have lots of little traditions that go along with it — Would Christ have an issue with a little kid blowing out candles on their birthday cake? I seriously doubt it. Now, if we chose to throw ourselves a huge birthday party instead of going to mass on Sunday… then I bet Our Lord would have some colorful commentary for us.

The fact of the matter is that tradition allows us to remember and enter more deeper into reality. Sacred Tradition hands on the fullness of the deposit of faith and does NOT distract us from it. We are here at church this morning because of the work of the Church handing on the Good News through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist we just received isn’t “Scripture,” it isn’t words written down on a piece of paper — but it is truly the Word of God — the very flesh of the Son of Man, given for the life of the world.

One last thought: Among the most cherished traditions of the Church are the stories surrounding the lives of the saints, especially the martyrs who with their final breath breathed the Truth of Christ’s love for all humanity. This morning we celebrate St. Paul Miki and his companions, who were crucified in Japan in the late 1500’s. Paul Miki was just a seminarian at the time of his martyrdom, yet he preached the love of God as he hung on a Cross, “his most noble pulpit” as the account puts it. The others hanging alongside Paul all spoke words of encouragement and peace to the Christians looking on. Those who witnessed this event said that “joy glowed in all their faces.”

This beautiful tradition and others like it encourage us to fight the good fight, to enter into daily suffering, and to offer everything to our loving God in trustful surrender. How impoverished our faith would be if we never heard of martyrs like St Paul Miki and his companions — if we never received from the Church’s long tradition the countless lives of the Saints to show us how to follow Jesus more closely.

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