We are prone to devise systems of morality that make us feel good about ourselves. Even better is to come up with a set of morals that make us feel better than the next person. Still better to come up with a system of rules that, if we will follow them, we believe that God will be impressed. 

I have a friend that grew up in a church that forbid their people from playing cards. They had a saying that all of their members knew: “I’ve never seen a praying knee under a card table.” They also told their members that dancing was of the devil. They had another saying for that one: “I’ve never seen a praying knee and a dancing foot on the same leg.” I’ve got another friend who grew up in a church many years ago that taught their people that going to what they called “the movie house,” was something no follower of Jesus should ever do.  I’m sure if I were to ask those of you who grew up in Christian homes, if there were things you were taught as a kid that you later learned aren’t necessarily in the Bible, that we could compile quite a list. 

I want you to know that this is not a uniquely “Christian” problem. It’s not just the followers of Jesus who find ways to elevate ourselves by following certain rules that we believe make us better than others. All you have to do is pay attention to what is going on in our society today and you’ll quickly understand what I’m talking about. Our politicians pound the pulpit declaring what they believe to be immoral and inexplicable. The news channels; MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN bring people on the air that preach about the decline of our nation and then name the atrocities of “those” people in our nation who are doing such diabolical things. Everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, have their own set of morals, even though they may not call them that, that they use to set themselves apart, to lift themselves above the rank and file, and make them feel better about themselves. 

I want you to know one of the blessings in studying and learning God’s Word is that it teaches us there really is nothing new under the sun. People have always been people. We’ve always found ways to boost our own stock and set ourselves apart from the crowd. Our parable this morning is a great illustration of what I’m talking about. Let’s turn to Matthew 15 and read together.

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 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.'” 12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” 13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” 15 Peter 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? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'” (Matthew 15:10-20 NIVO)

I need to set the scene for you, give you some background, or you will most definitely misinterpret what is going on in these verses. Jesus called the crowd to Himself because of what had just taken place in Matthew 15:1-9. Let’s go back and take a look before we seek to understand what Jesus was teaching in His parable. Read along with me.

1 Then 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!” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 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,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 ” ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'” (Matthew 15:1-9 NIVO)

The Pharisees and teachers of the law had traveled all the way from Jerusalem to confront Jesus. What was their issue? They asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 

Most of us probably grew up with a mother that told us time-and-time again, “You better wash your hands before you come to the dinner table.” Mom’s command was given so that we wouldn’t come to the table with gritty, grimey, nasty hands. The question put to Jesus had nothing to do with personal hygiene; it had everything to do with observing the laws set forth by their religious leaders. What’s really interesting is that there is no law in the Hebrew Bible about washing your hands before a meal. So why in the world would they place such an emphasis on washing your hands before a meal? Let me explain because it is vitally important. 

The fall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the holy city of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C. was the lowest of the low points for God’s Chosen People. The prophets of God had been telling the people for a long time, “You’ve forsaken the Lord! Turn back to the Lord! God’s judgment is coming if you don’t repent and turn back to the Lord!” Their warnings fell on deaf ears and then the end came. Most of the Jews were taken away into captivity in Babylon and it was there, in a foreign pagan land, that they came to their senses. They realized what they had done, they repented of their sin, and they turned back to the Lord. 

After 70 years of captivity God moved upon the Persian ruler, Cyrus, and he sent the captives, who wanted to go, back home to the Promised Land. The Jewish people believe Ezra was the first scribe and he applied himself to the study of God’s law like no one before him. Through the years and centuries other scribes and rabbis studied God’s Word, they interpreted God’s Word, they commented on God’s Word, and they began to build a “fence” around the law. They never wanted what had happened in the past to ever happen again. 

Scribes and rabbis throughout the years added their two cents in interpreting what they believed were the 613 laws of God until, in 200 A.D., Rabbi Judah the Patriarch or Judah the Prince brought together all of the interpretations and comments on the law into what we know as the Mishnah. Their goal was to put the individual laws in the middle and then to build a fence around it so that no one was permitted to even get close to violating God’s law. Let me give you an example of what they did. For instance, the fourth of the Ten Commandments is found in Exodus 20:8-11. Read it with me.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 NIVO)

The Sabbath, the seventh day, is to be unlike the other six days, it is to be “holy,” set apart for God. Now, the only clear direction we’re given is that we are to do no work. That wasn’t clear enough for the rabbis so they elaborated on what it means “to do no work.” They built a thick fence around the law. They came up with 39 categories of things which were permitted and prohibited. For example, you cannot tie a knot on the Sabbath, but you can tie a bow. Therefore you are permitted to tie your shoes. Squeezing a fruit for its juice is prohibited, as well as milking a cow. You are not permitted to start a fire on the Sabbath. Today, building a fire means you can’t drive a car because a combustion engine sparks a fire. In Israel they have Shabbat elevators in all multiple storied buildings. The elevator stops on every floor so you don’t have to push a button and spark the mechanism. On Shabbat you are permitted to walk, as long as you do not walk further than .596 miles. Rules were piled on top of rules and then more rules were piled on top of those rules until it became such work just to keep from working on the Sabbath. 

When it comes to washing hands before a meal I mentioned that this law is not even found in the Bible. The Jewish rabbis base their teaching on Exodus 30:17-21, which is a commandment given to Moses to make a copper laver to place at the entrance of the altar so that Aaron and his sons could wash their hands before approaching the altar to make sacrifices. This commandment was taken by the rabbis and interpreted in all kinds of ways.  They also detailed how the law was to be followed at the table. Alfred Edersheim, in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, tells us, 

Water jars were kept ready to be used before a meal. The minimum amount of water to be used was a quarter of a log, which is defined as enough to fill one and a half egg-shells. The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upwards, and must run up the arm as far as the wrist. It must drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands, and, if it ran down the fingers again, it would again render them unclean. The process was repeated with the hands held in the opposite direction, with the fingers pointing down; and then finally each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A really strict Jew would do all this, not only before a meal, but also between each of the courses. (Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.)

The comments and applications of the 613 laws were compiled in 200 A.D., but in 500 A.D. the rabbis compiled over 6,000 pages of rabbinic discussions on the Mishnah called the Talmud. Do you see what’s happening? Do you see how the “fence” just got thicker and thicker until you couldn’t even see the Word of God any longer? All they could see was what the rabbis had said they must do and refrain from doing in relation to the law of God. Is it any wonder Jesus told the people,

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for men to see:  (Matthew 23:1-5 NIVO)

Now, I want to point out something for you, something that took place in the back-and-forth between the Pharisees and Jesus in Matthew 15:2-3. Read it again with me.

2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:2-3 NIVO)

Did you catch it? I know you did. The Pharisees asked why Jesus’ disciples “break the tradition of the elders?” Jesus asked, “…why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”  Which is more important…our traditions or the commands of God? Well, it depends on who you talk to. The Reformers had a phrase, “Sola Scriptura,” which means, “Scripture alone.” Catholics, on the other hand, say Scripture as well as the traditions of the Church are needed. At Catholic.com we read,

Catholics, on the other hand, recognize that the true “rule of faith”—as expressed in the Bible itself—is Scripture plus apostolic tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, along with the authority to interpret Scripture correctly. (catholic.com)

Before we Protestants get too high minded we might want to examine whether or not any of our traditions hold greater weight than God’s commands. Jesus said the Pharisees placed their traditions above the commands of God. I’m sure one or more of the Pharisees asked, “How so?” Jesus went straight to the Ten Commandments to provide an example. Read with me from Matthew 15:4-6.

4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 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,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (Matthew 15:4-6 NIVO)

“Honor your father and mother.” It’s the fifth commandment and the very first of the commandments that has to do with our relationship with others. We are to love our parents, honor our parents, and when they get old and unable to work, we are to help them if they have need. The commandment is found in Exodus 20:12. Jesus went on to quote Exodus 21:17 which says, 

17 “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. (Exodus 21:17 NIVO)

That’s strong medicine and a great motivator for me to honor my father and mother. It’s meant to emphasize how important it is for us to honor our parents, to give our parents respect, and care for our parents whether they’ve earned it or not. This is what God’s Word says, but Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had worked their way around this command. How did they do that? Well, they developed a system once again and it’s called “Corban,” that which is dedicated to God. In Mark’s telling of the same incident between Jesus and the Pharisees, he uses the word “Corban.” Let’s read it together in Mark 7:9-13.

9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:9-13 NIVO)

Here is how Corban worked out in real time. Let’s say my dad was going through a tough time. He wasn’t able to pay his bills. He tried to figure out a way to make his finances work, but in the end he decided to come and see me and ask for help. First of all, if I take God’s command serious, he should never have had to come to that point to begin with right? But for the sake of helping us understand Corban, he paid me a visit. After telling me about his need I said, “Dad, I would love to help you, but I’ve declared Corban over everything I have. I can’t break my vow, but I’ll pray for you.” Now, not all Jews followed the Law of Corban, but evidently it was a popular enough practice that Jesus pointed it out to the Pharisees. Where is this law found in Scripture? You guessed it, it’s not. It is part of the tradition Jesus was exposing. 

You may have been listening to me for these past several minutes and you’re thinking to yourself, “What does this have to do with my life? How does this in any way draw me closer to Jesus, strengthen my walk with the Lord, or help me live my life in a way that is pleasing to God?” Those are great questions and I have an answer for you. The problem of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day is the problem of most followers of Jesus today. We do not know the Word of God. We have strayed from the Word of God. We have taken a snippet from the Bible and used it to create our own beliefs, our own philosophy of what is right, what is pleasing to God. These beliefs that we hold sacred are what Jesus called “rules made by men,” they are our own traditions and are not the Word of God.  There are so many religious ideas that are floating around our own society today that sound good, but the truth is they are not found in God’s Word. Peter urged the people of his day, and I want to urge you this morning,

2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, (1 Peter 2:2 NIVO)

We must crave the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word if we ever hope to grow up in to the men and women God desires for us to be. 

Here’s the other lesson for us. Those who sought to follow all of the rules of the religious leaders thought that by doing so they were securing their place in heaven. One rabbi even said, “Whosoever has his abode in the land of Israel and eats his common food with rinsed hands may rest assured that he shall obtain eternal life.”  My friend, there is no good deed that can earn you eternal life. You can wash your hands until you wash the skin off and you will still be a sinner whose only hope is to be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb who gave His life for you and for me. There is no other name under heaven by which people can be cleansed, made whole, saved…and it is the name of Jesus. Won’t you surrender your heart to Him this morning?

Mike Hays

June 30, 2019


Tradition or The Commands of God?
Matthew 15
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