Today’s Reading: Matthew 15-17
Today’s Reflection: Matthew 15:1-3
1) Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2) “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3) He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
In the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, this was an issue that came up often: human tradition versus what God’s commanded. The Pharisees had God’s instruction in the Torah, and they grew up memorizing it. But the law was complex and challenging. So over time they added their own instructions—the traditions of the elders—to make it ‘easier’ to keep God’s law. At times these traditions overlooked some of God’s commands—like those to look after the poor, widows and orphans (Isaiah 10:1-2). Other times they changed the true meaning of God’s law. The Pharisees did this for three reasons, all of which are relevant to us today:
They sought to keep God’s law in their own strength. The Pharisees thought if they could keep the law perfectly they could proclaim themselves righteous. So their ‘traditions’ were focused on external actions that could appear to be kept. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made clear that keeping God’s law went far beyond observable actions and into the thoughts of the mind and feelings of the heart, making it impossible for any man to keep on his own (Matthew 5:21-48).
They wanted God’s law to benefit their interests. The Pharisees, like many leaders, thought they deserved to benefit from their position. So they created traditions that allowed the upper classes of Jewish society to reward themselves (like giving lame and weak animals for God’s sacrifices and keeping the healthiest animals for their own flocks, in Malachi 1:13). This helped make the Pharisees part of the upper classes as well, a position they would not easily give up.
They wanted God’s law to validate their judgments. The Pharisees wanted to be able to determine who belonged among God’s people and who did not. Those who conformed to the ‘traditions of the elders’ were the visibly righteous people that earned their place in the synagogues. Those who did not conform were irredeemably outside of the assembly of God’s people, and looked upon as unclean and unworthy by the Pharisees and all who feared their judgments.
Though we would like to think these rationale don’t apply to us as Christians today, if we take an honest look at our churches today we’ll see that they do. How many of you go to a church where everyone is expected to dress formally? Where can the instruction regarding this be found in scripture? The closest I can think of is Israel being prepared to meet God at Mount Sinai—they were told to wash their garments (Exodus 19:9-11), but given no instruction about what to wear. And if clothing isn’t the mark of how to recognize a believer in God, then what is?
John 13:34-35 – 34) A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35) By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Many other traditions completely contradict God’s law—stained glass windows and statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints contradict the second commandment (Exodus 20:4). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… If the fourth commandment instructs observing the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, as a day of rest (Exodus 20:8-9), and if Jesus Himself observed this commandment (Luke 4:16), and if Jesus made clear that He did not come to do away with the law (Matthew 5:17-19), why do most Christians today observe Sunday, the first day of the week? If you’re one of them it might be worth searching the scriptures to see if Sunday worship is really a Commandment of God or just a tradition of men.
In the end the question for each of us is this: who do we worship? If it’s God, we’ll trust Him for true understanding of His law and the strength to keep it. If it’s God we’ll obey His law and be satisfied with the circumstances of our lives, whatever they may be (Philippeans 4:11-13). If it’s God we’ll seek His justification rather than trying to manufacture our own righteousness. If it’s God we’ll choose to obey His commandments, rather than conforming to the words of mere men.
Matthew 15:7-9 – 7) You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8) “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9) in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”