As the play Fiddler on the Roof opens, the audience sees a solitary figure, barely visible in the shadows of dawn, sitting and playing his violin on a steep roof overlooking a pre-1917 Russian village. As the workday begins, a Jew by the name of Tevye, the patriarch of one of the families in the village, enters the scene and delivers the following monologue directly to the audience:
A fiddler on the roof! Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy! You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word: Tradition!
Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God! You may ask how did this tradition start? I'll tell you: I don't know! But it's a tradition!
Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do!
The play makes it obvious that, to the people of Anatevka, tradition was precisely what Tevye proclaimed: the foundation for their relationships within society, with one another, and with God. Anything that distorted those traditions caused them to teeter and fall from the roof. This vignette should evoke some questions, especially to Christians, who have declared allegiance to Jesus Christ and are precariously balancing their lives in a perilous world.
Is tradition a good or a bad thing? If it is good, how important is it to uphold it?
If upholding it is important, which ones should be upheld for the good of society, the Body of Christ, and a lasting relationship with God?
Can tradition give a person insight into God's expectations of him personally, society as a whole, and the church in general?
We will answer these questions broadly as a lead-in to a tradition we keep in the church of God that may be one of the most significant but least respected and understood. Yet, some have considered this important tradition, the keeping of the Night to Be Much Observed, to be Herbert W. Armstrong's "pipe dream."
We all know Jesus tells us not to follow the traditions of men blindly (see Matthew 15:1-9), but we are to follow the traditions God has carefully placed in the church. But unlike Tevye, when asked, we should know, not only how they started, but also the purpose and intent of His traditions. A sizable part of our training under Christ is to learn to think and act like God from the heart.
To reflect a sure truth that needs to be our direction in life, we need to modify Tevye's final statement: "Because of God's traditions, everyone who is born a new man knows who he is and what God expects him to do from the heart!" Of course, it takes a lifetime of Christ's work in us to bring us to perfection, but we should always be working to discern what is of God and what is not—and just as important, why we do what we do.
So what is a tradition? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it succinctly: "an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)." This definition fits well with both human traditions and the vastly more significant traditions established by God.
This world has developed inherited, established, and customary patterns of thought, action, and behavior. From the beginning, though, God has also given men inherited, established, and customary patterns of His thought, action, and behavior. Through God's Spirit dwelling in us, we have access to a thought-process that should produce actions and behaviors firmly seated on the purpose and intent of God's traditions, which teach us to be like Him.
Consider one of the most fundamental traditions of God, His Sabbath. Yes, essentially, God's commandments are traditions, as are the statutes and ordinances that derive from those commandments. The Sabbath is a commandment of God that reveals His established and customary pattern of thought, action, and behavior in keeping with the way He lives. God created it for us as an inheritance.
Over the centuries, the traditions of men have perverted the Sabbath, but if we learn to keep His law for the purpose and in the intent in which God gave it, as reinforced by the Word of God, we can produce actions and behavior in line with God's will. If we follow the letter and the spirit of God's Sabbath law, it will continue to provide the real rest that can be found only in keeping it according to God's original purpose and intent.
In Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-13, Jesus uses "commandment(s)" and "tradition(s)" several times together. For example, in Mark 7:9, the two words are closely interlocked: "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (see Matthew 15:6). "Your tradition," "the tradition of the elders" (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3, 5), originated in the commandments of the Jews' Oral Law, and Jews considered breaking these traditions to be transgression. Jesus reprimanded them, not for following traditions, but for prioritizing their unfounded traditions over God's commandments.
In the same way, God's commandments establish patterns of action and behavior that inspire traditions among His people. If a tradition has its source in God's commandments and reflects His thoughts, actions, and behaviors—even if they are traditions conceived by a human being—they are good traditions and keeping them is right. We can even say they are God-inspired traditions. As the apostle Paul writes in II Thessalonians 2:15, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle."
Tradition, then, is godly if we know how it fits into truly understanding the mind, character, and behavior of God. Unlike Tevye, who could not even explain why he wore tassels or where the tradition started, we need to know how the traditions we keep began and how they help us to have a more productive relationship with God in humility and gratitude.
Part Two will take a closer look at the commanded tradition of the Night to Be Much Observed.
- Mark Schindler