Such was our Lord's word to the Pharisees; and if we turn to our own life it is difficult if not impossible for us fully to estimate the influence which traditions exercise upon it.
They are so woven into the web of thought and opinion, and daily habits and practices, that none of us can claim to escape them. Moreover, as any institution or society grows older, this influence of the part which is handed on from one generation to another tends to accumulate; so that the weight of it lies heavier on us in an old place than in a new one, and it is obvious that there is both loss and gain in this.
A good tradition is a great help and support, giving a strength, or firmness, or dignity to our life which it would not otherwise have had.
We often see or feel the value of such a tradition as it acts upon the members of a family, or of a college, or of a regiment, or of a school.
And this influence of a tradition, inasmuch as it has become impersonal, and rooted in the general life, is apt to be very persistent, so that the man who establishes a good tradition anywhere begins a good work, which may go on producing its good results long after he himself is in his grave.
Many of you must have felt the power of such an influence, handed on to you as if it were a part of your inheritance, when thinking of a brother, or father, or other relative or ancestor, who by some distinction of character, or by some inspiring words or some brave or generous act, has left you a good example, which seems somehow to belong to you, and to stir you as with an authoritative call to show yourself worthy of it.
Similarly in a society like this school you can hardly grow up without sometimes being stirred by the tradition of the noble lives that have left their mark upon its history.
So a man's good deeds live after him, and become woven as threads of gold into the traditions of the world.
And we are equally familiar with traditions that are bad, and with their pestilent influence; for we are constantly made to feel how much of the good that men endeavour to do is thwarted, counteracted, or destroyed by influences of this sort, and how weak and imitative souls are entangled in the network of traditional influence as in a spider's web. Tradition, in fact, represents to us the accumulated power of past lives as it acts upon us from the outside, just as what men call heredity represents this same influence in our own blood.
And we have seen that this power may be, and often is, a real advantage and support to our life. We feel also that as the Divine light shines stronger and steadier in human affairs the traditional influence of each generation ought to become more and more helpful to those that follow.
And yet, you observe, the Saviour gives us no encouragement to depend upon those helps that tradition might bring us. On the contrary, His language shows how dangerous He felt the influence of tradition to be. How are we to account for this? His strongest denunciations are reserved for the Pharisaic party; and yet a historian would describe them as in many respects the best elements of Jewish life. They were earnest, patriotic, religious, many of them wise and holy men; but their judgment was held in bondage by the influence of tradition, and in this lies the cardinal defect of their life. They had set up between their souls and the spirit of God a sort of graven image of ritualistic observances, and traditional usages and interpretations. They depended on externals, or what came to them from the past or from the outer world, and their eyes were blinded, and their hearts hardened against every new revelation.
Thus they stand before Christ, blocking His path, the very embodiment of that power which closes the soul against those inspiring and purifying influences that come from direct communion with God. They block the Saviour's path, because this personal communion is just what He represents to us -- the direct revelation of the Spirit of God in man. He comes to reveal the Father to each of us, and to make us feel the presence of the Divine creative Spirit in every separate human life; and till we feel this personal illumination we have not realised the manifestation of the Son of God. But the Pharisee with his continual reference to tradition, his multiplication of external observances, and elaborate ritual, his reliance upon usage and external authority, knows little or nothing of the personal illumination by the direct influence of the Spirit of God upon our spirit. Hence this absolute and fundamental contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees. They represent two opposing principles in life. And it is this that gives such intensity to the words He addressed to them: "Ye have made the word of God of none effect through your traditions"; and it is a universal warning -- never out of date.
If the spirit of traditional usage and influence holds the citadel of a man's life, the spirit of Christian progress cannot gain an entrance.
That is the lesson which the Saviour presses upon our attention by His denunciation of the Pharisaic usage, habit, and attitude, and it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the lesson, because this same spirit of Pharisaic tradition is constantly laying its hand upon every human institution, and it has contributed to every abuse or perversion that has taken possession of the Christian Church.
Our life is, in fact, a continuous struggle between the two principles here represented. Which is to prevail in it, and fix its character -- traditional custom, or personal inspiration? Are we to follow the world with its conventions and laws, or to live in personal communion with God? The tendency of our life will be determined in one direction or the other according as we surrender our will to the rule of traditional notions and usages, the power of the external world, or as we seek for direct illumination of mind, conscience, and spirit at the Divine sources of truth and light.
Here, then, we have a principle to guide us in our relation to the traditions amidst which we live.
We do not expect to get away from them; we never dream of escaping from the influences of the external world, whether of the past or the present; but to move safely among them, we must have learnt and adopted this primal lesson, that no tradition, and no external practice or custom, has any authoritative claim upon us, simply from being established as a tradition or a custom.
And as we stand amidst all the conventions and practices that have come down to us, we should be able to say of every one of them --
"Every good tradition, and every wholesome and beneficent usage, I accept thankfully as part of the inheritance which good, or wise, or brave men have left as their legacy for my use and assistance; but it is my bounden duty to measure them all by the standard of God's unchanging law: by it I will prove them; I will use them or reject them according as they fit or fail in this measurement, and I will not be brought under the power of any of them."
Whether, then, we think of our separate personal life or of our life in its social relationships, we must think of it in this way if we are to be in any real sense followers of Christ. Each of you, as he steps into the world, is not merely an inheritor of certain accumulations of life and tradition, which he should follow as a matter of course. He is not born to tread a certain track of conduct or behaviour because others have trodden it before him, following it without thought like the sheep on the mountain, or like the ants as they travel from one ant-hill to another.
Your estimate of your life should be fundamentally different from this. You are primarily a child of God, illumined by direct communion with the Spirit of God; and your first duty, therefore, whenever and in whatever place or circumstances you may chance to be, is not to follow this or that tradition or usage which may meet you; but to stand up and show that you are God's child, and therefore a judge of all traditions or customs, and not their slave.
This is the revelation which Christ declares to us as the one first requisite of the Christian life. So you see the Christian man's attitude towards all traditions or customs is that of independence; his thought and his judgment are as free in regard to them as if they were newly born. He is, in fact, bound to judge them according to their deserts; and no society can hope to prosper unless this is recognised, so that evil customs may not corrupt the common life. It is the danger of such corruption that makes the Saviour denounce the traditional habit, and summon His followers to live by the rule of close personal communion with God. Thus the life that goes forward and rises to higher and yet higher levels is always a life of new revelations, a life which is being illumined and illumined afresh by those flashes of Divine insight, and strength, and courage, which come to men only as they came to the Lord Himself in the secret communion of prayer and meditation, and through that independence of spirit which arises from the sense of God's presence to guide us and to uphold.
Take your own case. If you are living here simply according to traditional rules, doing this or that because, as you may be told, everybody does it; accepting standards of conduct and rules of practice, because, as you understand, or, as some one undertakes to persuade you, they have always been so accepted, why, then, you are growing up to be one of that never-ending succession of men who are the Pharisees, the opponents of the Christ, in every generation, who live with tame conscience in any sort of company, and perpetuate the bad traditions of the world.
But if you listen to the call of Christ, and have truly learned to feel that the only real man's life is that which you live with the light of God's law shining upon it, then, as a matter of course, you will rise superior to the influence of any tradition or custom, no matter what its authority may seem to be.
And it will indeed be a happy thing for you if you grow up with that God- given strength of character and purpose which can treat all traditions, and all usages, or fashions, or customs as things that should be subordinated, and should not rule us, as things to be used by us if they help us to a better life, but to be flung aside and rejected, if they contradict the voice of God in our hearts.