August 26, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And He said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”
Jesus had His run-ins with the scribes and Pharisees before. There had been challenges to what Jesus had said and done early in His ministry in Galilee. The scribes had questioned what Jesus had said when He forgave the sins of the paralytic man and made him walk. The Pharisees had objected to Jesus’ disciples picking grains of wheat while walking through a field on the Sabbath. This time, the confrontation was intentional on the part of the scribes and Pharisees. They wanted the opportunity to point out His lax standards of teaching. They desired to show how Jesus was not a true teacher of the Law.
The Gospel Writer tells us that the Pharisees and scribes had come to Jesus’ presence with confrontation on their mind: “When the Pharisees gathered to Him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of His disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” The experts in the Law who had come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee accost Jesus and His disciples: “And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?’” They demand to know why Jesus was not instructing His followers to abide by the traditions that the leaders of the religious community had established centuries ago.
But included in the statements of the scribes and Pharisees is more than a question about why Jesus’ disciples had not followed religious custom. They had actually accused Jesus’ disciples of being unholy because of it. This is seen in the phrase “eat with defiled hands”. That word “defiled” denotes something common, something profane, something ceremonially unclean. The word showed that the scribes and Pharisees believed that Jesus’ disciples had run afoul of the Divine Law and its standards of holiness that it established. Jesus’ disciples had a condition that had to be remedied, and apparently Jesus didn’t care about that.
So who had determined that washing hands was necessary before eating? Who had instituted such a requirement and standard of holiness? Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees gives the answer: “And He said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’” Jesus’ words declare that the scribes and Pharisees had established their own commandments, their own standards of holiness. They were teaching that manmade tradition as coming directly from God Himself.
The problem with the action of the scribes and Pharisees should be evident. They had become their own lawmakers. They had also become judges of the people, declaring who was righteous or not, who was defiled or holy. But this was not an authority granted to them. It was the usurpation of a power. Their taking authority for themselves also included abandoning the commandments that God had spoken. Jesus points that out: “And He said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother;” and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’” Obedience of the manmade law and teaching it as divinely inspired led the Pharisees and their hearers to disobedience of what God had commanded.
For the scribes and Pharisees, this meant that they appeared righteous, holy, and devout to themselves and the people. But they did not have that status before God. They failed to recognize the guilt that actually was in them. They would not receive the wisdom from heaven that Jesus was bringing. Instead, they reviled Him and His actions and His followers. Their teaching also deluded and led away others from the righteousness that God desired to give to the people, the holiness that He would grant to those who acknowledged their sin and turn to His forgiveness.
But is this issue between Jesus and the Pharisees only a First Century problem? Does it arise among the people of God today? We can see where it does. It shows up within the more popular religion, including the thoughts about moral teaching today. This is seen in how people make the concept of the Christian faith simply to be kind to one another. Every individual’s personal thoughts about what is right for them must be accepted as correct and never questioned. In essence, Jesus’ teaching boils down to two statements: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” and “Judge not, lest you be judged.” But by doing this, the people fall into the condition that Jesus declares about the Pharisees: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your own tradition!” Such people often use this way of thinking to abandon any divine teaching about life or sexuality, along with any of the exclusive claims made about salvation and belief. And yet, they appear righteous, holy, and devout within our society.
There is also a different problem of rejecting the commandments of God in order to establish manmade tradition that also arises within the Church, not the popular religion. This is where we see the Church adding to what God has established and teaching it as a standard of righteousness. It is when the Church makes something out to be sinful, where it is not. It often shows up when the Church starts using the words “must” or “must not” frequently: “You must have a certain way of organizing the congregation. You must go on a mission trip. You must donate a certain amount of your income. You must not consume certain foods or drinks. You must belong to a small group. You must worship in a certain pattern.” And those “musts” or “must nots” are followed up by “or else”: “or else you are not really righteous; or else you are not really a true group of believers; or else you’re not really living the new life as Jesus’ disciples.” The sentence of being “common” or “defiled” is made about those who don’t meet the requirements. Those who keep the “musts” or “must nots” often take appropriate to themselves the labels righteous, holy, and devout.
But who has established these “musts” or “must nots”? Do they come from God? Or are they what Jesus denotes with His statement about the scribes and Pharisees: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Adherence to the traditions becomes the measure of righteousness. But this runs into the problem that Jesus points out by citing the words of Isaiah: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The true defilement is missed: the lack of righteousness within mankind, the failure to keep the commandments that God established, the inability to make oneself just before God.
So what is the answer to this problem? (1) Recognize that God has spoken His commandments and they determine what is right or not. That means actually learning what they say, what those commandments proscribe and prescribe. (2) Note that you have not obeyed them perfectly: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Such statements apply to you. (3) Hear what Jesus has done to fulfill the Divine Law for you. Fourth, receive the cleansing that Jesus grants to His Church: “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without any spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” This is how you have become righteous before God, how your defilement was removed: not by obeying everything that He commanded, but by having the perfection of Christ granted to be your own.
Then as you have been made right with God, learn well what He has instructed you to do. Strive to abide by those commandments, not adding or subtracting from them. When your ideas begin to run counter to what He has commanded, threatening to make void His word, then abandon them. Turn instead to what Jesus has said and taught. You have been given to know that; you are no longer bound to set your hearts and minds on what man has determined to be wise. For other words of the prophet Isaiah can well describe you: “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.” That is your end, as you receive the salvation that Jesus has brought to you: His holiness that turns your defilement into righteousness.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.