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Tradition vs. the Law
1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
10Jesus called the crowd to Him and said, “Listen and understand. 11What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”
12Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
13He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
15Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”
Matthew next tells us of a dispute that the Pharisees had with Jesus concerning the behavior of His disciples: “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!’” (vss. 1–2). The Pharisees were faulting the disciples for not following the ceremonial washing ritual, which was a “tradition of the elders.” They were not faulting the disciples on hygienic grounds, but rather on religious grounds. They were not questioning Jesus’ disciples for being unsanitary, but for being ungodly. The Pharisees considered the disciples’ failure to wash their hands before eating to be sinful.
Now, it is difficult enough to struggle with our sin nature as we try to live a holy and godly life, according to the precepts of God’s Word. Given this difficulty, it is sinful to add to the laws of God precepts of men, and to claim that these precepts of men must be obeyed as well, in order to live a holy and godly life. To add to God’s Law is as sinful as to subtract from it, for to add to God’s Law is to misrepresent God, and to add burdens to people’s lives that God never intended there to be.
It could have well been that the teachers of the law who espoused the “tradition of the elders” originally meant well. The tradition of the elders “was a body of teaching handed down from the religious leaders of the past. Some of it was concerned with the way those leaders had understood passages in Scripture, especially passages whose meaning was not obvious or was ambiguous. It also gave guidance as to how passages that might be construed in more than one way were to be understood. In origin the tradition was praiseworthy and useful, but through the years, with the contributions of many teachers, some with less insight than others, it had come to amount to a very burdensome body of doctrine. Its huge volume meant that by New Testament times even to know what it comprised was a difficult chore, while to obey all its multitudinous regulations was too big a task for most people” [Morris, 390].
So, the Pharisees were wrong, as the religious leaders of the people, to burden them with commands written by men. They were also wrong in valuing the “tradition of the elders” over the true word of God, as Jesus points out: “Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,” he is not to “honor his father” 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 honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men”’” (vss. 3–9). Jesus responds to the question of the Pharisees by pointing out that, from a religious point of view, the commandments of men mean nothing. Moreover, He takes the Pharisees to task for allowing their traditions to supercede the commandments of God. “Traditions, when once invested with anything like authority, tend to obscure commands and displace supremacy of Scripture; indeed, there is nothing more solemnly significant than that in proportion as tradition, even Church tradition, gains sway, reverence for Scripture declines” [Thomas, 228]. Jesus gives the Pharisees an example of where this has happened. There was a “tradition” of theirs, which the teachers of the Law sanctioned, that allowed children to dodge their God-commanded obligation to honor their parents by helping to support them when in need. Broadus explains the tradition: “If a man’s father or mother wanted any article from him—it might be food or clothing, or what not—he could just say, ‘Corban, it is a gift, a thing consecrated to God (comp. Lev. 27:9,16), and he was then, according to the traditional rules, not only at liberty to withhold it from his parent, but solemnly bound to do so. The Mishna tells of a former discussion as to whether a vow could be set aside through regard for parents, and all but one Rabbi declared in the negative. The Jews reached this conclusion by arguing that vows, as they had respect to God, were more important than things pertaining to men; and hence that devoting a thing to God was sufficient to set aside the highest obligation, even that to one’s parents. Here was a correct principle, greatly abused in the application. We learn from the Talmud, which has copious directions on this subject, that a man was not bound, after saying, ‘Corban’, actually to dedicate the article in the temple, but might keep it indefinitely for his own use, or might give it to some person, only not to the one had in mind when he made the vow” [Broadus, 334].
As Jesus points out, and as Isaiah prophesied, by allowing their “tradition” to overrule the spirit and letter of God’s Law, they were worshiping God “in vain”, with teachings that are but “rules taught by men.” So, Jesus showed that the “tradition of the elders” was at best worthless in the eyes of God, and at worst, harmful to those who follow it, for following it may cause one to neglect the true Law of God.
In general, men have no business inventing religious traditions or rituals. God has prescribed in His Word the proper way to worship Him. Anything added to the Word of God, detracts from it. “At the present day many persons claim a divine authority for ideas and practices which are simply of human origin. We are not only under no obligation to conform to these, but it is our duty to oppose them wherever they tend to the violation or neglect of God’s commandments” [Broadus, 336].
The Pharisees, in accusing the disciples, were flawed in their thinking as to what makes a person “unclean” in the eyes of God. Jesus directly straightens them out on this question: “Jesus called the crowd to Him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him “unclean,” but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him “unclean.”’” (vss. 10–11). The Pharisees took the ceremonial laws that were given to the children of Israel in the desert concerning clean and unclean things, and expanded those ceremonial laws so as to make them moral laws. “The Jews had come very largely to confound ceremonial with moral defilement. To correct this confusion of ideas, our Lord points out that articles of food cannot really pollute, because they pass through the body and out of it, and do not ‘enter the heart’ (see Mark 7:19)” [Broadus, 338]. It was as if the Pharisees literally lived by the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Now, clearly, to be physically clean is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t make one more spiritual. And certainly, one should not be more concerned with how one washes his hands, than how one treats his neighbor. This may sound ridiculously obvious, and yet, do we not place too much emphasis on appearance, than on godliness? Even Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, noticed this: “Even in the church we see such a custom prevailing amongst the generality, and men giving diligence to come in clean garments, and to have their hands washed; but how to present a clean soul to God, they make no account” [Chrysostom].
Jesus’ disciples were puzzled at His criticism of the Pharisees: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’” (vs. 12). I guess the disciples had not yet fully caught on that Jesus is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, for they were puzzled that Jesus would dispute with the Pharisees about fine points of the Law. We must be wary to put too much credence on what any mere man, even religious leaders, says about the things of God. We must seek the guidance of the Spirit, and diligently study God’s Word, so that we can properly discern right and wrong.
Jesus let the disciples know that the teaching of Pharisees would not endure, for it was not rooted in God’s Word: “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 a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit’” (vss. 13–14). So we see that the Pharisees were original model for the phrase, “the blind leading the blind.” “‘Blind guides’ is a devastating description of the Pharisees, men who prided themselves on their enlightenment” [Morris, 397].
Peter still had problems understanding Jesus’ corrected teaching: “Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us’” (vs. 15). Peter thought that Jesus was speaking parabolically, though He was not. What Jesus said should have been clear to the disciples. But the Pharisees had so emphasized external cleanliness, external holiness, an external impression of godliness, that the disciples could not understand that a clean heart is much more valued in the eyes of God than a clean body.
Jesus chides the disciples on their lack of understanding, and then explains the principle once again: “‘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 the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man “unclean.” For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man “unclean”; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him “unclean”’” (vss. 16–20). “Familiar though these sayings have now become, what freedom from bondage to outward things do they proclaim, on the one hand, and on the other, how searching is the truth which they express—that nothing which enters from without can really defile us; and that only the evil that is in the heart, that is allowed to stir there, to rise up in thought and affection, and to flow forth in voluntary action, really defiles a man” [JFB, 86].