The more I studied this particular lesson this week, the more I came to see there are two things Jesus goes after in this text, and they are very much related. The problem is, if I deal with both of those things today, I will be preaching far too long. We would not be able to beat the Baptists to Tony’s. So, I will be breaking this text up into two sermons dealing with both of those points separately. The first point Jesus highlights is the building up of traditions which supersede God’s commands and the second point–which I will deal with next week–is the reason we build up those traditions. For those of you who have been in church your entire life, you will have a very easy time understanding this. For those of you who have not been in church and are wondering about Christianity, you might have a more difficult time, but I am pretty sure you will be able to understand more as I go through the sermon today.
The text begins today with a group of scribes coming down from Jerusalem to investigate the things they’ve heard about Jesus. Normally, we paint the scribes and Pharisees in a negative light because that’s the way they come across to us throughout the Gospels. However, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and scribes were not necessarily seen as bad guys. They were actually seen as very pious; very religious; very thorough in their understanding about who God is and what God requires. These guys tried to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; however, their understanding of how to do so was misguided. How so?
The text tells us the scribes questioned Jesus and asked, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?” Now, this question has nothing to do with hygiene. It has everything to do with ritual cleanliness. You see, there is a whole section in the Old Testament Law devoted to what it means to be a clean and pure and holy person. This meant that you could only eat certain foods, associate with certain people, and do certain things. If you ate pork, for instance, you were considered unclean; impure; not holy. (Our Old Testament lesson this morning shows some of those laws.)
Now, if you read through all these Laws in the Old Testament, you will see that there are some laws which only apply to the priests. These are laws that do not apply to regular, everyday folks. The reason for this is that the priests were daily working in the Tabernacle or the Temple and were closest to God. Therefore, they needed to be ritually clean in order to work that close to God. The Pharisees and scribes thought long and hard about this practice and came to a rather egalitarian conclusion: if it is good for the priests, then it is good for the rest of us. If the priests need to do this to be holy, then we ought to do this to be holy as well. We do not need two separate sets of standards of holiness. If we, the people of God, are to be close to God and be an example to the world, then we all need to be as holy as possible–not simply one group.
William Lane in his commentary to this text had this great quote, “Its finest intention was the demonstration that all Israel was devoted to God and the Law, and the fulfillment of the injunction: “You shall be holy to me.” The Pharisees were convinced that the strict discipline of human conduct was the necessary prelude to the true acknowledgment of God as sovereign.” So, here we have the Pharisees trying to make holiness an entire nation thing–not just a priestly thing. Here we essentially have the Pharisees saying, “Don’t think that your pastor is the only one who needs to live a pure and holy life–such a life is to be lived by everyone! No exceptions!” It was really a radical thought; a leveling of the proverbial playing field thought; everyone was to be treated the same.
So, they came up with a tradition that everyone should wash their hands like the priests–mind you, this was not the command of scripture. This was not what God told the people to do. This was something additional. The disciples therefore, were not breaking God’s commandments; they were just fine doing what they were doing. However, they were breaking tradition, and that’s what caught the eye of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus was not happy with this criticism. In fact, He turned it right around on the scribes and Pharisees. “ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” I want you to take note of a couple of things. First, memorize the first part of that quote from the Prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” This is a crucial, crucial statement–one that we will revisit next week. And because their hearts are far from God, they abandon the commandments of God and hold to human traditions. What is wrong with this? Let me try to explain.
You see, the scribes and Pharisees were enamored with God’s Law. They were enamored with the commands found in the Old Testament. They wanted to be holy and obey those commands, and they wanted to make sure that no one broke those commands either. Therefore, they set up a bunch of human traditions to guard the Law. They set up a bunch of human commands to ensure that no one would ever break the Laws of God. In their writings, they referred to this as building a hedge around God’s Laws so that they could not be broken. It could kind of be seen like this: The speed limit on I-10 is 75 miles an hour. To ensure that I don’t break the speed limit, I will drive 70 miles per hour. Everyone else should too that way no one comes close to breaking the law. It’s not a bad idea when one looks at it, so what is the problem?
Just this: let’s say that God came to you one day in the midst of your living room. Remember, this is just an example, hang with me. And let’s say God replaced your couch with another one. He said to you, “My child, you and your family are weary after a long day’s work. I am giving you this couch. Sit on it at the end of the day and be refreshed. However, no one is allowed to jump on this couch.”
You thank God profusely for this wonderful gift, and you find that you and your family become refreshed by sitting on the couch. But you are also worried. You know that God said not to jump on this couch. How can you prevent this from happening? How can you ensure that no one breaks this command by doing such a dastardly thing? You come up with a brilliant idea!! If no one touches the couch, no one can ever jump on it. Therefore, you forbid your family from touching the couch. No one is allowed to set a finger, a toe, or anything else on it. Therefore, no one will ever jump on it, and no commandment will ever be broken. Right?
Wrong. In reality, you are nullifying one command in your zeal to adhere to another one. What do I mean? Remember what God originally said, “Sit on this couch and be refreshed.” That was a direct command from God as was “Don’t jump on the couch.” You effectively nullified one command by building a hedge around the other. You nullified the purpose of God giving you the couch to begin with!
Jesus is pointing out something similar with the scribes and Pharisees. “You are putting human tradition in the place of God’s Law, and in doing so, you are nullifying the very purpose of the Law–and even breaking God’s commandments!
Then Jesus launches into an illustration. For those of us who do not live in first century Palestine, this little illustration can be confusing, so let me work through it with you just a little bit. You see, if you left your family’s house and made your way in the world; and you obtained wealth and property; it was expected that you would take care of your parents. In fact, it wasn’t just expected. It was commanded by God in the 10 Commandments. Honor your father and your mother.
But let’s also say that you were a holy, religious sort of person. Let’s say you wanted to honor God with your wealth and property. You could go to the temple and say, “I want my land and wealth to be Corban.” Or “I want my land and wealth to go to God.” This was considered an oath, and God had also commanded that you cannot break an oath.
Now, let me make this clear as well: when you dedicated your property to God, you did not have to give it to the temple right then. You had full use of your property. You had all your money at your disposal. You could continue to live off the fruits of your labor, but if your parents needed help; if your parents fell on hard times; you could look at them and say, “Mom, Dad, sorry. I can’t help you. I have dedicated all my wealth to God. You are out of luck.”
Mom and dad could say, “Well, could you go to the priests and see if they can renounce this and let you take care of us?”
If the child was actually wanting to help his parents, he would go to the priests; however, in nearly all circumstances, the response was, “NO!” The property had been dedicated to God. It could not be revoked. The parents were out of luck.
Effectively, the establishment of this tradition had created a loophole in the law. Kids no longer had to take care of their parents. Kids no longer had to use their wealth and could hold onto it for as long as they lived. And the religious authorities were laughing all the way to the bank. Do you see why Jesus became so angry? Do you see why He called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites?
I think it’s blatantly obvious why! Those darn scribes and Pharisees were placing human tradition ahead of God’s command. They were incredibly ignorant! Their good intentions were so far off base now. How come they couldn’t see how far they had strayed from God?
You know, I’m not sure we need to keep pointing at the Pharisees and scribes. We need to be looking in the mirror.
Here’s something to chew on: some of you know Adam Smith. He wrote a tome back in the day titled The Wealth of Nations. Within this book, he held that there was a guiding principle of the marketplace. He called it the “invisible hand” which guided the distribution of resources and wealth. Of course, this is a man-made tradition, and it actually supercedes what Scripture tells us about the redistribution of wealth. God’s commands are clear and concise: if someone is in need, we help. We do not wait for an invisible hand to distribute things. We do it.
Yet, how many Christians oftentimes appeal to the free market? How many Christians appeal to capitalism’s tenets to avoid helping out their fellow man? How many times to human traditions supersede the command of God.
Oh, and let me not let anyone else off the hook either. Every culture in the world has some form of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you were down and out and needed help, you would desperately want someone to help you. You would desperately want someone to give you aid. But how often do we see this disregarded? How often do we turn our nose up at those who are in need? How often do we say they should get to work; get a job; quit being lazy–without even getting to know them or their circumstances? Are we not hypocrites of the finest magnitude?
Yes, Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and scribes are His words to us as well. We are just as guilty. And don’t get me started about our own hypocrisy in the church. I mean, how many human traditions get in the way of our primary purpose? How many human traditions prevent us from pointing only and solely to Jesus who died for the sake of the world? How many times do we get caught up in the minutia? I mean, where in the Bible does it tell us what kind of flowers we need on the altar? Where in the Bible does it say we have to worship to organ music or piano music or guitar music or even music at all? Where in the Bible does it say that we have to meet at a certain time during the week? Where in the Bible does it say we are supposed to wear our finest clothes to church? All of these things are human tradition, and sometimes we hold onto them as though God revealed them on Mount Sinai along with the 10 Commandments! And in our zeal to adhere to these things, oftentimes we drive away those who also would like to participate in our worship; in our fellowship; in our ministry. Human tradition overwhelms the commands of Jesus to proclaim Him to the world.
You see, our hearts are still far from God. Jesus’ critique still rings true.
Now, as I start wrapping this up, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with human traditions–as long as we remember those traditions come secondary to the main reason we are here. Next week, I will talk about how hearts get changed. This week, I want to remind us of why we are here. I want to remind those who may be seeking why the church exists. I want our attention turned solely to the cross of Jesus Christ.
For you see, even though we try to nullify the commands of God, even though we act selfishly and without regard for others, Jesus was willing to die for us. In our brokenness and hypocritical nature, Jesus loved us enough to lay down His life to save us from ourselves.
One of the reasons we get so caught up in traditions is that we believe Christianity is primarily about what we do. We believe we have to follow the commands of Jesus perfectly. We believe we have to live perfectly obedient lives. And when we don’t, we seek to justify ourselves. We seek to interpret the scriptures to give us a break. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “We seek to justify the sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner.”
And proclaiming the justification of the sinner is our primary focus. Proclaiming that we are justified not by our own actions but by the love of Jesus Christ is the reason the Church exists. We are called to humbly walk through this world announcing the news, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.” Our traditions do not save us. Jesus does. Let’s not give the world our traditions. Let’s give the world Jesus. Amen.