Is “Tradition” a Four-Letter Word?

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) –  Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalms 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. This series usually appears each Wednesday.

Photography © by Andy Coan

One of the great battle cries of the Protestant Reformation was “sola scriptura!”  Many thought that the Catholic Church had cluttered up the simple Christian faith by adding all sorts of practices, customs and doctrines over the centuries. They thought the Church in their day was guilty of exactly the same Pharisaical obsession with traditions condemned by Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel (Mark 7:1-23). The solution, it seemed, was simple. Let’s purify the Church by ditching all these traditions and keeping the Bible alone.

But if we read this portion of the Bible closely, the Lord is not telling us that tradition is a dirty word.  His apostle Paul, in fact, tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to “hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter.”

“Tradition” simply means something that is handed or passed on from one person to another, one generation to another.  The question to ask when examining any particular tradition is “where did it come from?”  Its value depends on its origin.  Did it come from Jesus?  His apostles?  Some pious believers who lived centuries later?  The traditions Paul passed down were divine (from the Lord) and apostolic traditions, like the meaning and importance of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-34) or the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (I Cor 15:3-11) and so were of the utmost importance.

The traditions of the Pharisees were quite a different matter.  They were not of themselves evil.  But they were pious customs of human origin passed down to support the living out of the law.  Unfortunately, the Pharisees were incapable of distinguishing divine law from its human support system.  Worse than that, they actually used pious customs as loopholes to help them get around the difficult demands of the Torah.

If you get your Bible out and read the full text of Mark chapter 7, you’ll get a clearer picture of this.  Everyone knows that when God gave Moses and the Israelites the 10 commandments, he meant business.  The fourth commandment, “honor your father and mother,” means not just that young kids ought to do what their parents tell them, but that adult children should provide for the financial needs of aging parents, assuring they live out their declining years in honor and dignity.  But the Pharisees had recourse to a non-biblical religious custom that absolved them from this weighty responsibility.  They “dedicated” their money to God and thereby “sheltered” it, making it unavailable for parental support.

It’s not “tradition” that’s the problem here, but the deviousness of the human heart that will use piety as an excuse to evade the obligations of true religion, which include, our second reading tells us, looking after orphans and widows and presumably elderly relatives in their distress (James 1:27).

And this is exactly Jesus’ point in this Sunday’s gospel.  The kinds of foods we eat don’t make us spiritually impure.  No, it is the foul things that come out of the deep recesses of the human heart, wounded by original sin, that separate us from God and each other and lead to all the misery in this world.

The Pharisees thought they’d purify Israel through dietary laws and religious customs.  Protestant Reformers of the 16th century thought they could purify the church by leaving behind ecclesiastical traditions and customs.  History has proven both endeavors to be futile.

The answer is simple.  Let’s just commit ourselves to radical obedience to God’s Word.  Let’s admit our need, our sinfulness, our tendency to make excuses, and humbly, genuinely lay open our lives and hearts before God’s word and listen.  As Moses tells us in Deuteronomy (4:1-8) and James tells us in his letter, let’s do more than just listen.  Let’s really hear and obey.  Let’s give ourselves no wiggle room, but act on God’s word, regardless of how much it may cost us.


Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.


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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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