by Mark Gutman | 3 August 2023 |
I once heard a story of two businessmen, fellow church members, who met for lunch at a crowded restaurant. After their orders were set in front of them, one asked the other, “Well, shall we scratch eyebrows?” He was referring to the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that he ought to pray before a meal, but being embarrassed to be seen doing so in a public place, and so doing it surreptitiously by passing your hand over your eyes.
When I was a schoolboy, one accusation that could occasionally be heard in my school or Sabbath School was “You had your eyes open during prayer.” (Followed by the irreverent reply, “How did you know?”)
Here’s another: Growing up, I learned that certain words or expressions (like “my goodness!”) were not to be used because they were somehow a violation of the third commandment.
We were told that Christians in other churches were followers of tradition—in a bad way. Sunday observance topped the list. But many things that differed from what I was taught were belittled as “mere tradition” because, we assumed, these people who lived in error had no interest in discovering the real truth. Matthew 15:9, in the King James Version was, of course, the text that nailed the sin of other Christians: “. . . In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
I remember playing a game in childhood in which several of us sat in a circle and followed a leader’s directions. We were told to swipe our finger over someone’s eyebrow. Then we were told to pinch someone’s nose. Next we were to rub our finger and thumb across someone’s cheeks. What made the event noteworthy was that a few of those in the circle had some kind of dark powder on their fingers. When they swiped their fingers over or pinched someone’s nose, the increasingly smudged but unsuspecting victims would become the object of the others’ laughter. But it took some time for each victim to realize that he himself was getting dirtied because he was so busy watching others get smudged!
Applying that game to life: It’s easy to be so busy looking at the problems of others that we don’t realize that we also have their problem. In staring at tradition-filled churches, we may overlook our own traditions. We admit that we have them, but we have trouble identifying any that are “bad.” When we talk about tradition, we refer to relatively innocent items such as haystacks, Saturday night marches (back in academy days), and meat substitutes.
But what about praying before eating? Why do we do that—or feel guilty if we don’t? Or think that someone else who doesn’t pray (“say grace,” “return thanks”) before eating has sinned or is ashamed of her religion? I am not suggesting that people quit praying before they eat. I think it’s a good custom, but I don’t find any place in the Bible that commands us to pray before eating in public. (You might want to look up Matthew 6:6-7 in this regard.) Why is the practice treated as equivalent to one of the Ten Commandments?
Eyes closed during prayer: why? Having our eyes closed helps keep us from being distracted. It makes it easier to focus on what we’re saying or what someone else who is praying is saying. Your prayers will probably be more focused if you keep your eyes closed during them. But is “eyes closed during prayer” a commandment of God? (Uh, if you’re in a church service that’s televised, you might not look good if the camera shows you with your eyes open during prayer.)
Then there’s that third commandment (in the Protestant numbering). I have never uttered the words “gee whiz” or “gosh.” I learned as a boy that those expressions were “taking God’s name in vain.” Many expressions that are common in English-speaking countries were (and are) off-limits because they are short or butchered forms of the words “Jesus” or “God” (or even some form of the word “damn”). Probably every language has its group of forbidden or vulgar words, but the Bible doesn’t provide a list of words not to be said in Greek, Hebrew, or any other language. (Here’s a discussion of a sermon in which Mark Driscoll preaches on four ways to take God’s name in vain, none of which is what I was taught, although #4 could be related.)
I pray before I eat; I close my eyes during prayer; I don’t use four-letter words or profanity. I was brought up with those rules, and I’m not itching to get rid of them or teach others that they’re useless. But to tell people that they are “commandments of God”? To tell people that those practices are good forms of Christianity, and that anybody who doesn’t do them is a second-rate Christian (if a Christian at all)? That seems to me to be one of the things that Jesus was talking about (indirectly) in Matthew 15. The Pharisees were complaining that people were eating without washing their hands.
Never minding the ceremonial aspect, Jesus wasn’t telling people that washing their hands before eating is a bad thing to do. He was saying that the Pharisees had turned the idea into a divine commandment.
Examine your own traditions!
The next time you see someone’s face getting smudged or accuse others of following tradition, hold on. Is your own face getting dirty? Are you following an equally questionable tradition? We all follow traditions. There are good reasons for doing so. Not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas. People feel more comfortable when they are with others who do things the same way. Tradition: “something that is handed down; a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting.” Tradition isn’t automatically bad. We don’t usually regard it as a negative unless it applies to someone else’s religious practice that differs from ours.
You can close your eyes when you pray, or not! You can pray in the restaurant or not! Don’t use verbal “fillers” if they remind you of epithets—but don’t assume others are cursing when they do! That is, go ahead and follow your traditions—just be slower to accuse others of acting similarly. The Bible describes many customs of long ago without prescribing them. We’ve accepted many traditions relating to religion that we’ve just assumed were in the Bible. For some, those traditions may be equivalent to or close enough to Scriptural requirements. Just like Sunday keeping.
To paraphrase and apply Paul: One person regards eating as an act that requires prayer first; another does not. Let each person be convinced in his own mind. . . . Why do you judge your fellow church member? Romans 14:5, 10
Mark Gutman has worked as a pastor, a teacher, and an auditor for the church. He is now retired and living in Battle Ground, Washington, with his wife, Heather.