The Evil of Tradition


     Give me a minute to explain. It’s just a title, meant to get your attention. Tradition is not evil as in “wicked.” That’s the point. Some traditions are very good and some traditions are not so good. What does evil really mean when we read it in the Bible? In the NT, it arises from the Greek word ponēros. Thayer’s defines it as that which is full of labors, annoyances, hardshipsa. pressed and harassed by labors; b. bringing toils, annoyances, perils. Then it goes on to define it in terms of a bad nature or condition – leaving your imagination to deciding what that might be.

     When I learned the Aramaic word associated with evil, bisa, I came to a new understanding of ponēros that did not leave as much to the imagination.  Bisa is something that is unripe. It’s not fit for its intended purpose. It’s “not ready.” It’s out of rhythm with the right timing. Its roots point toward a sense of what delays or diverts us from advancing, as well as a sense of inner shame for not producing the right action at the right time (Neil Douglas-Klotz). The short ways of saying that are: unripe, corrupt (over-ripe or rotten), immature, a diversion.

     Now, every time I read the word “evil” in the Bible, I change its meaning to one of the Aramaic definitions. The teaching takes on new meaning and makes more sense to me. It removes the satanic or bad intention component from the context. But what does this have to do with tradition?

     Traditions are developed by other people in their unique contexts. Traditions are warm and comfortable. They give people stability because the unknown is removed from them. But some traditions are unripe. They bring hardships and annoyances to some people. For example, the tradition of Catholicism and many Protestant denominations to deny ordination to women. Or the traditions of demeaning people of color, religion, nationality, race, or sexual orientation. Interestingly, these traditions that divert us from expressing the goodness of God as seen in Jesus, as well as bring hardship and annoyances to certain groups of people are founded in the Bible. How do we deal with that?

     We do what Jesus taught.

     One of my favorite parables of Jesus is the one in Matthew 13 where he said the kingdom of heaven (the state of perfect order where everything is working together in harmony) is like a net cast into the sea. It collected some of everything and what was good they kept, but what was “bad” (sapros – corrupted by age and no longer fit for use, worn out), they threw out.

     Jesus compared that story to angels/messengers who would come at the end of the age (left up to your definition or imagination). They will separate what is corrupt (past its time) from what is useful. To make sure the corrupt doesn’t get in the way anymore, they burn it. Destroy it so it can never come back. And a lot of people will be very upset when they do that. Nobody likes to give up their traditions, even when they are hurting others.

     Jesus was no promoter of laws or traditions that were hurting others or disrupting the harmony that he was trying to bring among people. He followed traditions when they were ripe, suited for their purpose, and bringing goodness to people. But he fought against laws and traditions that were past their time. St. Peter followed by eliminating certain food laws that were restricting people and were no longer helpful. Paul eliminated circumcision.

     Maybe we ought to think about doing what Jesus suggested we do. Do a little more sorting out of the rotting laws that promote harm to certain groups and traditions that cause more hardship than good. That might help us love each other more so that we can work together in harmony.


John 4:5-42

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