[Note: This blog was rescued from my local congregation’s website from some blog cleaning.]
For better or worse, our lives are often governed by custom, habit, and tradition. Sometimes these habits are good, such as when we look across the street both ways before crossing the road to make sure that no traffic is coming. Sometimes these habits are neither bad nor good, such as the fact that we may eat the same foods in the same order every time we go to the same restaurant, as my dinner companions will note. Sometimes these habits and customs are bad, such as when we are addicted to various sins or substances and have the habit of engaging in certain ungodly behaviors.
We see this same tripartite division in the customs discussed in the Bible between good, indifferent, and bad. Some customs are good customs, and are indeed commanded. We find one example of this in Leviticus:23:22, which reads: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.” Here we see that the people of ancient Israel were to develop the habit of not completely harvesting their land, but leaving the corners and the gleanings for the poor to do the hard work (if you have ever tried it) of gleaning the remnants of the harvest for their own sustenance. This custom was praiseworthy to God, and in the book of Ruth, it led to great blessings for a single landowner as well as a lovely young Moabite widow.
Other customs were not commanded by God but were permitted and were considered as morally indifferent. An example of this can be found in Genesis:29:26-27, where Laban is trying to justify himself after deceiving Jacob into marrying the nearsighted Leah instead of his beloved Rachel: “And Laban said, “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years.”” While it was blameworthy of Laban to deceive Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter, the custom of having an older daughter marry before a younger daughter is a morally indifferent matter. It is not so different from the custom in the time of Jane Austen for younger daughters not to be “out” (that is, seeking or elibible for romantic attachments) until the oldest daughter was married or until the younger daughters were “adults” at sixteen to eighteen. These sorts of customs are neither good nor evil, but merely help us make life more orderly and structured.
Some habits, on the other hand, are evil and are commanded to be avoided or overcome, such as the customs found in Deuteronomy:12:2-4: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place. You shall not worship the Eternal your God with such things.” Unlike the habits of the heathen in appropriating the worship sites and habits of the nations that they defeated or wished to assimilate, God commanded such practices and such customs to be completely destroyed because they were abominable in His sight. Small wonder that even hundreds of years later, God was still judging the kings of Israel and Judah in large part by their avoidance or acceptance of graven images and worship in the high places, which shows that God’s hostility to such matters never changed. Where our habits are in conflict with the ways of God, God calls us on to overcome those customs and to follow His ways.
In our life much of our behavior is governed not by laws but by customs, habits, and traditions. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of these habits are good habits that help make life safer and help us to love and honor and respect others better, and are habits that we should cultivate and model for others. Other habits, like the way that we fold our towels, are matters of indifference to God but may help make our lives easier and ought not to create difficulties in our relationships with others if they have different habits or customs themselves. At other times, our customs and habits and traditions might be hostile and disobedient to God’s ways, and if we wish to follow God we are to change these habits and patterns of behavior and thinking in order to bring our feelings and thoughts and speech and behavior into conformity with God’s laws and God’s ways. Let us therefore examine our customs and traditions to make sure that they are in harmony with the custom of the country which we are all citizens of as believers, the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem that is above.