“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”
This was the Pharisees big hang up. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was one of their hangups. They had a bunch of ‘em. But on this day at least, their problem with Jesus’ disciples is that they had failed to perform the traditional ceremonial hand washing before they ate. Whose paying attention? Right? But these guys were, because those were the kinds of things they cared about most.
Now we might be inclined to overlook their penchant for tradition – the ceremonial hand washing – if they’d kept it to themselves. In other words, if that’s something you want to do, and feel like you should, go for it!
We might also graciously accept their preferences if they are otherwise obeying the commandments. Unfortunately, the Pharisees were not. And on this day they made the mistake of challenging the wrong person on adherence to tradition. When they aim their hypocritical guns at Jesus, he turns those guns right back on them. “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God.” He points to a specific example where there were actually encouraging their followers to dishonor their parents, supposedly because they were fulfilling the more important duty of giving to God. It hearkens back to the Old Testament prophet Samuel who said, “has God as great delight in sacrifice as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” Behold to obey is better than sacrifice.”
Jesus concludes the conversation with a quote from Isaiah that is as relevant today as it’s ever been:
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands of God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT
Several things come to mind regarding this exchange that I think are important:
- Religious observance can easily become more important than God’s law. Whether it’s a tradition like that of the Pharisees, or our own spiritual exercises (things like church attendance, and even reading the Bible and prayer), religious observance can easily become an end rather than a means to an end.
- Hypocrisy isn’t exclusive to those who do all the right things. What I mean is this. We often label the religious zealot as hypocrite because while he is clearly obeying all the rules (external), it’s obvious his heart (internal) isn’t right. But let me flip that around. If you attend worship services, call yourself a Christian, and perform an occasional service project, while living an otherwise selfish, indulgent life, your heart isn’t right either. You’re just as much a hypocrite. I looked it up. Hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform.” It is posturing yourself one way, while your heart – and thus behavior – reflects a different reality. (I’m tempted to qualify this, but I won’t. Apply it however necessary.)
- God isn’t opposed to the things that matter to you. He just doesn’t want them to matter as much as the things that matter to Him! Wow, that was probably a very confusing way of saying it. But I hope you get the point. Our traditions are fine. If certain things are important to you, make you feel more comfortable, make church and/or spiritual exercises more real or valued, no problem! But they must always be servant to the weightier matters of the law – things like loving God, and loving your neighbor as yourself! If you come to church on Sunday because that’s important, but act like the devil on Monday, because that isn’t important, your priorities are out of whack. If you care more about where you sit on Sunday, or how folks are dressed, than you do the needy sinner that just walked through the door, you need some adjustments. The things that matter to God are always of greater importance, and every preference or tradition must be servant to them.
This wasn’t Jesus’ only interaction with the Pharisees in the Gospels. He had many of them. But the core characteristics of those conversations were all the same – God’s law first, man’s tradition second. May we never forget!
What matters most to you?