Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Matthew 15:1–9

Matthew 15:1–9 (ESV): Traditions and Commandments


In this passage the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus to question him. (Verse 1 (ESV) says that they are coming “from Jerusalem,” which the ESV Study Bible points out means that these are the highest-ranking Pharisees and scribes.)

Their main question centres around why Jesus’ disciples are breaking “the traditions of the elders”—for example, not washing their hands before they eat (verse 2 (ESV)). However, Jesus doesn’t even bother to answer the question the Pharisees and scribes are asking, but instead he immediately turns it back around on them:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (verse 3 (ESV))
He then goes on to give an example of one of the “traditions of the elders” which, under the Pharisees’ and scribes’ teachings, supercede the commandment to honour one’s father and mother. As Jesus says, “for the sake of [their] tradition [they] have made void the word of God” (verse 6 (ESV)).

He ends the passage even more harshly:

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
  teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

(verses 7–9 (ESV))


When the Pharisees and scribes are talking about “the traditions of the elders,” they’re talking about traditions that have probably been handed down generation by generation, for hundreds if not thousands of years. Even if it wasn’t that long, even if it was only a few generations, I can see why the Pharisees and scribes were seeing the traditions as being so binding; these are traditions that they’ve grown up with their whole lives, that have been taught to them and by them as a core part of their religious instruction. And my understanding is that these traditions came about for very understandable reasons; at some point, in the history of the Israelites, the rabbis started trying to lay down some guidelines that would help the average Israelite to understand and follow God’s law. For one good example that comes to mind, the law says not to work on the Sabbath, but what constitutes “work”? How is the common person supposed to know if a particular task is considered “work” or not? So to try to help with this situation, the rabbis started coming up with rules on what is and what is not “work” for the purpose of helping Israelites understand what they should or shouldn’t do. My understanding of this is that the original intent was right; they wanted to help people follow God’s law, and were providing some guidelines to help them do so. But there were some problems:

  • These are complex issues, and the more you try to define something the more definition is needed. Using the same “what constitutes work on the Sabbath” example, you can easily see how it can spiral endlessly out of control: “Does cooking count as work? Hmm, does it make a difference if you cook over a fire? Or something you have to stir? Or something you have to kneed? Does eating count as work? Does it make a difference if you’re eating something you have to peel, or if you use utensils, or…”
    • If you think these examples are far-fetched, they might not be. I remember an example that I read about in one study Bible or another in which Israelites were allowed to give to the poor on the Sabbath, but the poor had to reach their hands inside the door to receive it, because if the Israelite were to open the door and go out to the poor person it would count as “work.”
  • As rules were created, and added, inevitably there would start to arise conflicts. To use the example above, how can it be permitted to give to the poor if it’s not permitted to leave the house? So more rules have to be added, to deal with the conflicts.
  • As so much emphasis starts to get placed on rules the religion starts to become legalistic, rather than a relationship with God—and, indeed, legalism is the main thing we think of, when we think of Pharisees. Jesus is constantly calling them hypocrites for looking good on the outside—following all of the rules they’ve created for themselves—while not actually having any kind of relationship with God.
    • The example given by the Pharisees and scribes in this section is sort of an example of this; the tradition about washing hands before eating actually came from rules that God had given the priests, about washing their hands and feet before performing their religious duties; the rabbis then thought, hey, why not take that further, and apply it to everyone?
This would all be something that could be dealt with under the right frame of mind (well, maybe not the legalism), but the main problem was that the rabbis started to come to see these rules—which had originally been intended as clarifications to God’s Law (at least that’s my understanding)—as equal to the Law itself. And in fact, with all of the extra rules that were being added, eventually some were added which actually conflicted with the Law, and in these cases the rabbis started to consider their rules to take precedence over the Law itself. That seems to be the main thing Jesus is taking issue with in this passage.

Jesus often has very harsh things to say about the Pharisees (it seems the word “hypocrite” comes up very often when he deals with them), and the reason is that to outward appearances they seem to be very religious and spiritual, but in reality they hold the Word of God to be of less value than their own teachings and traditions. That’s very dangerous, and it can (and will) lead people astray; it’s the reason Jesus says, in 23:15 (ESV):

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
So what’s the lesson we need to take from this? Rest assured that God did not give us this passage simply so that we could feel smug and superior to those hypocritical Pharisees; we are just as much in danger of holding to our own traditions—and even considering them more important than God’s Word—as they were. More churches are split in North America over questions of musical style than over questions of doctrine, so I’m sure there are Christians who have acted unlovingly toward other Christians because of these arguments, being more concerned about the style of music (a tradition, and one on which the Bible is silent—there are no passages talking about what type of music is good or bad for worship) than about loving their neighbour. Part of the problem is that it’s sometimes so hard to pull apart what we believe because of our society and traditions and what we believe because it’s proper Christian doctrine. But we need to always go into the Word of God ready to receive what He has for us and to learn—and, perhaps more importantly, possibly to unlearn, if we believe things that aren’t correct or if our traditions are getting in the way of the Word.

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