DEFENDING THE LANGUAGE: Ritual vs. Tradition

I heard someone today who was lamenting the loss of what he called ‘ritual’ in our society.  Now, I understood what he was trying to say — and why — but he came across as whining more than informing.  This was because he was using the wrong word.  But, if I understood him, what does it matter if he used the correct word — right?  Well, in this case, the fact that he did not understand why he was using the wrong word spoke directly to what he was trying to say.  It showed a lack of understanding on his part, and this lack of understanding transformed what might have otherwise been an insightful and informative commentary into an emotional lamentation that could too easily be taken for whining.  To me, this was a lost opportunity to help others understand what this person was actually lamenting, and why, but it does not have to remain lost — not as long as we still have our own voice and a means to reach out to others.

So, once again, I heard this person lamenting the fact that our society has lost what he called ‘ritual.’  However, what he meant to say is ‘tradition.’  On the surface, it may not seem like this is a big deal, but it is.  Let me explain by pointing to a passage in the Bible:

If you read your Scriptures, you will find that the Pharisees questioned Jesus as to why He allowed His disciples to break their ‘traditions.’  Jesus responded by asking the Pharisees why they had replaced the Commandments of God with those same ‘traditions/” (Matt 15:1-6).  Now, just as in the discussion over ‘ritual’ vs ‘tradition,’ there is more to the words used in this Scripture than may appear at the first reading.  To understand what Jesus was really saying to the Pharisees, you have to know the history of Israel and the Hebrew faith.  Well, the same applies to the difference between ‘ritual’ vs ‘tradition.’

In the case of this Scripture passage, Jesus could have just as easily asked the Pharisees why they had replaced God’s Law with human ritual, because that is exactly what they had done (remember, form and function are what define our words).  They had replaced God’s Laws with rituals.  And, in this case, we can just as accurately translate this passage using the word ‘ritual’ instead of ‘tradition.’  There would be no change in the meaning or lesson in Christ’s Words.  We can see this by looking at the definition of the words in question:

Full Definition of ritual

  1. 1 :  of or relating to rites or a ritual :  ceremonial <a ritual dance>

  2. 2 :  according to religious law <ritual purity>

  3. 3 :  done in accordance with social custom or normal protocol <ritual handshakes> <ritual background checks>

Notice that one definition is ‘done in accordance to religious law?’  Well, have you ever heard the saying:

“Religion is man’s attempt to reach God; Grace is God’s attempt to reach man.”

This is exactly what the Pharisees had done: they had replaced God’s Laws with their own idea of how things should be done to make everything right with God.  But this does not work because, in the end, any attempt to earn God’s favor through works is a declaration that we are god.  For, if we can ‘earn’ a response from God by doing a work, then we are placing God in our debt by our own actions.  The only way you can put God in your debt is to be God, and a God greater than he.  This is blaspheme.  It is also why any works-based attempt to earn salvation will fail.  And it is exactly what the Pharisees had done to Israel: replaced God’s Laws which could save with man’s rituals wich cannot.

Now look at the definition of ‘tradition:’

Full Definition of tradition

  1. 1a :  an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom)b :  a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable

  2. 2 :  the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction

  3. 3 :  cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions

  4. 4 :  characteristic manner, method, or style <in the best liberal tradition>

Notice how two of the meanings of ‘tradition’ can be connected with the teaching of past events and/or information?  Well, past events may be questioned because they cannot be proven, but this does not mean they didn’t happen.  Likewise, the information handed down my go out of fashion, but this does not mean that it is not still true.  This is the key difference between ‘ritual’ and ‘tradition.’

A ritual is an invention of man.  It has no connection to the past, nor can it carry any truth.  Therefore, it has no value outside of serving as a means of controlling others by marking those who may be rejecting the authority which established and/or enforces that ritual.  In the case of hand washing, the disciples marked themselves for the Pharisees because they did not wash their hands.  Therefore, by refusing to comply with the Pharisees’ ritual, the disciples showed they had rejected the Pharisees authority.  This was because the disciples knew that there was no value in the Pharisees’ rituals.  Those rituals could not provide any benefit to them, so they ignored them.

However, in the case of a tradition, even if we are ignorant of the past events or learning which created them, they can still afford us some benefit.  This is because there is truth in them.  Many in our society have rejected the Bible, yet those same people cling to the weekend as a time of rest.  Well, the five-day work week is a tradition which comes directly from Judeo/Christian teachings.  God commanded His people to rest on the Sabbath, so they could study His Word, but also so their bodies could rejuvenate.  This is not a ritual, but a tradition, and as such, it still carries a benefit for those who know nothing of the past events or wisdom which created the tradition.

This is what the man I heard was actually lamenting: the loss our our traditions.  Those traditions were meant to teach us about liberty, and the price that must be paid to gain and sustain it.  Our traditions were also meant to protect us from those who would seek to take our liberty from us.  Our founders derived this formula from Scripture, and they told us that our liberty would only last so long as we remained a Godly people.  So this teaching is also a part of the American tradition.  All of these things were put in place because our forefathers wanted to teach us and protect us.  But today, we have either lost or rejected them.  We have even rejected God, or worse yet, made Him into a thing of our own creation.  This is what the man was lamenting, and I agree with him.  But the fact that he used the word ‘ritual’ tells me that he does not understand why Jesus chastised the Pharisees for replacing sound teachings with worthless rituals any more than the Pharisees did — and that breaks my heart (because it speaks to the condition of his heart...).

[NOTE: I no longer think of my voice as anything special.  There was a time when I believed I had something important to say, but not so much these days.  I write now because I feel driven to do so.  Something inside me will not let me rest until I post the pages you just read.  I’d just as soon not bother anymore.  It all seems like no one is listening and I do more harm than good.  So I have come to trust that whatever it is driving me has all this under control.  Personally, I believe it is God, but others may not.  All I ask is that, if anything I write helps you, or you think it might help others in any way, please, share this page.  Re-blog it, share it on FB or send the link to your friends.  So long as you feel it will do more good than harm, then please, use this page however you wish.  Thank you.]


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