Plus or Minus Nothing
It’s hard to miss them in the subways of New York City. With distinguished black hats and prayer shawls peaking from under their black coats, the orthodox Jews often ignore our prayer stations. My burden for them burns while I seem them following a hollow tradition. One morning on the train en route to our station, one of these men waved me to sit down and talk with him. We had a fascinating conversation. Tradition is the breath of the Jewish people. If you take away their tradition, they will suffocate. Every culture has traditions, but are traditions right or wrong, good or bad?
Abraham’s servant had a monumental decision to make—picking the wife of his master’s son! Notice the promise of God’s leading and profiting the servant’s mission in Genesis 24. The guarantee of such blessing was simple obedience. Although the servant formulated Plans B and C, he needed to have confidence in the fact: God’s plan is always Plan A. Any alteration to the plan would severely complicate matters. The servant simply obeyed and his errand was successful.
Nehemiah watched as complexities strangled the fledgling society of returned captives. They invented their own exceptions to the traditions of their fathers which caused them to reap the fruit of self-inflicted difficulties. “The way of the transgressor is hard” (Proverbs 13:15). Nehemiah 13 proves how difficult life can become when we refuse to follow God’s ways. Yet, you can see the other side of the extreme in Jesus’ day. In Matthew 23, Jesus warns about all the “improvements” and elaborations the religious leaders had imposed upon the people. This “abortion of piety” congested the simplicity of obedience with their own interpretations.
You can see the diabolical end of traditions poorly used as some devout men swear upon their lives to eliminate Paul. Certainly, Paul was aware of every tittle of the law, but he was not going to subtract from or add to the law of righteousness found in Jesus Christ. He knew that simple obedience would guide every step. Such faithfulness was awarded the comforting words, “Be of good cheer” (Acts 23:11).
On that subway ride, I asked the orthodox Jew, “Did Abraham keep the law perfectly?” “Yes!” he said. I returned by asking, “Didn’t he bear false witness when he lied about Sarah only being his sister?” The man said it was permitted out of self-defense. I then asked, “Can you perfectly keep the law?” “Yes!” he answered confidently. We are all great negotiators and can summon a reason for our choices. However, the real issue is whether we completely obey the Lord, plus or minus nothing. Some traditions are commanded while others are helpful reminders in our life, but you cannot improve upon following the Lord beyond simple obedience.
“We have to be so one with God that we do not continually need to ask for guidance…We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the culture of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail” (Oswald Chambers).
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