Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honour their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:1-20)
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- A group of Pharisees and teachers of the law travelled all the way from Jerusalem) to confront Jesus.
- They asked him why he and his disciples did not observe the traditional Jewish cleansing rituals handed down by the elders.
- They accused Jesus and his disciples of serious transgression because they didn’t perform ceremonial washings before eating their meals.
- Jesus responded by asking them why they violated God’s command because of rules they had made up by themselves.
- Jesus cited the fifth commandment: honour your father and mother.
- He cited the fact that the tradition of the elders taught that if a person had set aside money or possessions to God, they were released from the obligation to provide for their parents.
- In this way, the tradition of the elders made God’s command of no value.
- Claiming to know what was pleasing to God but actually opposing what God said made them hypocrites.
- Isaiah (29:13) had spoken a prophetic word that described exactly what was happening with them.
- They were honouring God with their words, but all the time they cared little for God in their hearts.
- They were doing things that presumed worship of God but had nothing to do with God at all.
- Their teaching was based on practices created by humans.
- Jesus turned his attention from the religious leaders and addressed the whole crowd.
- He told people to listen very carefully to what he was saying and take particular note.
- It wasn’t food going into a person’s mouth (when they failed to do the washing ritual) that defiled them but the things they said that showed their hearts were defiled.
- After all of this had happened, the disciples came and spoke to Jesus.
- They told him that the Pharisees had been offended by what he had said.
- Jesus replied that all the things that did not have their origin in God would eventually be destroyed. If they were likened to plants, they would be pulled up by the roots. i.e. every teaching that was not from God would be seen for what it is, of human origin.
- He told them that the Pharisees were like blind people trying to lead other blind people.
- When blind people were led by other blind people, they would all fall into a pit.
- Peter asked him to explain the parable to them.
- Jesus chided them for their lack of understanding.
- He explained that when food went into the body, the body itself sorted out what was needed and then rejected what was of no value. It passed out of the body.
- When people say wicked words, it is a sign that their hearts are polluted.
- All kinds of wickedness (murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander) begin as an idea cultivated in their heart and indicate the defiled state of the heart.
- Eating food without observing ritual washings will never defile anyone.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
It takes up to six full days to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee. Pious Jews would not travel the shortest route through Samaria for safety reasons and to avoid defilement just from being on Samaritan soil. The normal route for them was to travel down to the Jordan Valley from Jerusalem and then follow it up to the western edge of the Sea of Galilee. Those who measure such things reckon it to be a journey of about 180 km. That’s a reasonable journey. Just imagine travelling all day every day for six days in today’s world. There would be few places you couldn’t get to in that time. And very few people would spend six whole days just travelling. In Australia, you might take six days to drive from Sydney to Darwin. And that would be long days of driving. The point I am making is that these religious leaders went to a lot of trouble to come all the way from Jerusalem to see Jesus. It must have been important to them.
And what was so important? Well, they had found out that Jesus’ disciples didn’t observe the washing ceremonies required by the traditions of the elders. Really? It seems preposterous to the minds of people from our culture. Even though it is not essential that we understand the background to get the message, the fact remains that the Pharisees were a group within Judaism who honoured two different collections of teachings. One was the Old Testament law, and the other were the oral collections of teachings from various respected rabbis. At a later date, these were actually written and bound. We know them as the Talmud and the Mishnah. Then as now, the Oral Law was seen and the official legally binding interpretation of the written law of Moses. The assumption was that the written law is not sufficient of itself and needs professional interpretation. Here are a few comments on the importance of oral law and on the practice of washing before meals:
- Tarphon: “Know then, that “the words of the Scribes” are more lovely than the words of the law: for, if a man does not read, he only transgresses an affirmative; but if he transgresses the words of the school of Hillell, he is guilty of death, because he hath broke down a hedge, and a serpent shall bite him.”
- Jose: “Whoever eats bread without washing of hands, is as if he lay with a whore:”
- Eleazer: “Whoever despises washing of hands, shall be rooted out of the world.”
My Christian beginnings were shaped by evangelical theology. An ever deepening part of that legacy for me is a trust in the authority of Scripture. At first, I believed it because that was what I was taught. Soon after and ever since it results from experience. It’s a bit like the trust that grows in a relationship. There are people I trust more deeply today than when I first met them. Experience has created layers of strength. The more I have come to know them, the more reasons there are to trust them. It’s the same with the Bible for me. It’s the way I get connected to more of Jesus and he continues to inform and shape my internal and external worlds. It is not so with the endless parade of human traditions that were also present on my journey. A vast array of Study Bibles, commentaries and theological systems seems to fulfil Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of historical texts:
“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.”
The same thing can be said about the Oral Law as it existed in Jesus’ day. Again and again, Jesus had to set aside volumes of rabbinical comment to proclaim the loving message from heaven. This is happening in the sermon on the mount where Jesus repeat the words, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..” six times. And the people who heard what Jesus said felt his authority in a way they had never felt about the mainstream religious leaders.
I am reminded of a sermon preached by Dr John White at a leadership conference in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California. It came from his exposition of Jeremiah 8:8, “‘How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” He was making the point that the original task of the scribe was to copy the text of Scripture faithfully. Because of their intimate knowledge of the text, the people around them became more willing to hear an interpretation from the scribes than hearing the text itself. Soon the scribes were foreshadowing those questions and were writing explanatory notes beside the text. Dr White went on to point out that most renewal and reformation movements started with someone getting a revelation from some part of the Bible that had previously been overlooked (e.g. Luther and Romans 1:17). The message of that revelation was then proclaimed, and more and more people listened and were impacted. The same thing happened again. The Reformers wanted to make sure people got the right teaching about the text, and soon the people were more reliant on the Reformers’ teaching than the text itself. This usually led to the renewal becoming moribund, embattled and defensive of its new piece of ecclesiastical “turf.” The process has been captured by the words: MAN, MESSAGE, MOVEMENT, MACHINE, MONUMENT, MAUSOLEUM. The striking experience for me when I heard John White preaching that day was that I had been wandering around in the Vineyard Bookshop prior to the service and couldn’t help but notice that there was a whole wall full of books and resources by John Wimber, the founding leader of the Vineyard. There books and articles on all of the current issues of the renewal. At that time John had become quite sick and only made a few short appearances at the Conference. But here it was, happening right there and then. Reading the text (Bible) didn’t seem as exciting or important to a lot of people as getting John’s latest book, video or sermon series. The movement was becoming a machine.
All of this sounds a massive warning for all of us. The clash between Jesus and the religious leaders from Jerusalem shows how revelation, given by God (the Old Testament), was designed to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah. It was providing ‘shadows’ of a Reality that would start happening in Nazareth and then Bethlehem. But the ‘lying pen of the scribes’ buried the text so effectively that when the Messiah himself came, the people who should have been best qualified to recognise him were the very ones who took action to crucify him. Such is the power of accumulated human opinion – then and now.
“Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”
Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Anyone who has read the four gospels will be familiar with the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. Jesus spent the three years of his earthly ministry travelling the roads of Galilee and Judea proclaiming the kingdom message to every town and village. Time and again we are told that Pharisees, Sadducees, teachers of the law and scribes were either among the listeners or were watching what was happening from a distance. Whether it was their disapproving thoughts or their words, Jesus responded by quoting texts that were familiar to them but in a way that proclaimed the kingdom message to them. Jesus wasn’t dragging a cart loaded up with scrolls, but quoted readily and convincingly. What I have just become aware of was the profound peace Jesus had with the fact that the story told from Genesis all the way through was the story that pointed directly to himself. There wasn’t a shadow of doubt or indecision. He could quote verses to justify what he was doing and just as easily quote other verses, to sum up, what was happening around him. Jesus obviously started reading and learning at a young age. He also trained under a rabbi. What an amazing thing for Jesus to be reading, discussing and learning the stories and instructions knowing that he was reading about himself. We are all familiar with his announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth that the words of Isaiah 61 were fulfilled in the presence of that congregation that day – wow! When he scolded the two men walking home to Emmaus on the afternoon following his resurrection, he gave them a refresher course in who the Scriptures were talking about: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27) Jesus was both familiar, and at peace with the idea that such Scriptures were referring to himself. He makes that very point in the Gospel of John, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39)
Over countless decades the story pointing to Jesus had been compromised. The Oral Law kept on adding definitions and interpretations. Jesus gave an explanation of how this had happened.
- Hearts and lips out of sync and empty worship: The first warning sign is when they find themselves saying things to God with their mouths that are not coming from their hearts. They are just words. Our culture is very clever with words. In fact, we can create an abstract world with our heads and mouths that can sound and feel as though it is real. What is going on in our heart can be totally different. Can you imagine what would happen if an alarm went off every time we said something that was at odds with what our hearts believed? It would be very noisy. Those of us living in the midst of the plague of indulgent, independent western culture are aware of how subtle, and intrusive comfort, convenience and personal preference steal our identity as sons and daughters of the living God. We have produced by far the most ungodly culture of all. It doesn’t tell us to make a public confession that “Caesar is Lord.” It doesn’t need to. What it does is offer us an alternative to serving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It offers the subtle idolatry of self-indulgence. And our churches have turned into social clubs to accommodate this indulgence. Jesus said, on one occasion, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). We can talk about Jesus being the head of the church without a single activity to produce as evidence. We talk about Jesus being the King and yet select which of the commands we will obey. We can still come to the weekly worship meeting (the average church attendance for people who are considered to be committed members of a church in Australia currently stands at 1.6 occurrences per month) and sing, “This is my desire, to honour you. Lord with all my heart I worship you….Lord, I give you my heart, I give you my soul. I live for you alone, every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake, Lord have your way in me.” We love the song, and we love the words. It’s just that they don’t represent what is actually going on. And Jesus exposes these religious leaders for doing the same thing. He told them it was a root cause of the problem.
- Accumulating rules created by human opinion: The Oral Law came about through sincere but ungodly leadership and sincere but lazy people. It is interesting to read the views of people who, to this day, wholeheartedly support the idea of the Oral Law. The assumption is that the words of the text are beyond common understanding. In Judaism, it was the Mishnah and the Talmud. In our case, it is academic commentary and professional preachers and teachers. Like all disciplines, it is not long before they create their world with their own language and their own issues. Much of it has little to do with any form of practice. They convince ordinary people of the need for the fruit of their years of study. Institutionally they develop training colleges capable of extending the knowledge of most graduates way, way beyond their level of obedience and faith. When these leaders are sent out to lead churches, they repeat the assumption with the members of their congregations. It is more firmly ensconced through the rigorous application of liturgies and endless rubrics. Please don’t think I am talking about the sacramental churches here. It applies across the board: Baptists and Pentecostals all have their liturgies and rubrics. The assumption always is that ordinary people can’t be trusted. As a result, we have choreographed services that would be the envy of any theatre or concert hall. These have produced statements of faith and practice that have, of themselves, become more important than simply reading the Bible. Ordinary people aren’t encourage to read the Bible for themselves; they are told what the Bible says and criticised when they don’t tick the particular set of propositional boxes. Relationship with God through the Scriptures is relegated to a lower order of priority. Issues are not resolved by any collective re-reading of the Bible, but by arguing various preferred human opinions. As a result, winning a debate of ideas becomes the way issues are resolved rather than seeking the Lord and hearing from him. The outcome is religious form, not a spiritual relationship.
- Somebody else’s Garden: One of the things that happen when we slow down the way we read the text is that we get to notice small but significant insights. When Jesus had finished responding to the accusations about his disregard of the Oral Law he opened up to the crowd and told them that a person could not be defiled by eating food with ceremonially unclean hands. Apparently, Jesus wasn’t watching or interested in the reaction of the religious leaders. I assume he was more interested in the crowds being liberated from godless and destructive traditions. So the disciples did some intelligence work and then reported to Jesus that the religious leaders had been offended by what he was saying. Surprise, surprise! What it elicits is a further comment from Jesus about what happens when people take up human traditions and convince themselves and their people that they are genuinely from God. He said that all such “plants” that were the result of human effort and not from God would be pulled up.
There are a lot of groups within Christianity who are convinced that their version of human tradition is from God and those from the groups that think differently are covered by what Jesus said here. They assume that God is going to come and wipe them out for their heresy. Not only do I not share that view, but I think it is important to understand what happens when we offer our human opinions as if they should have as much or even more authority than what God actually did say. The problem for zealous religious leaders who do this is that they are are claiming to know God but have given their hearts over to something else instead of God – which could be position, power, money or a host of other forms of idolatry. Like everyone who does that, they shift outside the protection of the covenant. Just like jumping off a cliff, you have to accept the consequences of the law of gravity. This world is designed to operate within the boundaries and purposes of its Creator. Like trying to run a car engined designed to operate with a lubrication system without oil. Things happen, not because God gets angry and lashes out, but because we have failed to “keep oil in the sump.”
We have seen example after example through Christian history of church groups who have adopted independent humanly derived systems that make a relationship with God and his word of no value. They have lost the power of God and have become empty buildings whether or not there are people inside. The loss of God’s favour is not a sign of divine fickleness or sensitivity. The whole ministry of Jesus is testimony to that being the case. No one would say Jesus’ favour was fickle and unpredictable. What is predictable is the fact that when our hearts lose that sincere and pure devotion to God (cp. 2 Corinthians 11) the enemy operations centre is alerted to the fact to that our divine deflector shield is down.
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them
Thank goodness for the honesty of the disciples. These are the main men on whom the salvation of the nations is resting. The fact that they don’t get it is worthy of remembrance. I love the way Jesus engages in a little raillery here. They have been around long enough. They should understand. It’s not food going into the body that can cause a person to be separated from God. What goes into the mouth has little or no reference to the spiritual condition of the heart – (even though eating too much of the wrong foods can indeed create a different kind of threat to the physical organ). The body has its way of deciding what is good and what is waste-product only when food goes in through the mouth. Ironically, the mouth has a very different alternative use. That use is very much connected to, even more, the product of, what is happening in the person’s heart. It is hard to cover up the state of the spiritual centre of our being. The mouth is the overflow of the heart. When a person’s heart is wicked, the things they say make that wickedness known. It becomes clear and apparent that their hearts have become defiled and it is this defilement that needs cleansing, not some pathetic ritual that was supposed to wash off uncleanness that was thought to come from walking on the same ground as a Gentile. No wonder Jesus was unwilling to abide by the tradition of the elders.
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honour their father or mother’ with it.
It is important to see why Jesus refused to acknowledge the heavy burden of Oral Law. Legal casuistry was capable of making sure that a person could maintain legal uprightness even though the basic needs of their parents were not being met. They worked out a system whereby their obligation to their parents was annulled because they deemed their resources as “dedicated to God.” It didn’t mean they were handed over to the temple. It was just a legal sleight of hand trick. Even though God said that they were supposed to love and honour their parents by caring for them, they produced a righteous sounding way to avoid the obligation. In this way, they made Gods word of no value.
This practice happens in every generation and every culture. People who have been created in God’s image for the purpose of representing him and his purposes on the earth find ways to twist God’s intentions so that they can serve themselves and their interests rather than trust, honour and serve God. Based on examples like this from the gospels, we all need to take a sober look at the way we embrace what God has said. We also need to take a look at the way we train disciples. We must help them to read, hear and know what God has said and then assist them to respond to that rather than creating a default co-dependence on leaders and others who offer endless substitutes for ordinary people connecting with God through his Word. It may seem a bit hypocritical for me to say that since I have spent more than four thousand words talking about this incident from the gospel of Matthew. My desire is to stir people to do their own study, get their own revelation and then fully embrace what God has said. There is a chronic lack of personal Bible reading in our churches – and we must not be sucked into the slipstream by gathering people around other people’s revelation. There is no problem when Bible teachers offer their insights by producing commentaries and resources per se. The problem is when they are used as a substitute for a person reading the text for themselves. That’s the only way we will avoid producing an endless version of the Oral Law that Jesus disregarded but was being measured.
IF THIS WERE HAPPENING IN MY LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
- I need to become more aware of the difference between teaching and Christian practice that is the product of human traditions rather than being shaped by the text of Scripture. I think the biggest problem is to remain vigilant about the way our culture challenges the values and commands of Jesus. It’s not that our culture purports to offer Oral Law in the same way as the Pharisees and scribes understood it. They were supposed to be doing things that pleased God. Our culture hardly worries about pleasing God, but its godless values have the capacity to cling to us as we are exposed to daily life and the ever-intrusive media. The result is that we become unwilling to hear what God has said when it is at odds with the culture.
- I would like to make sure that my decisions reflect Biblical motivation and express Biblical goals. I want to do things because God has told me, not because they are convenient or comfortable or the like. I don’t think my preferences are a very worthy substitute for God’s eternal purposes. I would hate to think that my priorities could only be justified by human reasoning rather than consistent with the testimony of Scripture (and the confirmation of the Spirit). I want to answer all the questions that arise from serving God in this generation by searching the Scriptures as a priority – and I want to do the research myself rather than getting someone else’s answer from a web page. Okay to look at other people’s opinions (interpretation) AFTER I have tried to know what God has said (text). Only then will I avoid the outcome referred to in the Friedrich Nietzsche quote: (The text has been buried under the interpretation. )
- I am challenged by the fact that Jesus refused to keep the Oral traditions. He was obviously known for it. Whenever you are in the midst of a community that has strong cultural traditions, it is always easier to take the line of least resistance and simply comply just to avoid conflict. On this occasion, Jesus did cause offence. The disciples made sure he knew how the religious leaders reacted. He also turned from his answer and told the whole crowd why these leaders were “blind guides.” Remember that Jesus didn’t do such things just to be smart – nor did he put people down just to make himself look good. He lovingly pointed out the danger and the burden of adopting practices created by humans whose hearts were far from God. I need to have the courage to do the same: refuse to live or espouse human traditions that oppose the Word of God. And I need to defend those actions when people challenge and criticise me for doing so.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?
Can you remember the last time someone strongly challenged you to the point where you were “cut to the heart?” Were you aware at a deeper level that they were speaking with love? In fact, they were speaking wisdom that was going to save you from messing up your own life and other people’s lives? I have some vivid memories of such experiences; some directly from God and others from people who loved me enough to confront me. I think this is a case in point. The gospel of the kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming was the gospel contained in what God had really said, over against the false gospel of human religious tradition. The text of God’s word was designed to turn people’s hearts toward home and see that their Father was running down the road to forgive and then celebrate the homecoming (cp. the parable of the prodigal son). When people’s hearts turn away from God to various alternatives (idolatry), they need to invent justifications and rules to cover their compromise. These people need to hear the love and grace of God as much as anyone and more than most. Jesus was willing to give these leaders a shot at hearing that.
This is the way the gospel proclamation unfolded:
- Religious leaders publicly accused him of breaking the traditional law.
- Jesus responded to them by exposing the adversarial nature of the law.
- He quoted from the Scripture to show why this tradition was illegitimate.
- He corrected the principle to the whole crowd.
The people who were listening, leaders, disciples and crowd were given a clear choice. This was a choice of who they were going to follow and whose word they were going to accept. It was a gospel choice. I think this kind of gospel needs to be proclaimed again and again to the people in the church who have allowed their hearts to turn to other things rather than to their Creator. We need to proclaim this gospel by honouring what God has really said – rather than an interpretation that makes what God really says of no value.
 About 180 kilometres, taking the Jordan Valley route (approximately six days of walking
 ― FriedrichNietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
 5:21,22 (offences), 5:27,28 (sexual purity), 5:31,32 (marriage), 5:33,34 (sincerity), 5:38,39 (forgiveness), 5:43,44 (love)
 Colossians 2:16,17 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or about a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.