Tradition and Law

Matthew 14:34-15:9


The Pharisees were all about the law. They loved the law. They loved the law so much that they wanted to provide easy ways to avoid breaking the law. So, they started adding what they called a “fence” around the law. If you weren’t supposed to break the Sabbath by working, for instance, then we need to define what work is. They eventually came up with a rather detailed discussion of what does and what does not constitute work. For instance, if someone were to give a gift to someone, they couldn’t take it out of their house, because that would be work. Nor could the receiver of the gift cross the threshold in order to receive the gift. What they came up with was that the giver would extend his hand only beyond the threshold and the receiver would take it out of his hand. That way no act of work could be said to have taken place. Similar laws sprung up around each one of the laws. Eventually, it got written down in what is called the Talmud, a gigantic collection (about 30 plus volumes) of advice and laws put in place to keep people from disobeying the law. They had good intentions, maybe. The unfortunate effect of all this was that they got preoccupied with these additional laws that they had set up, and had forgotten about the law itself. As a result, their form of religion became quite preoccupied with external things, and neglected the weightier matters of the law. In this passage, we see a clear instance of this happening. It is very instructive for us, especially if we are careful to see the passage in its proper context.

Jesus had just finished healing a whole bunch of people at the end of chapter 14. It didn’t matter what state they were in, Jesus healed them. Now, it is quite certain that many of those people that Jesus healed were ceremonially unclean. Maybe some of them had open sores. Maybe some of them had fevers. Some of them probably had leprosy. Many of them were ceremonially unclean, according to Old Testament law. At any rate, if Jesus touched these people, then it could supposedly be assumed by the Pharisees that Jesus also was ceremonially unclean. Then, in the beginning of chapter 15, they actually start eating without even washing their hands! This really upsets the Pharisees and scribes.

Now, the Pharisees and scribes had come down specially from Jerusalem to check out this Galilean preacher and to see what His practices were, and what He was teaching His disciples. This probably indicates that the powers that be in Jerusalem were starting to become alarmed by all the things that Jesus was doing. So they sent down an official delegation to investigate. This is not a small thing. They were intentionally investigating Jesus to see what His teaching and practice was. They wanted to make sure that it all fit with their views on the law.

It didn’t take them very long to see that Jesus and His disciples were not doing everything in a kosher fashion. They weren’t washing their hands! And thus they were breaking the traditions of the elders, as it says. The traditions of the elders refers to the wall built up around the law. It was thought, again, that if you obeyed the wall around the law, you would have no chance of breaking the law itself. The Pharisees do not accuse Jesus of breaking the law, but of breaking the traditions of the elders.

One of those traditions was the washing of hands before every meal. This was a very elaborate washing ritual that had been set up. Alfred Edersheim, in his magnificent two-volume set entitled The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, describes the ritual this way: The water was poured on both hands, which must be free of anything covering them, such as gravel, mortar, etc. the hands were lifted up, so as to make the water run to the wrist, in order to ensure that the whole hand was washed, and that the water polluted by the hand did not again run down the fingers. Similarly, each hand was rubbed with the other (by the fist), provided the hand that did the rubbing was already washed: otherwise the rubbing might be done against the head, or even against a wall. But the water had to run down to the wrist. If the water remained short of the wrist, the hands were not clean.” By the way, the water used had to be very clean water. Nothing could be allowed to have fallen into the water, or the water would be unclean, and thus the washing wold be of no effect.

Now, the reason why the Pharisees thought this way was that if you eat with unclean hands, then the food you eat would become unclean, since you used your hands to eat: they didn’t have silverware in those days! Uncleanness was contagious, you see. So, if your hands were unclean, then the food you ate would become unclean, and then your entire body would become unclean. The Pharisees wanted to avoid that at all costs. Hence this elaborate ritual.

Incidentally, in accusing the disciples of eating with unwashed hands, they are really accusing Jesus of teaching them wrong things. For the rabbi was responsible for the conduct of his disciples. So, this is not an innocent little question that is just about the disciples. They are challenging Jesus’ very understanding of the law. They are accusing Jesus of heresy.

Jesus responds with a devastating argument. Basically, he responds by saying that the Pharisees’ understanding of the law is all wrong, and that all these walls built up around the law oftentimes prevent true observance of the law. The example Jesus uses might seem to be off the point, until we examine it a bit closer. Jesus asks them the devastating question, “Why do you break God’s law for the sake of your tradition?” Notice the contrast here between God’s words and man’s words. The commandment of God is to be affirmed. Let that be firmly understood by us. Jesus says here that it is very important that we obey the law of God. But man-made words are fallible. They do not always fall in line with God’s words. Only God’s Word has the ultimate authority.

Jesus’ example was a particularly hideous breach of the fifth commandment. Imagine parents in need of support going to their son and asking him if he would support them. The son then claims that the money he would normally use to support them has been dedicated to God. How devious and deceptive this is! The son uses religion as a cloak for his sin! I wonder if any of us do that. We play one law of God off against another, like this son does. What was particularly bad about this sin is that, according to Jewish law, all he had to do was promise to give the money to the temple. He didn’t actually have to give the money to the temple in order for it to be dedicated to God. In this way, he could keep the money for his own use until his deathbed, when he would then finally actually give it (whatever was left) to the temple. The oath was called “Corban,” which we see in Mark’s account of this conversation. The Jews at the time thought that this oath was unbreakable. Nothing could break it, even if the oath came into conflict with another part of God’s law. Now, it is quite certain that the Jews were not intending that conflict when they dreamed up this scheme. However, it allowed someone to work the system for his own advantage and pay attention to the smaller matters of the law, while allowing him to neglect completely the weightier matters of the law. In this way, it breaks the fifth commandment twice. The son fails to honor his parents by taking care of them, and secondly, he fails to honor his Heavenly father while pretending to honor God with an oath of consecration.

The ultimate result of this, of course, is a formalized religion that has nothing to do with the heart. This is the point of the Isaiah quotation. In Isaiah’s time, the people thought that if they just sacrificed to the Lord, then God would be happy with their religion. They forgot that God cares about the heart. In the beginning of Isaiah, God tells the people that He is weary of their offerings, since it is simply an outward thing. The Lord desires a broken and contrite heart, says David in Psalm 51, not so much burnt offerings. We will see this even more clearly in next week’s passage, which is really a continuation of this week.

In any case, the people of Isaiah’s time did a formalized religion. When Isaiah spoke of them, therefore, he was also prophesying about the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. At the very least, the pattern is the same: outward obedience, but inward rebellion. This is the very nature of hypocrisy.

So how is Jesus’ response relevant to what the Pharisees had accused the disciples of? Well, Jesus and His disciples had just been healing people. They had been loving people, healing the sick. Jesus, therefore, didn’t care one jot whether He was ceremonially unclean. The fact of the matter is, of course, that Jesus’ holiness is contagious and is more powerful than uncleanness anyway. So Jesus made the people clean, rather than the people making Him unclean.

The Lord wants our hearts. He wants our hearts to be clean. He cares more for that than our outward appearance. We need to learn to value what God values. We can start by confessing our heart sins. It is perhaps easier to confess our deeds than our thoughts. We think of sin typically as an outward thing. However, the heart is deceptive above all things, says Jeremiah. It squirms and wriggles, trying to get out from under the true demands of the law, which are to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor. Our hearts love to rest easy when our outward conduct is “fine,” whatever that means, even if our hearts are inwardly seething with sin. So where are our hearts? Are they far from God? Or are our hearts convicted and always turning to Jesus for forgiveness? I would challenge us this week to confess to God our inward sins primarily. Of course, we need to confess our outward sins as well. However, it certainly would not hurt us to confess our inward sins a bit more often.

One word must also be said about God’s words and human words. Human words can often be a summary of God’s words. We hope that is the case in the sermon. We hope that is the case in the confessions of our church and the creeds we recite. There is always a danger that we might elevate man’s words to a level equal to God’s words, and we must resist that temptation with every ounce of our being. However, in recognizing this fact, we must fall into the other extreme, which would be to refuse to recognize that God has spoken to the church in the past. Let’s take confessions as an example here. They are intended to be a summary of God’s word. They are not infallible summaries. But they are intended to be summaries. How are we to view the confessions of the church? What kind of authority do they have? I would suggest that there are two extremes we must avoid. Firstly, and most importantly, we must avoid elevating the confessions to the level of Scripture itself. Confessions are not infallible. However, the opposite extreme is easily forgotten. If we ignore the confessions, then in effect, we are setting up our own private tradition in place of the church’s tradition. We will eventually think that we know better than the church. So the Bible is our final authority. The church’s authority is underneath that of the Scripture, and is based on the Scripture, but the church’s confession is still above our own private opinions. We should have a much lower opinion of our own opinions than we have of the church’s confession, and we should in turn have a lower opinion of the church’s confession than we have of the Bible. But understand that Jesus is not saying that tradition is inherently evil. Tradition is only a problem when it is set in opposition to God’s Word. We must always keep checking our traditions to see if they are in accord with God’s word. We should neither accept every previous generation’s word for it, nor should we ignore the previous generations and their opinion. So, the order is first God’s word, secondly the church’s confession, thirdly, our own opinions. That way we will have the proper order, and we will a proper humility of our own opinion without raising tradition to the level of infallibility. The Pharisees were raising their own tradition to the level of infallibility, and we must not do that.

So what things do we tend to set up around the law? Are there traditions that we do that we have always done that we have never examined in the light of Scripture? We must be willing to admit that maybe some traditions are wrong. Let us all have the humility to recognize that tradition, however much we like it, however much we value it, can never stand next to Scripture. Otherwise, we will wind up with a formalized religion, obeying God in form, but with our hearts in another universe. May we not be hypocrites! God help us.


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