Background to the Tradition of the Elders
Pp Mark 7:1-23
2. The Washing of Hands
3. Other Ceremonial Interpretations
4. Jesus’ Teaching
The Passage as a whole
1. What was Jesus opposing?
a. The commandments of men
b. Additions to Scripture
c. Misinterpretations of Scripture
2. What was Jesus teaching?
a. Man clean, environment dirty
b. Man unclean, environment unimportant
c. Evil thoughts and the solution
Only Matthew and Mark (7:1-23) record this incident in the life of Jesus even though Luke (11:37-41) does comment on an event when Jesus was invited to eat with a Pharisee and He was reproached for not first washing before He ate of the meal and which is therefore directly related. Luke’s record also demonstrates to us that Jesus was in total agreement with His disciples’ failure to wash their hands before they ate and, though the scribes and Pharisees specifically highlight the transgression of the disciples (Mtw 15:2), it was a charge which could equally well have been laid at Jesus’ door.
In first century Israel it was the case that the deeds of the disciple reflected upon the deeds of the master and he was particularly obliged to make sure that his followers were good representations of all that he believed or else there was a need to disown them to distance oneself from accusation.
However, Jesus appears to have allowed His followers to make mistakes so that they can learn (Mtw 17:24-27). In the present situation, though, we aren’t looking at one such occasion but an event in which Jesus would have fully justified the disciples’ actions seeing as He did the very same thing without trying to ameliorate His Pharisaic guest by going along with tradition.
Both passages follow the same sort of flow throughout with a few rearrangements and some additional points added for their own particular reasons. Mark, for instance, adds a lengthy explanation of what the Jews’ tradition of the elders was (7:3-4) and he also speaks of hands being defiled if unwashed (7:2,5) something which Matthew appears to presume his readers will understand. This has been taken by some to indicate that Matthew was writing predominantly for a Jewish readership but it could also be the case that the author felt that no explanation was needed when duplicating a manuscript he had or that his intended recipients already knew well about Jewish legalism and Pharisaism.
Mark 7:19 where the author adds the comment that, by what Jesus said, He was declaring all foods clean, is also more especially relevant to a Gentile readership than a Jewish one for it gives the reader the straightforward statement that they needn’t follow after the Jewish definition of what constituted both clean and unclean foods.
On the other hand, Matthew adds a note to explain that the Pharisees were known to have taken offence at what Jesus had said (15:12-14) whereas Mark gives his readers no direct indication that this was so - it seems hardly possible that Jesus’ rebuke would have brought delight, however, but it does show the reader that the disciples were actually concerned for the standing of their Master in the eyes of the religious leadership - something which it seems clear was not high on the agenda of Jesus Himself!
Apart from these additions, the two texts follow each other quite well except that the subjects are rearranged - especially towards the beginning where Mark brings the declaration of the relevance of an OT Scripture immediately to bear upon the situation (Mark 7:6-7) and then adds the opening sentence of Jesus’ reply as recorded by Matthew (Mark 7:8) before adding that Jesus continued speaking to them by giving them the example of how they made void Scripture for the sake of their tradition (Mark 7:10-13), something which, as we’ll see below, was an integral part of their interpretative structure, going one step further by stating in the Mishnah that more importance lay in observing their own interpretations than did observing the words of the Old Testament.
I find it interesting that Peter speaks on behalf of the disciples privately (Mtw 15:15, Mark 7:17) and takes Jesus’ teaching of the crowds as a ‘parable’ when what Jesus actually said (Mtw 15:10-11, Mark 7:14-16) appears to have been fairly straightforward and easy to comprehend. Perhaps there’s a good case here for seeing the disciples as interpreting everything they fail to understand as a parable and therefore feel they have need of another explanatory word.
There’s one further point which needs to be made here before we go on to consider and define the ‘tradition of the elders’ in the next section (Mtw 15:2) and that is Jesus’ statement concerning the ‘word of God’ in Mtw 15:6 and Mark 7:13. The reader who has been following this commentary from the first few pages will already see that I have made a clear distinction between the ‘word of God’ and Scripture and have shown on a previous web page under the heading ‘Scripture and the Word of God’ that, nearly always in the NT, the ‘word of God’ refers to what is being spoken whereas Scripture to that which is written.
It’s an important differentiation to make for, in the places where a definition of the ‘word of God’ is not easily forthcoming, the likelihood of the phrase meaning a written word is slim. This hasn’t stopped us from misinterpreting vast numbers of Scriptures in the Church, however, and taking them to refer to the Bible when they probably aren’t doing so at all.
There are two exceptions to the list of definitive NT passages, however, and one of them occurs here in two parts - the other is Heb 5:12. Mtw 15:6 records Jesus as saying to the scribes and Pharisees that
‘...for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God’
and there is no way, I feel, that the phrase can mean anything other than the OT Scriptures. The margin in the RSV and Mathag, however, both point out that there’s some variation in the manuscripts at this point and that it’s possible that the original reading was, instead of ‘word of God’, ‘law of God’.
This certainly seems more in keeping with the Jewish feel of this passage. As we’ve noted above, Matthew’s text lacks any explanation of the tradition of the elders and this is a pointer towards the original manuscript from which Matthew was compiled as being specifically written for the Jewish rather than Gentile believer.
‘Law of God’, therefore, is a much better rendering in the passage and in keeping with the overall feel. However, there are no such doubts about the parallel passage in Mark 7:13 where ‘word of God’ also appears as a phrase representative of that which is written and we are obliged to accept this verse as proving that this turn of phrase could be used to represent the OT Scriptures.
Nevertheless, it’s still the case that, apart from two specific occurrences, wherever the ‘word’ or ‘word of God’ occur in the NT and are defined by the context, they always refer to that which is spoken and not to that which is written.
Background to the Tradition of the Elders
The phrase which occurs in this passage - the ‘tradition of the elders’ (Mtw 15:2) - needs some explanation seeing as, today, ‘traditions’ are normally associated with those things that man has clung on to when God has moved on to do something new with His people. Being content with what they have, God’s people can often miss out on what God is wanting to do in the present and what He wants to do next.
Having the form (that is, the methods and procedures within which God was on the move in times past) without the power is a ‘tradition’. This concept of what a tradition is falls far outside the definition of what we should understand by this phrase, the ‘tradition of the elders’.
I guess that, if we’re even more cynical in our view of Church leadership and we attend a fellowship which has elders and deacons as positions of authority within it, we may even like to associate what these people want done within the congregation as the ‘tradition’ which is being opposed by Jesus here.
And there are probably a great many more interpretations depending on the background of the reader. This is why it’s necessary for us to try to understand how the tradition of the elders both began and developed so that we can come to terms with what it is that Jesus is opposing.
In 586BC, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the Temple was destroyed and the people of the southern Kingdom of Judah went into exile from their land (II Kings 25:1-21), not just into areas that were controlled by the conquering army but into places such as Egypt which lay outside their direct control (Jeremiah chapters 42-43). Around a hundred and forty years earlier in 722BC, Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel had similarly fallen but to the Assyrians (II Kings chapter 17) so that the land promised to Abraham and his descendants had no direct Jewish control over it and the poor of the land became the inhabitants.
However, when the Jews began to return in 538BC, the remnant that came back realised that their exile had been the result of the nation’s apostasy and idolatry - in very broad terms, what the nation had fallen foul of was to obey the requirements of the Mosaic Law and it was this which had caused God’s wrath to be poured out upon the nation.
After their return, therefore, the religious leaders tried to put a ‘hedge’ around the Torah, the Mosaic Law, so that Israel as a nation would be obedient to the its requirements. This ‘hedge’ took the form of an expansion of the Law with applications and interpretations that were passed on by word of mouth through successive generations (see Aboth 3:14 which talks about their tradition being a ‘fence around the Law’).
After all, some of the rules and regulations appear somewhat vague and clear guidelines as to the full meaning and application was necessary if the Jew was to perfectly obey the Law to the absolute letter, so the reasoning goes.
These series of definitions and expansions, therefore, came to be known as the ‘Oral Law’. But interpretation followed interpretation until eventually the volume of interpretations far outweighed the original law upon which it was based - the Mishnah, the first attempt at recording this new law runs to almost eight hundred pages!
The Pharisees (from a Hebrew word meaning ‘separatist’) came to accept that the Oral Law was of equal standing with the Mosaic Law and, inevitably, a time came when it came to be regarded as even more important than the original Scriptures. Sanhedrin 11:3 emphasises this point when it observes that
‘Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] Law. If a man said “There is no obligation to wear phylacteries” so that he transgresses the words of the Law, he is not culpable; [but if he said] “There should be in them five partitions” so that he adds to the words of the Scribes, he is culpable’
It should be understood, however, that their position was an entirely logical one if based upon their own assumptions for, if the Law was ambiguous and needed interpretation and lacked in detail, and if perfect obedience to the Law and all its commands was binding upon each and every Israelite that the nation might find acceptance before God, then every Jew had to know exactly what it was that was meant by it.
But, instead of absolute truth, they arrived at considered opinion and then substituted the former label onto the latter, making their own interpretations - rather than the Law - to be binding and necessary on all Israel. We certainly shouldn’t stand back in horror and vow that we wouldn’t do the same thing for, in the Church, we tend to be very professional at condemning other religious movements as being opposed to God while at the same time duplicate some of their own practices in our midst!
If God is not able to interpret Scripture to the reader, then we most definitely need men and women to tell us what it means and to follow their interpretations as being from the very presence of God. But, if the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, what’s needed is not interpreters but listeners!
Modern day pharisaical interpretation can be seen in a great many denominations that seek to serve God, and the credal statement of many can instantly be seen, very often, to labour on minor issues rather than on foundational ones. For some, the speaking in unknown languages is the only certain proof that a person has been filled with the Holy Spirit and, for others, such a phenomenon died out with the early Church. Others don’t speak in unknown languages but would like to while still others do speak in other languages but abuse it.
Interpretation which limits excesses can become more important than the actual Scripture and frighten believers into withdrawing from a desire to experience God more fully. The Pharisees’ interpretations, however, were founded upon the necessity to obey perfectly God’s commands and to outwork it into every conceivable situation that a Jew might find themselves in. Instead of leaving interpretation open to the believer, they had to define, expand and multiply the application.
Danby notes that the greater authority of the Oral Law over that which was written was inevitable
‘...since the tradition of the elders, besides claiming an authority and continuity equal to that of the Written Law, claims also to be its authentic and living interpretation and its essential complement’
But he also uncannily comments on the position of the traditional church when confronted with a new tradition which seeks to undermine the present methodology by noting that they will
‘...adhere loyally and unquestioningly to every detail of traditional usage and venerate it the more by reason of the attacks on its authority and sanctity; and he may also, for purposes of controversy, set himself to find in the written code itself explicit or implicit sanction for traditional usage’
Such a position has been adopted by a great many denominations when an outworking of God has come into a new or changed society and brought with it new methodology and procedures which appear to undermine fundamental truths about God Himself. That the Church has often been in a similar position to the Pharisee down through the ages is apparent - but that it should ever have condemned its opponent as revealed in the NT with one sentence and then sought to continue in a similar vein with the next is almost unbelievable.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a religious group who relied more upon the original Scriptures than did the Pharisees who, by the time Jesus was around, had already elevated their own interpretations over and above it. Therefore, Mtw 22:29 is quite some indictment if we understand their position correctly for Jesus says categorically that they don’t even know the Scriptures - and these are the people who prided themselves on taking Scripture as the first place to decide matters of dissension!
Josephus notes the dichotomy between the Pharisees and Sadducees in Antiquities 13.10.6 where he writes that
‘...the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers’
On the whole, the Sadducees were the upper class while the Pharisees, the middle and lower, the common people holding the latter with a much higher regard than the former, partly because they came from within their own ranks and partly also because they seemed so holy and righteous before God that their lifestyles were something which was to be emulated rather than ridiculed. If a present day believer were to consider both positions, he would undoubtedly want to side with the Sadducee seeing as he relied more on Scripture than upon man made tradition but, as the Sadducees produced the high priest, and it was this group of people who ultimately had Jesus arrested and crucified, it would be better if they sided with no one!
Although I’ve stated that the origin of the tradition of the elders comes from after the return from exile in the sixth century BC (it may have begun in the years in which the Jews were in exile but it developed a pace when they returned to the land), the record in Aboth 1:1 in the Mishnah pushes the date of its origin back firmly into the life and times of Moses himself. It states that
‘Moses received the [Oral] Law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders and the elders to the prophets and the prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue [a group of people who came to the land with Ezra]. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Law’
and goes on to catalogue the succession of people through whom the words were passed right down to the present day, thus securing a commitment to its commands and regulations which a person would have to ignore at their peril if they believed the historical claims.
This, of course, has no Scriptural foundation (though some feel that the existence of seemingly local regulations which aren’t catalogued in the Mosaic Law are indicative of the existence of an Oral Law and so substantiate the Mishnah’s claims), but what it did was to justify the Oral Law as being from God just as much as that which had been written down.
Danby’s footnote in the Mishnah at this point is worth considering for he notes that
‘The Law [Torah] throughout post-biblical Jewish religious literature has the threefold connotation of
‘a. the Pentateuch, the Written Law
‘b. the traditions of the elders - rules of Jewish life and religion which in the course of centuries had come to possess a validity and sanctity equal to that of the Written Law and which, as the Oral Law, were deemed, equally with the Written Law, to be of Divine origin and therefore consonant with and, for the most part, deducible from the Written Law, and
‘c. the study of the Law in its twofold aspect, a study which sought to sanction by deeper understanding the seeming variations between the Oral and Written Law, to apply the Law to present-day life and by successive interpretations to solve new problems by the authority of the Law, written and oral’
To the question as to why the Oral Law wasn’t written down at the same time as the written law, the answer was that Moses did indeed desire to commit it to writing but was forbidden by God because in the days to come Israel would be scattered among the nations and the written law would be taken from them. The Oral Law would then be the distinctive badge of the Israelite. None of this is Scriptural, of course, but the silence of the Scriptures make it possible for this path to be taken and for the importance of the Oral Law to be justified.
After the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the Oral Law (the ‘tradition of the elders’) continued to be passed on by word of mouth until around 200AD (some place the date in the last quarter of the second century) when Rabbi Jehuda (or ‘Judah’) brought it together in written form as the ‘Mishnah’ - the oral conversations of the Rabbis as they discussed the proper interpretation and course of action required of every Jew with regard to the Torah.
This means that, even in writing, the text must have evolved over a course of some time but it does show the place to which the Jews had arrived by this time with regard to the interpretation of the Mosaic Law. The Mishnah contains much more than this, however, and is an equally good record of what was generally believed to have been taking place in and around the Temple and how the festivals were being celebrated prior to 70AD. This latter information was all largely irrelevant to everyday life in the land of Israel at the time of writing seeing as the Temple had long since been destroyed and the sacrificial system abolished by the authorities over them, but a record of what was generally believed to have been the service of the Temple was vitally important to be recorded if the Rabbis, as I’m sure they did, believed that there would come a time when the Temple would be rebuilt and sacrifice reinstated.
The Mishnah is wholly the product of the Pharisean sect of the Jews, the Sadducees having long since lost their supremacy and authority over the people which seems to have coincided with the Roman conquest of the land in 70AD. Danby notes that it was this higher class of religious believer
‘...whose standards chiefly prevailed during the century before the destruction of Jerusalem...’
but, although it was from the Sadducean ranks that the high priest was chosen, it was the Pharisees who were held in high esteem amongst the people and who were the ones who were opposed in Israelite society only at the opposers’ own misfortune. Josephus comments in Antiquities 13.10.5 that the Pharisees
‘...have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed’
so that the populace would have taken their word over and against anyone who was opposing them - an indication that their proclamation that Jesus was casting out demons by demonic powers was something which must have cut very hard at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and which was more than a bad press report (Mtw 12:24)!
The Roman authorities appear to have accepted the new group of religious leaders after the destruction of the Temple as having authority in religious matters over those Jews below them and the Jews themselves appear to have regarded them as the rightful successors of the Jewish Sanhedrin which had sat in Jerusalem to decide on all matters too hard for the local courts. The president of this group became respected and acknowledged as the accredited leader of the Jews before the Roman authorities and the council set about trying to preserve the vast array of beliefs and customs that were in danger of being swallowed up by the destruction of the Temple and of the suspension of the sacrificial service.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Sadducees feature only briefly within the Mishnah’s pages, not only because they almost completely ceased to exist after the Temple’s destruction but because they were a sect which stood opposed to the Pharisaic Jews on numerous occasions and so could be undermined in a totally Pharisaic writing.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) comments on the Mishnah that it’s
‘...the oldest authoritative post-biblical collection and codification of Jewish oral laws, systematically compiled by Jewish scholars...over a period of about two centuries. The codification was given final form early in the third century AD by Judah ha-Nasi. The Mishnah supplements the written, or scriptural, laws found in the Pentateuch. It presents various interpretations of selective legal traditions that had been preserved orally since at least the time of Ezra (450BC)’
and it should be realised that, although there’s much additional information in the Talmud, the age of these instructions cannot be shown to be definitely from an earlier source to that of the Mishnah and are more likely to have been later considerations of it, EB stating that
‘Intensive study of the Mishnah by subsequent scholars...in Palestine and Babylonia resulted in two collections of interpretations and annotations of it called the Gemara or Talmud. In the broader sense of the latter terms, the Mishnah and Gemara together make up the Talmud’
Danby, the translator of the copy of the Mishnah in my possession, sees the origin of the Mishnah not as far back as does EB (and certainly not as far back as Encarta which speaks of the origins being likely to have occurred as claimed by the Mishnah itself and noted above) and he writes in his introduction that
‘The Mishnah may be defined as a deposit of four centuries of Jewish religious and cultural activity in Palestine, beginning at some uncertain date (possibly during the earlier half of the second century BC) and ending with the close of the second century AD’
Danby is quite correct to observe that
‘...while Judaism and Christianity alike venerate the Old Testament as canonical Scripture, the Mishnah marks the passage to [modern day] Judaism as definitely as the New Testament marks the passage to [modern day] Christianity’
and, if we take the two works as running side by side, we often see a fair amount of bleed over from the Mishnah into the NT and, whatever the precise time period over which the Mishnah remains a compilation, this collection of writings remains to the Biblical scholar the best compilation available which can illuminate numerous points in Scripture - especially in the NT - that would otherwise be interpreted in a Western and Gentile way rather than in a Jewish and Rabbinic one.
In summary, the Oral Law was drawn out of Scripture (though often misinterpreted) and became an addition to it that eventually became more important than the original writings. This Oral Law, which was committed to writing probably somewhere late on in the second century AD is what would have been regarded as the ‘tradition of the elders’ back in the times of Christ and it’s this concept which lies behind the use of the term rather than anything which we may like to attach to it from our own, present day, fellowships.
2. The Washing of Hands
It’s not my intention here to provide the reader with an exposition or an explanation of the contents of the Mishnah but there is a specific issue at stake in Mtw 15:1-20 concerning the washing of the hands before eating which needs to be set into its context within the Rabbi’s Oral Law so that we might understand their position. It will also help us to perceive how certain non-Scriptural commandments were achieved from passages in the OT which don’t comment directly on the situation which Jesus and His disciples experienced.
It certainly wasn’t a matter of personal hygiene that caused the Pharisees and the scribes to command all Jews to wash their hands but one of religious, ceremonial cleansing. We sometimes forget that, in the days of Jesus, men and women didn’t have a concept generally of small microbes infecting them whether through cuts and grazes or as contaminated parts of the food they were eating.
But ceremonial defilement through the impartation of ritual impurity was a problem which the religious leaders had caused to be spoken against through an interpretation of Scripture that said nothing to any such effect.
When they came to Jesus and asked Him why His disciples transgressed their tradition, it was as if they were saying that the disciples were living in opposition to the Law of God delivered to Moses at Sinai but, as we saw in the previous section, such a position was particularly applicable only where the words and interpretations of the leaders had been elevated over and above the Mosaic Law so that it became more important than the origin of their belief.
Although we could try to find some direct command in the Law, nothing of any great relevance appears there, the only references to the washing of hands are in two places and neither give any indication that they should be interpreted this way. There are numerous references to the cleansing of one’s clothes and even to the immersion of one’s body in water, but as to the washing of the hands, there are only two places where it’s mentioned.
The first occurs in Ex 30:17-21, 40:30-32 when Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons came in to the Tabernacle, into the presence of God, and they were commanded to wash their hands and feet. The reason here was that any defilement was to be removed from them as they came in to meet with and to minister to God.
The second occurs in Deut 21:1-9 (especially verse 6) in the situation of a man being found slain and the murderer was unknown. The elders of the nearest city had to purge the guilt of innocent blood from their midst by breaking the neck of a heifer and washing their hands in water while proclaiming their innocence.
But any connection in either of these passages with the participation in food is entirely coincidental and is imagined if drawn out from them. So just where did the scribes and Pharisees get this teaching from if their traditions were drawn from the Mosaic Law?
Although the following progression of thought may be considered to be purely fanciful, it does represent one possibility (and there are probably a multitude of others) which could be based upon Scriptural principles that would lead to the same conclusion. The reader may feel that my suggestions are somewhat contrived but, below, you’ll come across a few genuine examples of other ancient and modern interpretations of the Law which we would possibly dismiss as equally contrived and impossible if it weren’t for the fact that these are true!
If the religious Jew started with Lev 15:5-7 (in the context of 15:1-4), he would immediately see that touching an unclean thing or committing a sin renders a person unclean by contact. This is only the principle but it’s one that can be used repeatedly to arrive at the conclusion that the washing of hands is necessary before food is eaten for, if the person who’s now become unclean goes off and touches either something or someone, the object or the person would also become unclean (Lev 5:2-3, 15:4,11).
If that second person - who has rendered himself unclean through contact with the first one or through coming into contact with an object that has had uncleanness imparted to it - went ahead and handled his food in this unclean state, the food would also be rendered unclean. And, if you ate unclean food, it was a direct breach of the Mosaic law (Deut 14:3-20).
Just how far this transmission of uncleanness could go is not certain, but Hagigah 3:2 in the Mishnah comments that
‘Hallowed things can be rendered invalid [by uncleanness] at a fourth remove [A to B to C to D] but Heave Offering only at a third remove [A to B to C]...’
This doesn’t directly mention common, ordinary food but one would have thought that the very most that uncleanness could be thought to be transmitted through would be the same as that of the Heave Offering, and Hagigah 2:5 (I will quote this below) lists this offering in the same category as ‘unconsecrated’ food which would validate the association and similarity.
While it may be an easy thing to recognise uncleanness when directly imparted to an individual, it couldn’t have been easy for the Jew to know when third party uncleanness was being passed on to him so that the washing of one’s hands (and food vessels also - Mark 7:3-4) made sure that all contact with the food didn’t transfer any uncleanness to it.
There’s a statement in Tohoroth 4:11 which infers that, should the Jew be unsure whether uncleanness had been imparted, the assumption should be that it hasn’t and so the hands could be considered ‘clean’. However, for the sake of knowing that one had been in contact with men and women who would have cared little for ceremonial cleanness, the washing of one’s hands was a necessary precaution. Incidentally, the touching of the Scriptures was something which rendered the hands ‘unclean’ (Yadaim 3:5) so that many of the more religious Jews who read and studied the Mosaic Law every day would have always been in need of ritual cleansing.
Therefore, through the Scriptures, an additional rule can quite easily be brought into existence which ultimately becomes more important than the original commandments which were delivered to the nation in the wilderness. Mathag, on the other hand, states that
‘The Pharisees...had taken the commandment to priests concerning the washing of hands and feet before performing their temple duties...and had applied it to all Jews in the blessing preceding the eating of meals’
which, although perhaps more possible, it’s unsubstantiated by the Jewish source he cites from the Mishnah and it must remain yet another suggestion rather than a categorical proof of how the commandment was developed.
We’ll see below how this practice of washing the hands cut at the very heart of the Truth which Jesus was teaching - after we’ve looked at some other examples of how the Law has been taken to yield commandments that weren’t part of God’s original intention, or even part of His secondary will for them - but it might be advantageous for us if we pause briefly here to consider what it exactly meant to wash one’s hands before eating food.
There are many regulations in present day Judaism and a lot of what I’ve read in commentaries and Jewish resources tends to add too much to what may have been the practice at the time of Christ. Rather, we need to look very briefly in the Mishnah, specifically the tractate Yadaim (meaning ‘hands’) in the division of Tohoroth (meaning ‘cleannesses’). This division is a fairly lengthy one and covers such topics as the correct form of cleansing for Vessels (Kelim), those that have a discharge (Zabim) and the grades of water that were permissible to be used for the cleansings mentioned (Mikwaoth).
It can be seen, therefore, that the Jews took the matter of ceremonial defilement with great seriousness and solemnity and that they must have felt deeply offended when the disciples were allowed to eat without first washing their hands.
Some background to this washing of hands is given in Hagigah 2:5 where ordinary everyday food is mentioned with the reference to that which is ‘unconsecrated’. It reads
‘For [the eating of food that is] unconsecrated or [Second] Tithe or Heave Offering, the hands need but to be rinsed [in the manner of Yadaim 1:1 - Danby’s footnote]; and for Hallowed Things they need to be immersed; and in what concerns the Sin Offering water, if a man’s hands are unclean, his whole body is deemed unclean’
We can see here that, so long as we’re thinking of unconsecrated food, the hands only needed to be rinsed but, if the food stuff was ‘holy’ (such as the portion offered in sacrifice to God which the worshipper also participated in - Lev 7:15), the hands needed to be immersed.
Berakoth 8:2-4 gives the Jew the correct place in the meal at which the hands needed to be rinsed but there’s some division amongst the differing schools of Shammai and Hillel as to whether the wine mixing or the washing takes place and also as to where the napkin with which one dries the hands is laid. They also disagree concerning whether one should sweep the room up before or after the washing of the hands! We needn’t go in to these conflicts except to note that, amongst the Jews, it wasn’t just the washing of hands that was commanded by the tradition of the elders but the correct order of events at the meal table were vitally necessary to observe if the washing was to be considered valid (we can see, therefore, that the scribes and Pharisees’ question to Jesus would have only been the start of the argument had He responded to it - there was a whole plethora of other rules and regulations which would have had to have been fulfilled for the washing to have been considered valid).
Yadaim, though, actually gives us the main procedure for the rinsing of the hands. At the very beginning (Yadaim 1:1), the tractate states that
‘[To render the hands clean] a quarter-log or more [of water] must be poured over the hands [to suffice] for one person or even for two; a half-log or more [suffices] for three persons or for four...’
where a ‘quarter-log’ is taken to be equal in volume to that of an egg and a half (if my maths and conversion formulae are correct, that’s about 75 cubic centimetres or 15% of an imperial pint). Although very small quantities of water were needed, the correct application was vital for it to render the hands clean.
Yadaim 1:2 then moves on to define the type of vessel which could be used and 1:3 to define the type of water which was valid (you do see how the Pharisees and scribes’ question wasn’t as straightforward as it sounded, don’t you?). The problem of what a man should do if he was alone is dealt with in Yadaim 1:5 which states that
‘A man may put the jar between his knees and so pour out the water; he may turn the jar on its side and so pour out the water; and an ape [?!] may pour out the water over a man’s hands’
Having defined the vessel and type of water, the volume needed and what a man should do if he was alone (and some other problems which I haven’t commented on here), the tractate goes on to define which area the water had to be poured over. Yadaim 2:3 commands that
‘The hands are susceptible to uncleanness and they are rendered clean [by the pouring over them of water] up to the wrist...’
which is followed by a lengthy description of what would happen if one hand had water poured over it beyond the wrist and if the water, once poured, flowed back into the hand. As I’ve said previously, washing the hands was not as simple as we’d like to imagine from the religious leaders’ question to Jesus. If He’d defended the disciples by saying that they’d previously washed, they could have maintained that it hadn’t been done in the correct order, that they’d used the wrong vessel or that they’d used the wrong type of water.
Even if Jesus had stopped His disciples and insisted that they wash their hands then and there, the water might still not flow on the right parts of the hands or, even worse, flow back onto the hands once it had flowed passed the wrist! So their question is far from simple and, at the back of it, lies all the burdensome rules and regulations associated with their ceremony, drawn from the Scriptures but certainly not commanded there.
3. Other Ceremonial Interpretations
We shouldn’t think that such ceremonial religion was confined solely to the washing of one’s hands and that, had Jesus conformed Himself to their tradition, they would have gone away and let Him be. There was a multitude of observances that, instead of keeping the nation morally pure before God, pushed them aside into ceremonial issues that were a burden upon the people. Instead of placing a hedge or fence around the Law (Aboth 3:14), they actually had undermined its importance by deflecting the followers of God into side issues.
One of these is mentioned in Kerithoth 3:8 which states that
‘...on the eve of Passover a man would go to the physician and he would cut [the boil] and leave but a hair’s breadth; he then stuck it on a thorn and drew himself [suddenly] away from it. Thus the man was able to bring his Passover Offering and the physician was able to bring his Passover Offering’
I hope that you’re not feeling too nauseous after reading that! The point of it was this - if the physician cut the boil fully off, he would render himself unclean by contact with dead skin but, if the person with the boil did nothing about his condition, he would be unable to be considered clean because of the boil. Therefore, in order to bring about ceremonial purity, the physician cut the boil in such a way that it was still attached to the man and was, therefore, not dead flesh. Having the boil ‘hanging on by a thread’ was still problematical but, finding the nearest thorn bush, the patient snagged the boil onto one of the sharp barbs and drew himself away suddenly so that, as it was severed, the uncleanness wasn’t imparted to himself.
We may think that the washing of one’s hands was a ‘one off’ problem but this case is no less fanciful and absurd as is the former. And, what’s more, it’s stated in the Mishnah as being an event which took place so that ceremonial purity might be maintained!
To give one more example from the Mishnah’s pages and which is still maintained amongst the religious Jews in the present day, Deut 14:21 at the very end of the verse reads
‘...You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’
and, although, we might take this as a straightforward statement, the Rabbis couldn’t help themselves but reinterpret it to apply to all manner of circumstances that the Law said nothing about. Therefore, in Hullin 8:4, we read the statement (my italics) that
‘It is forbidden to cook or to benefit at all from the flesh of a clean beast together with the milk of a clean beast...’
but, so long as the mixture was clean/unclean, both benefit and cooking was permitted. The principle of the Scripture was taken to infer that no dairy product could be mixed with a meat product from the same type of animal - and by ‘type’, I don’t mean the same species but whether the animals were considered to be either ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ to eat as recorded in Leviticus chapter 11.
Very simply - but too general a statement to be wholly accurate - the religious Jew could never eat both meat and milk together. Gone, therefore, was a cheese sauce with some steak or a yoghurt after the meal if you’d had a lamb chop as the main course. And this statute is maintained even down to the present day amongst the religiously strict because the OT Law has been hedged about and interpreted to mean that all meat and dairy products from clean animals or unclean ones [this is the implication of the Mishnah even though the unclean milk and meat mixture would never be eaten] cannot be eaten together.
I’ve also heard - but can’t find it in the Mishnah and so offer it only as a logical outworking of this regulation - that there is a fixed time after eating either dairy or meat products when a Jew can’t choose to eat the ‘other’ type which can’t be mixed - and this because he must be careful in case he thinks that the mixing of both products in his stomach and intestinal tract wouldn’t be considered to be an infringement of the Law.
Finally, one other interpretation of Judaism which has no Mishnaic foundation but which I was told about by a Jewish believer. Whether this is true or not, I cannot determine but it has an air of truth about it which makes me think that it isn’t so far removed from reality.
I was told that, if a Jew is to travel by boat and the journey takes in a sabbath, then he must board the boat three days before it sails. And the reason? Because Jews are to rejoice on the sabbath - but this can’t be done properly if one is sea sick. So, three days was the time decided upon by the Rabbis in which a Jew could be sick, recover and get used to it in time to be able to rejoice on the sabbath according to the commandment.
As can be seen, the tradition of the elders added a heavy burden around the necks of the people (Mtw 23:4). By using Deut 17:8-11, it was easily possible to assert that whatever the Jewish religious courts decided upon was authoritative and should be obeyed by the nation of Israel. This Scripture is used in Sanhedrin 11:2 to justify the court’s supremacy in making decisions which were to be binding in matters and, following on from this verse, is the statement which we’ve previously quoted which states that
‘Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] Law...’
a clear indication that the religious leaders saw themselves as the end of all religious rule and authority in Israel. But we mustn’t - we really mustn’t - point the finger at the religious Jews both of the first century and even of the present day and think that the finger doesn’t also point back squarely at ourselves in the Church. Most denominations - and individuals as well - have their own interpretations of Scripture that define lifestyles and the things they do and react to in the world around them.
We raise up leaders over us (or they raise themselves up) and declare themselves to be the end of all decision making and authority, even warning others below them that if they oppose the Lord’s anointed (which, strangely enough, is always themselves), they will be opposing God. And, if this is done, the believer will be in rebellion and on the side of satan! How can anyone defy such logic?! As soon as one disagrees or opposes a leader, one immediately stands self-condemned!
But we also have our pet traditions which pull away from interdenominational unity - the breaking of bread is celebrated so differently in fellowships and, yet, each one seems to have the right way of doing it (if, however, you looked at the Scriptures, you’d see that no one does it the way it was commanded!) and this remains a point of division. Even times of meetings, whether we meet in houses or specific buildings, whether we stand on street corners to reach people or advertise ourselves so they come to us, whether we use guitars or organs for song and whether we have elders, deacons, vicars, wardens, apostles, teachers or no labels at all - these are all points of division which have been developed by interpretations of Scripture that have now become firmly entrenched beliefs which take the place of Scripture - in exactly the same way as the tradition of the elders took the place of the OT.
Inferences which aren’t categorically stated within the pages of the Bible will always be dicey propositions which can make way for even greater problems when the assertion is subsequently developed. I’ve heard it said that Mtw 22:39 teaches the disciple the importance of self-worth and self-love when Jesus noted that the command
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’
was one of the two guiding principles of the Mosaic Law. Actually, Jesus was trying to divert many’s self-love away from themselves to others and to show that the time for building one’s own kingdom to the detriment of other people had long since been spoken against. Rather, the disciple is to look after other’s needs before seeking to care for oneself - but, by taking the Scripture to infer something it doesn’t, the gates begin to open to lead the disciple towards a condition where all that can be said is that self-pampering is taking the place of individual sacrifice and commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel.
To give one final seemingly harmless example - but which may also be rooted in a misunderstanding of Mtw 22:39 - I once noticed a youth leader’s wife had just had a new hairstyle since we’d last met. It really didn’t bother me (as most things don’t when they aren’t a matter of living against God’s will directly revealed in the Scriptures) and I noticed that she had blonde ‘dots’ on the hair on the back of her neck (I was marching behind her in a christian witness somewhere in Devon, I seem to recall).
Anyway, it puzzled me so I asked what the dots were for and I was told because that was her name - Dorothy, which is shortened in the UK very often to ‘Dot’. Well, that both amused and bewildered me, and I can’t remember if I laughed or let my face project puzzlement. But the youth leader jumped in and told me that fancy hair-dos for women was perfectly justifiable because it said in the Bible (I Cor 11:15) that
‘...if a woman has long hair, it is her pride...’
and that she has to look after what God’s given her - he actually called a woman’s hair her ‘glory’ which is the AV rendering of the sentence but the meaning is the same. The point I’m trying to make is this - Scripture doesn’t justify hair perms but the leader had done the very same thing as the Pharisees had done. By taking a Scripture and misinterpreting it, he’d arrived at a conclusion that he was living by and no amount of dissuasion could then pull away from the money his wife would spend on her hair care!
I don’t care whether women have good hair-dos - or whether they don’t (but I Peter 3:3 should be remembered!). I’m not concerned whether it’s got natural colouring, is bleached or is green with purple stripes (actually, I think I’d prefer the latter) but I am concerned that we live as Christ in the world and that isn’t dictated to us by changing our hairstyle or hair colour - the same as it makes no difference how we organise the breaking of bread or what label we put on leaders.
To be legally correct is not the New Covenant and it never was. But to serve God in the freedom of following the moving of His Spirit as He decides and not conforming to labels that restrict God’s expression is the way to live before Him - while all the time responding to Him by demonstrating the nature of Christ before the world. This is, indeed, a sufficient injunction, it has to be said, that will keep us from murdering, stealing, committing adultery or doing anything else that would harm those around us.
4. Jesus’ Teaching
We’ll be looking at the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching when we finally get around to considering the passage but, seeing as Jesus goes on to outline why the Pharisees’ position is so wrong, we would do well to at least briefly note what wrong doctrine and theology of man lay as the background to the Scribal and Pharisaical injunction to wash one’s hands.
We’ve previously seen that the washing of the hands was surrounded by a great burden of related traditions which meant that this one small command was supported by a voluminous series of other necessary actions. But what lay behind it was also a wrong assumption about the nature of man which Jesus needed to correct before both the multitudes and His disciples.
And this can be the case also in the Church where a wrong interpretation can be accepted into a believer’s life but which actually undermines fundamental truths that are far more important (as we saw above with the case of the belief that we should love ourselves).
Jesus’ opposition to the tradition of the elders was at least twofold.
Firstly, by rejecting their interpretations, Jesus was teaching that no man has the authority to institute a series of beliefs or interpretations of Scripture that make void or contradict the plain and obvious truth of the Biblical record.
The Pharisees were concerned with the infallibility of their own tradition and of obedience to their authority, but Jesus showed the fallacy of their traditions and taught, rather, as One who had been given authority from above (Mtw 7:28-29).
Because Jesus has a perfect revelation of who the Father is (Mtw 11:27), only He is in the position of absolute authoritative interpretation of both the Scriptures and the will of God.
While commentaries such as this one may point the way and show the disciple the principles of the passages in question, they can never truly be authoritative in the same way as Jesus’ words are - and that’s the same for any council or leadership which has under them the people of God. Leadership is never supposed to impose regulations but to guide believers into all the truth, opposing what is against fundamental positions but being careful not to make inferences legally binding upon followers of Christ - when the Church met in Jerusalem, they were extremely careful not to lay legal burdens upon the Gentiles (Acts 15:1-35).
Secondly, by Jesus’ explanation both to the crowds and to the disciples (Mark 7:14-23), He taught that defilement and uncleanness was not a matter of external objects (that is, things outside the body) but defilement before God came from within a man.
The scribes and Pharisees were so busy cleansing the outside of a man with their traditions that they’d forgotten that inward cleanliness was the fulfilment and requirement of the Law (Mtw 23:25-28). As Markcole comments
‘[The Pharisees] assumed an initially pure state: not so the Lord. For Him, the source of all defilement was not external but within man himself’
a teaching which may undercut a lot of belief in the world where man is presumed to be good at heart and capable of total self-reformation if circumstances outside his control are altered to encourage it. In keeping with the tradition of the elders, the present world delights in thinking of ‘sin’ (if, indeed, it does use that term) as something external and which can be removed - not seeing that the very cause of all man’s problems lies within his very heart and life.
Many fellowships have given themselves over to just such a belief and are more concerned to alleviate problems in people’s lives who live round about them than they are with alleviating the problem of the people through the proclamation of the Gospel. Such a tradition in first century Israel, however, had come from the Scriptures but also denied the very Scriptures on which it was based. Therefore Jesus opposes it with a lengthy explanation of their position and His own and why man’s real problem isn’t external ceremonial uncleanness but internal moral filth.
The Passage as a whole
My first main encounter with this passage was way back in the dim and distant past when I was asked to speak on the parallel passage of Mark chapter 7. I remember then that the preparation of the sermon took me the best part of two months and that I struggled to get to grips with all the teaching that Jesus was bringing to those people who were listening to Him.
It wasn’t that I disagreed with what Jesus was saying or that it challenged some deep-rooted belief that I held and which I didn’t want to throw away, but that I was forced into doing a considerable amount of background study on the tradition of the elders, even producing a small leaflet (one A4 sheet in incredibly small handwriting!) to handout to people to explain them the concept which lay behind the oral law.
These considerations have already been done above and they’re an integral part of what will follow even though I’ve had to separate them so as not to interrupt the overall flow of the passage.
Mtw 15:1-20 is another one of those passages that needs to be dealt with as a whole unit rather than to take individual verses or sentences and try to expound them to the reader. This is what I’ve attempted to do here and, in so doing, have almost certainly missed giving precise detail for some of the verses within the overall event.
Nevertheless, if I feel the subject matter warrants further treatment, I’ve done so under the final subject heading ‘Other Points’. Here, though, we must take a look at how Pharisaic beliefs had already interpreted the Jew as undefiled and acceptable to God and that all that was necessary was for this ‘cleanness’ to be maintained - a belief structure so close to that of the present world when applied to all mankind that it should send goosebumps down our backs!
Even worse is the fact that such a belief structure has also found its way into the life of the present day Church, especially through the teachings of an ancient believer named Pelagius (c.360-430AD) who’s influenced the new movement which likes to label itself ‘Celtic’ and which associates itself with the Irish monk Columba who began an evangelistic mission from the island of Iona in the west of Scotland, onto the mainland and, subsequently through his followers, down through most of England.
Jesus’ position, as we shall see, is fundamentally different from Pelagius and set in contrast to modern belief. Even though christians are called upon to accept people for who they are, there’s also a need to face up to the reality of what they are.
The first part of this passage (Mtw 15:1-9) can be used to indicate the reasons for Jesus opposing the tradition of the elders and the demands it put on each and every Jew to observe. Following this, we shall look at the second part (Mtw 15:10-20) which can be used to show us what Jesus was raising up in place of their insistence of the washing of hands.
While it’s quite true that both passages could be used for either category (for the positive must necessarily be opposing the negative), it seems easier to do it this way.
1. What was Jesus opposing?
There are three specific areas which Jesus is here opposing though two are indirect inferences which have been drawn out of our consideration above of what the tradition of the elders was and how it dealt with OT Scripture.
a. The commandments of men
Firstly, then, Jesus was setting Himself to oppose the commandment of men. Mtw 15:3 asks the scribes and Pharisees the question as to why they transgress the commandment of God
‘...for the sake of your tradition’
Mtw 15:6 notes Jesus as declaring something very similar where, for the sake of the observance of their tradition, the religious leaders not only disobey the OT commands but make it void - that is, they make it of no use whatsoever because it becomes subservient to their own interpretations. Finally, Mtw 15:9 is a quote from Is 29:13 and Jesus quotes it as saying that this elevation of the scribal law over and above the commandments is fulfilled in the phrase that they’re
‘...teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’
By what the Pharisees both taught and lived out, they were plainly going against the commands of Scripture. Jesus was teaching that no man has the authority to institute a series of beliefs or interpretations that go against what has been plainly recorded as being God’s will for mankind - in this case, the pages of the OT.
This is further illuminated by Jesus in His chosen example from the OT of the need for Jews to support and maintain their relatives but where the tradition of the elders was weighed in favour of that support being taken from them and given over to God (Mtw 15:4-5).
At first glance, one might consider that the Pharisees had hit the nail on the head and that their regulation showed the necessity of putting the things of God first over and above all other earthly considerations but, what it in effect did, was to rob the parents of honour which was interpreted as being commanded in the Scriptures.
As Matfran points out, this honouring of mother and father
‘...includes the financial responsibility of the child’
even though the Pharisees hadn’t taken this to be directly inferable from it, it would appear. He further comments that the strategy of declaring something ‘korban’ (that is, given to God) is that, although it prevented the parents of the individual from using it for their welfare, the child (an adult) still had the right to use it while he remained alive. It thus appears that declaring something as God’s, only prevented it’s use by others rather than give it immediately over into God’s service.
This term ‘korban’ or ‘konam’ is defined by Danby in his list of untranslated Hebrew terms as
‘...the usual term introducing a vow to abstain from anything or to deny another person the use of anything’
and this latter definition is the reason why it could be used cleverly to undermine the position of Scripture that children should so honour their parents even to the point of using their own resources for their support and welfare. This appears to be the reasoning behind a case in Nedarim 5:6 (the entire tractate of Nedarim deals with the validity of vows and the conditions surrounding them. We need not go into the ins-and-outs of all these, however, as they appear to be incredibly tedious from my cursory glance through them and of little value to our present study except in a couple of places) where we read that
‘It once happened that a man at Beth Horon whose father was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from him, was giving his son in marriage and he said to his fellow “The courtyard and the banquet are given to thee as a gift, but they are thine only that my father may come and eat with us at the banquet”...’
The property which was already ‘korban’ was tried to be passed over into the hands of another who could then allow the son and the father to enjoy the festal celebrations together. That the son could ‘benefit’ from that which was ‘korban’ is underlined here by the fact that it’s only the problem of the father that’s trying to be sorted out and it’s this idea of receiving any kind of benefit which lies at the root of the declaration of property and possession being ‘korban’.
The Sages, incidentally, forbade this practice because they reasoned that, if it was dedicated to God, it couldn’t be given to another - it had to remain as dedicated to God and removed from the father so that he was forbidden to benefit from the son’s possessions.
Nedarim 9:1, however, does allow for the taking back of the vow for the sake of the parents. It reads (my italics)
‘Rabbi Eliezer says: They may open for men the way [to repentance] by reason of the honour due to father and mother. But the Sages forbid it’
but this does appear to be one consideration amongst a few and, besides, this regulation doesn’t command the son to take back his possessions from being given over to God for the sake of a poor mother or father so that, in practice, this must have still continued. What the commandment does here in the Mishnah is to make it possible for the child to take back a vow but it doesn’t legislate that it will be given directly back to them against the will of the child or that a vow such as this one was prohibited.
Besides, Nedarim 3:1 records the four types of vows which the ‘Sages’ decided weren’t binding upon Israelites. These were
‘...vows of incitement, vows of exaggeration, vows made in error and vows [that cannot be fulfilled by reason] of constraint’
and none of these labels can be used at even the furthest stretch of the imagination to indicate that a vow which forbade a son being obligated to look after their parents would be declared null and void if made.
What Jesus is here speaking against, therefore, is valid, for the legislation in the Mishnah allowed for such a scenario to take place - even to the time of over a hundred years later after Jesus had ascended into Heaven.
To Jesus, Scripture has always the first and last word when it stands side by side with the interpretation of man which exalts itself to become more important. Deut 13:1-5 also notes that the problem of a false prophet and that if one should arise
‘...among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder...’
so that a direct commandment is negated by their teaching, then they are to be disregarded (actually, they’re to be put to death, but their teaching is definitely to be disregarded and rejected) and, similarly in Mtw 24:24 we read that, towards the end when Jesus will return to set up a visible Kingdom on earth
‘...false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect’
Not even a miracle is proof enough to heed words that plainly go against the revelation of God in Scripture. No matter what a man may say - or a group of religious leaders who have set themselves to hedge the Law about that it might be fully applied and understood - Scripture always has the last and concluding word.
And yet, the scribes and Pharisees had done no miracle to persuade the people but had assumed the authority of God upon themselves so that their words became of greater importance than the original Scriptures. Whenever the believer is confronted by a series of traditions within the Church which cut across the plain and obvious teaching of the Bible, he is urged by Jesus Himself (who gives them an example here to follow) to reject it for the sake of Truth.
The Corinthian church in the NT fell into a familiar problem by regarding too highly the ministers and messengers of God rather than the message which they brought. Therefore Paul speaks of the dissensions which he’d heard among them (I Cor 1:10) because they were beginning to create divisions by some of them asserting (I Cor 1:12)
‘...“I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ”’
As Paul urged them to consider (I Cor 3:5)
‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed...’
Each of them needed to remember that a man is only the channel through whom one learns about God and through whom one grows up into the fulness of Christ. There should no mentality which takes my words, for instance, to be authoritative and binding in all matters of dispute. But the common acceptance that Scripture needs to be referred to that decisions can be made between what is right and wrong is what is required.
The scribes and Pharisees were held in high regard amongst the people - just as many of today’s church leaders and travelling ministers are - but their words were taken as the full expression of Truth from the heart of God rather than for the words to be checked out with recourse to the Scriptures available to the ordinary people.
If we, in the Church, would rather be committed to listening to hear God through a man or woman, rather than to hang on every word they said, we would avoid ourselves from living under the commandments of men and be more likely to follow after God when we heard Him speak.
Jesus is opposing the traditions of men here, then - the commands and regulations which are imposed upon believers as being an integral part of what it means to serve God but which undermine the clearly revealed intentions of God Himself.
b. Additions to Scripture
Both this and the next section are more explanations of the previous one than points which stand on their own for, by instituting a series of beliefs which were summarised as being the commandments of men, there was a need to both add to and misinterpret Scripture for it to be achieved.
We saw previously under the section ‘The Washing of Hands’ that the command to the Israelites that hands needed to be washed before food was eaten was entirely superfluous to the Mosaic Law and that not so much a hint that this was necessary is contained therein. I also offered a logical development of certain Scriptures and concepts there which I showed could have been the reason why this action was required from all Israelites before going on to look at other additions which are recorded for us in the Mishnah.
There’s always a danger in adding to the body of literature which we accept as being Scripture. Though the believer will struggle to find a direct reference, for instance, to what they should do when confronted by the invention of the telephone or the popularity of the cinema, to make definitive statements which are not based upon a clear Scriptural statement can be, at best, misleading and inaccurate and, at worst, against what is clearly revealed about God elsewhere.
The believer who wants to know exactly what’s required of him in each and every situation which he encounters won’t find this position very acceptable, but the New Covenant is based upon a relationship, not upon a series of rules and regulations which are blindly followed (Jer 31:31-34). The need for a believer to hear directly from Heaven is vitally necessary if they are to be able to please God in everything they do - and, when no direct word is heard, a person’s relationship with God should be the underlying pointer in what needs to be done.
Prov 30:5-6 states that
‘Every word of God proves true...Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar’
I have previously noted above that Jesus refers to Scripture here as the ‘Word of God’, a clearly rare title where the phrase normally means that which is being spoken rather than that which has been written. But, if we accept that Scripture contains God’s speech, we can see how Prov 30:5-6 applies in informing the reader to be careful not to add words to what is clearly perceived as being from God in case it be shown that what has been added is clearly not what God said at all.
Deut 4:2 (see also Deut 12:32) is much more relevant to our present discussion seeing as it speaks of additions being made to the Mosaic Law rather than to the spoken word from God. It’s Moses who’s speaking here, however, not God, but his words are just as relevant. The Scripture commands the Israelites
‘You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you’
where both additions or subtractions from the Law are clearly tied up with a failure to observe what God has commanded them. The scribes and Pharisees had managed to do both aspects, however, by instituting a binding regulation in the washing of hands and by negating the clearly revealed problem with mankind in the Scriptures which needed dealing with (see below under ‘What was Jesus teaching?’). Similarly, by allowing a son to declare his property ‘korban’ (Mtw 15:4-5) they had taken away from the clear command that the mother and father needed to be honoured.
And, even more generally, by elevating their own interpretations over and above what was contained in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah (Sanhedrin 11:3), they were able to detract from the Law whenever their own rules and Scripture conflicted. The Jewish religious leaders had both added to the words of the Law by their own interpretations and had subtracted from it by negating some of its commands and were ultimately rebuked by the One who they thought they were serving by doing what they had (Mtw 15:3-9).
Any book or teaching that goes beyond the bounds of Scripture is another ‘tradition of the elders’ and not just that which was developed by the first century Jews. In this regard, the Church can be equally as guilty when we raise up texts that add commands and regulations to what has been clearly defined within Scripture’s pages.
Books and commentaries are good in their place and may help the follower to clearly perceive certain issues that he would otherwise miss. But, when they negate the Scriptures by their own conclusions or when they provide additional requirements of God upon believers, they are doing exactly the same thing as the scribes and Pharisees did through their own interpretations of the OT Law.
c. Misinterpretations of Scripture
It wasn’t just that the religious leaders had added to Scripture and so negated some of its commands, they’d also clearly misinterpreted some of its statements, distorted its truth and so come up with a theology and doctrine which was actually opposed to it.
Jesus’ statement concerning the washing of hands is shown by Him in the next section (Mtw 15:10-20) to be fundamentally flawed in that, at its base, it was seen to be proclaiming the purity of the Jews’ heart and life. I hesitated in including the ‘Gentile’ in my statement for that would have meant that the Jew regarded all mankind as being intrinsically clean before God, something which I don’t believe the religious Jew believed in first century Israel. The Jew was chosen specially by God and was therefore in a unique relationship with Him - but this was turned into automatic acceptance before God and the need to maintain rather than to attain cleanness before Him. The most that can be said is that the Jew regarded himself clean and in need of no dynamic cleansing (notice their reluctance to participate in the baptism for the repentance of sins through John the Baptist - Luke 7:30 - even though some of their ranks did go through the motions - Mtw 3:7) demonstrated by their commitment to outward forms of cleansing.
But this negated man’s deep and desperate inner need to be cleansed - their interpretation, therefore, was incorrect and displayed a misrepresentation of reality which Jesus will go on to correct in the second half of the passage and in front of the people gathered (Mtw 15:10-11).
The NT is plain that it’s vitally important not to interpret Scripture with one’s own understanding. II Peter 1:20-21 declares that
‘...no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God’
and, if this is accepted, the only way to accurately interpret Scripture is by a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit as to His clear intention. We may have our own pet methodologies of how we deal with passages but, without a revealing word from God, all such practices become pretexts. The commentator or expositor who relies more on interpretative structures than on God’s Spirit is generally unlikely to hit the truth of most of the passages they deal with. What’s always required is revelation (as I noted on a previous web page) - without it, each and every one of us is at best groping in the dark trying to find the handle of the door that lets in light to our understanding.
I know that revelation has received a bad press in recent years (see the web page linked to above) but it’s the only way for a believer to receive truth when they approach the Scriptures. Paul noted in I Cor 2:12-13 that all believers
‘...have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God’
and that, further, the interpretation of spiritual matters isn’t something which is left open to either chance or to the work of man but that it’s imparted by a revelation from the Holy Spirit who also interprets spiritual matters to those who possess the Spirit. Therefore Paul can also say that the group of apostles and travellers have (II Cor 4:2)
‘...renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word...’
because what they want to believe is consumed by what they have to believe when the Spirit moves upon them and reveals to them the truth. Interpretations of Scripture then become something that isn’t worked at or made to happen but an event which is imparted to the believer by the Spirit of God.
There are many who work on the Bible, who try to make it yield what they want it to. But true knowledge comes by receiving revelation, not by trying to summon something up from within Scripture’s pages.
Satan was one who used Scripture for his own ends. In the wilderness, he approached Jesus and used a verse or two to try and make it appear as if what he was urging upon Jesus was a recognised course of action that the Father would have Him do (Mtw 4:6). The Sadducees also were reproached by Jesus when he accused them of not knowing the Scriptures (Mtw 22:29) and this to the people who prided themselves on rejecting the traditions of the elders if the commandments weren’t specifically retrievable from the OT! As we can see, committing oneself to the all-sufficiency of the written Law of God wasn’t a sufficient safeguard against getting the wrong interpretation of it!
The apostle Peter also notes the problem (figuratively, speaking) with not only OT Scripture but with the more modern letters of Paul when he comments (I Peter 3:15-16) that
‘...our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him...There are some things in [his letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures’
an indication, incidentally, that Paul’s letters were already being regarded as on a par with the OT Scriptures. Just reading Scripture is not sufficient if it’s read with a mind that’s set on twisting what is being read to conform it to individual ideals and beliefs. Whether this is done through a lack of understanding (the ‘ignorant’) or through a life which is insufficiently founded upon Christ is immaterial - the point is that all Scripture can be used for a man’s own ends and forced to reveal a truth which is, in effect, a lie about the character of God.
The washing of hands commanded by the scribes and Pharisees was just such a misinterpretation - as are some beliefs and practices in our present day churches. Revelation is vitally important to straighten out our own ‘strange ideas’ where the Holy Spirit is allowed to speak through the Scripture to conform us to His image rather than we conforming the written word to our own.
2. What was Jesus teaching?
Just as the first nine verses help us to focus on the issues surrounding what Jesus was opposing in the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees that the washing of hands was obligatory upon all the Israelites to maintain ceremonial purity before God, so these last eleven verses can be used to illuminate the truth which Jesus is putting in their place.
To begin with, however, we’ll look at the foundational truth which lay behind the Pharisees’ assertion before we go on to consider what it is that Jesus sees as the nature of man.
a. Man clean, environment dirty
To the Jewish leaders, man existed in an initially clean and pure state and it was only external things which could render him unclean. This statement is actually incorrect for they saw just the Jewish nation as being those people who were acceptable to God through His choice of both Abraham from whom they were descended and the nation through the Exodus and the covenant made at Sinai.
But, as a logical progression of this thought, mankind’s pure state was necessarily a possibility and is certainly one of those theologies of modern man, even amongst those who have no belief in a living God. For them, if one alters the surroundings of men and women, one alters the heart of modern man and stimulates their goodness to achieve great goals and to become better people. In that case, life is all cause and effect - if one changes the environment, one changes the individual because it’s only external stimuli which dictate the type of person that develops.
Although it’s a true statement that man is influenced by external circumstances, if putting mankind right was purely a matter of changing the environment in which they live, the world could be sorted out within the space of a few short years. As it is, humanism has been striving towards this end for a great many years and we still have ghettos and inner city slums that are made worse by the people who live within them - and, even amongst the richer people who have everything they would need for a better and more complete life, there’s still murder and deceit, theft and violence, showing that external stimuli are not the be-all-and-end-all criteria for determining the person who will finally be produced.
To the Jews, ceremonial cleanness (the washing of the hands, pots, vessels - Mark 7:2-4) was an absolute necessity if the nation was to remain ‘clean’ and acceptable before God - if they were to maintain the purity that they thought they already had.
Jesus, however, now turns His attentions to the crowds (Mtw 15:10) and, eventually, towards His disciples who require an explanation of this new position (Mtw 15:16) that the truth concerning both cleanness and uncleanness before God can be made known to them. To those who were eager to receive the words of Jesus, the declaration must have come as somewhat of a difficult statement to accept, seeing as the disciples seem to interpret the teaching as a parable and therefore that they have need of an explanation (Mtw 15:15) and it must have cut across the mindset of most Jews.
But Jesus’ understanding of man’s condition before God is radical and, perhaps even more shocking to His hearers, is the implication it has for the Jew - for no longer could they think of themselves in a unique position where acceptance was inevitable. They, too, stood before God as unclean people requiring inner cleansing, forgiveness and healing.
b. Man unclean, environment unimportant
Jesus plainly taught that mankind is unclean because of the evil heart or source of evil thoughts that is within him. It is this which stimulates him into sinning against both God and his fellow man. Firstly, to correct the Pharisees’ teaching that external objects affect a man’s condition, Jesus states (Mark 7:15) that
‘...there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him...’
and, in Mtw 15:20, Jesus specifically mentions their teaching when He comments that
‘...to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man’
Jesus is primarily commenting on the participation of food and we must remember that objects and circumstances in the world can stimulate what is inside a man. The problem man has, though, is not external to his situation but fundamentally internal and, if that internal situation was remedied, external influences upon him would have no effect at all.
The problem with man is not that he eats the wrong things or that he eats those things which have been contaminated with ceremonial uncleanness which seriously affect his standing before God, because all such food (Mtw 15:17)
‘...passes into the stomach, and so passes on’
Rather, what is a problem is not that which enters the mouth but (Mtw 15:18) that which
‘...comes out of the mouth [which] proceeds from the heart and this defiles a man’
Therefore, (Mark 7:15)
‘...the things which come out of a man are what defile him’
and not those things which are received into himself. I have already mentioned above that external influences can and do influence and stimulate men and women and the need for positive influences within society is something which we have a greater need of than ever before in the short space of time that I’ve lived but all these influences should have no effect on men and women if there wasn’t the problem of man’s heart within.
From this source, and totally independently of all circumstances around, it can produce (Mark 7:21-22)
‘...evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness’
and it’s these things which ‘defile a man’ in God’s sight (Mtw 15:20, Mark 7:23). This wasn’t a particularly new concept for the religious leaders to be able to grasp for, even in the OT, the truth hadn’t been hidden in mystical words that were difficult to understand. For Jer 17:9 shows the prophet declaring that
‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt...’
and there would be no point Ezekiel urging upon the nation of Israel (Ezek 18:31) that they get
‘...a new heart and a new spirit...’
if the old one could simply be patched up and made clean by a careful attention to details such as contaminated food and unclean and clean food according to the Levitical regulations. We’ve also previously seen Jesus’ injunction against the religious leaders in Mtw 12:33-37 which has hinted at the teaching which He now sets before the people. He declared to them there that
‘How can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks’
and will go on to make it known in Mtw 23:25-26 that the Pharisees
‘...cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean’
This refers to their ceremonies and regulations which sought to do something external to their own situation rather than to deal with the matters of the heart which needed sorting out. It was insufficient that they get their external actions in order when, within, there was an evil stimulation which could destroy everything. Rather, if they recognised what was within and turned to God for healing, they would have everything dealt with, for no roots could spring up to influence external actions.
But, in this case, their religion would have been entirely dependent upon God and upon His mercy rather than a product of the sweat of their own brow and of achieving a position upon which God would favourably look.
We all have that enemy within - Jesus’ teaching here concerns not just the Jew but everyone - and many a label has been used to put on it. The Bible knows it variously as the ‘heart’, the ‘sinful nature’ (where some prefer not to use the word ‘nature’ at all), the ‘flesh’ and the ‘old man’ and it’s this which lies as the root problem with mankind - not a bad upbringing, bad breeding, bad experiences or bad environment, even though each of these can have their influence on men and women.
The real problem with man is his heart and it’s this which makes him unable to stand before God as clean and acceptable without some fairly radical heart surgery (see Romans chapters 5 through 8 for more information about this problem).
c. Evil thoughts and the solution
I have dealt with Jesus' words and mainly emphasised the overflow of the heart into a person’s life as what defiles them before God. But we should note Jesus’ words carefully here for He begins in His list of things which proceed from the heart of man with the phrase ‘evil thoughts’ in both Matthew and Mark.
Markcole notes that Jesus
‘...makes no distinction between sins of thoughts and sins of deed unlike the law of the land which can of course take cognisance only of acts, not the mental attitudes which ultimately find expression in such acts’
and it remains certain that Jesus is equally concerned with what lies behind the actual act than He is about the act itself. In Mtw 5:21-30, Jesus has already declared to the disciples that the Law also covered the internal workings of a man’s mind and that both to think adulterous thoughts and to plot and conceive murder within was tantamount to having done the very act.
Such thought processes lie behind the actions which can be prosecuted in everyday living and, to remain spotless before God, one has to deal with the thoughts which inspire and provoke towards an action unless one is eventually going to succumb to them and live against the will of God.
We’re probably not going too far to see Jesus’ phrase ‘evil thoughts’ as being the heading from which the resultant list of sins is being drawn. So Marklane writes that
‘At the head of the list is evil thoughts which stand behind the evil actions of men’
and the manner in which he translates the passage before his commentary makes the reader understand that all the sins are predominantly being thought of as within the man and which spring out from a thought process which is the result of the working of the heart.
The first diagram here shows the problem with man. Even without external stimulation, man is strangely able to produce all sorts of negative and destroying thoughts which defile him before God. There remains a choice, a place where the intentions of the heart are either developed or rejected and this is the ‘safety valve’. More often, however, man chooses to harbour the thoughts offered him and so goes along the path which is opposed to the will of God - and all this regardless of the movings of satan!
This is an important point for temptation through evil thoughts does not come from the evil one. The Bible seems to be vague in its teaching regarding the unsaved person and whether satan has the ability to pop a thought into their mind but I remain convinced that this is more than unlikely except in the case of demon possession where satan is resident on the inside (see John 13:2 where satan is said to have put it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus but qualified by Luke 22:3-4 where it’s recorded that satan had actually entered into him). Besides, he has no need when there’s an ally within that’s doing his job for him!
Notice James 1:14 which leaves satan well out of the equation by its insistence that
‘...each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire’
and Jesus’ insistence here that it’s from within a man that evil thoughts come (Mark 7:21) and that it’s these which lie as the root cause of all manner of sin (Mtw 5:27-30). Satan is not responsible for either a believer or unbeliever’s evil thoughts - the believer himself is - and it’s about time that, in the Church, we gave him less glory than we are prone to give him by thinking that the desires which spring into our minds are the result of him putting them there.
Rather, they’re the result of the inner workings of one’s own nature. Neither can satan make a person sin - that is always purely a matter of choice. James 1:13-15 relates the full process by which sin occurs in a person’s life and we find not even a casual mention or an inference that the evil one is responsible. I quoted James 1:14 above and, in conclusion to his thought, the author writes that
‘...desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death’
All satan can do, therefore, is to stimulate the evil heart within, the flesh, by using external influences. This is the subject of the second diagram where the rounded square represents the sum total of all that a person is. External stimulation comes through one of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel) seeking to promote thoughts which will be acted upon, though the thoughts themselves still aren’t satan’s product but come from within one’s own heart.
And the flesh is very good at using Scripture to justify its own intentions, too. One of its favourite passages, today, is Gal 5:1 which proclaims that it’s
‘For freedom Christ has made us free...’
thus justifying a whole range of actions which are soundly contrary to the will of God for mankind.
The way ahead for the believer is, quite obviously, to do something about the enemy within - though what is obvious is also virtually impossible. The Jews looked upon themselves as being acceptable to God and that external cleanliness was all that was needed to be maintained, not realising that the problem of man’s nature meant that their works could only ever be patches placed upon a wound that would never heal.
In Christ Jesus, however, the nature within is dealt with through the cross - a subject which I’ve dealt with on my web page concerning baptism and which I shan’t repeat here. But there’s also the need for believers to have their mind, their thought processes, renewed (Rom 12:1-2, Eph 4:23). Over the course of many years, men and women have allowed their minds to process information in regular ways and down certain channels where one can almost predict the way someone will react when given certain stimuli (if you can still remember your life as a kid, you’ll know exactly what I mean - after all, most children know what things they have to do to either throw fuel on the fire of their parents’ anger or to ingratiate themselves within their family - and this because they learn to anticipate the way to influence their parents’ thought processes).
These processes need a radical overhaul when a person first comes to believe in Jesus - and a continued changing as they continue with Jesus through life for, the thought reactions which one was comfortable with now have to be challenged and removed and, in their place, new thought processes established.
For instance, to look upon the image of a potential partner and desire them is part of the natural order - even to hold them in one’s heart as the ultimate lover who can fulfil everything that has ever been wanted. But these thoughts, instead of leading us into a realisation of the right way, actually push us away from achieving earthly happiness for we forever chase a dream that can’t become a reality.
A romance that continues forever into the sunset is one such desire of the heart - but when mortgages have to paid and children interfere with that free expression - even when the desire for the other person begins to wane - the ultimate dream can be rekindled and sought after, thus destroying what one actually has.
So the mind needs to be renewed to deal correctly with the thoughts it receives.
Concluding, however, we need to realise that satan isn’t responsible for evil thoughts - neither for their development nor for their existence - and the best (or worst, depending on which way you look at it) he can do is to provide the stimulation which can push the evil nature to produce the desire which the mind has to choose either to develop or reject.
Jesus taught that the problem with man was internal not external. Not that nothing outside a man can influence him but that nothing outside a man defiles him and makes him unacceptable to God. Man stands unclean before God because of his present condition and, therefore, acceptance before God is solely on the basis of God’s mercy and no amount of religious work can ever make him clean and acceptable.
I have attempted to deal with the passage as a whole above and not to be restricted in my dealing of it by having to systematically cover verses as they appear in either Matthew or Mark’s account of the incident. There are a few points, however, that need dealing with which could not be included in what’s preceded otherwise they would have had the tendency to detract from the main thrust of the teaching.
Jesus appears in an indeterminable place in this incident, having returned from the east side of the Lake of Galilee to Genessaret (Mtw 14:34) and begun to minister as great crowds come to Him. Mark’s account follows the same chronological order but he adds a note (Mark 6:56 - my italics) that
‘...wherever He came, in villages, cities, or country, they laid the sick in the market places, and besought Him that they might touch even the fringe of His garment; and as many as touched it were made well’
indicating that we should, perhaps, think of additional ministry which took place between the landing and this incident which was spread into more regions of Galilee as Jesus and the disciples travelled around. The reason for fleeing the west side of the Lake because Herod was giving Him increased attention (Mtw 14:1-2,13) and because the disciples needed rest from ministry (Mark 6:30-31) appear to be suspended from His intentions but this needn’t be so.
Having seen that great crowds followed Him even when He journeyed to the other side (Mtw 14:13, Mark 6:33) and then those which gathered about Him upon His return (Mtw 14:35), it may be that Jesus set His face to travel westwards away from the district of Galilee to achieve both objectives for, in Mtw 15:21, we find Him arriving in the district of Tyre and Sidon to the north-west.
This incident with the Pharisees and scribes may have taken place as they were making their way into that area but before they’d left the area known as ‘Galilee’ and which was under Herod Antipas’ control.
This is the first recorded occurrence in Matthew of the Jerusalem leaders giving Jesus their personal attention but we shouldn’t think that this was the first time that it had happened. Mark 3:22 notes an incident which appears to have occurred previously in which scribes had come from the capital to condemn Jesus’ expulsion of demons as being none other than the work of Beelzebul, an incident which has also been recorded in Matthew prior to this one (Mtw 12:24 - the author calls them the Pharisees here so it’s more than likely that both groups were present).
Both Matthew and Mark record the fact that Jesus used Isaiah 29:13 with which to confront the scribes and Pharisees, going one step further than saying that the days resembled those in which Isaiah lived but that the prophetic word was specifically spoken about them (Mtw 15:7, Mark 7:6).
The quote is a strange one seeing as the translators use words which have an entirely different meaning within the same passage! So, when Jesus speaks of the evil overflow of the heart coming through the mouth (Mtw 15:11), the parallel isn’t with the honour which Jesus is observing and which comes from the religious leaders’ mouths (Mtw 15:8) and neither is the ‘heart’ to be interpreted as being the same inner problem as that which Jesus refers to later on.
The accusation Jesus has is that, outwardly, the Pharisees look good and bring some degree of honour to God by what they do on the outside, it appears, through their alms, prayers and the like. But, in reality, their inner person isn’t set to honour Him at all for, having made God in their own image, they are simply going about upholding and continuing their own belief structure through what they do.
Even present day believers who are careful to support great christian works and who can be found regularly within a fellowship from week to week are no more certain to be true to God at the centre of their lives as the Pharisee was. All such external honour before God can be a pure facade which surrounds the believer and masks out the true intentions and beliefs of the heart.
The leaders’ worship of God, then, was vain (that is, empty) for it proclaimed their own beliefs and theologies in the place of what was both true and right concerning the character and will of God. The washing of the hands and the giving over to God of one’s possessions so that support of one’s parents could be withheld were two such examples that demonstrated their position.
But the entire body of oral law also cried out against them for it had supplanted the importance of the OT legislation and become more important. Their own beliefs had therefore become their own religion and whatever worship they offered to God was necessarily unfounded in truth.
Isaiah’s original prophecy goes on from a condemnation of the people set opposed to God by stating (Is 29:14) that, because their is no truth in the land
‘...I will again do marvellous things with this people, wonderful and marvellous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid’
a statement which must relate to the ministry of Jesus if the former verse is correctly applied to the scribes and Pharisees.
All such considerations were to be removed under the work of God who would begin to do great things in their midst and so refute the wrong theology and teaching.
Mtw 15:12-14 which has gone uncommented on in my teaching notes and which is unique to Matthew’s account, records the disciples as being somewhat concerned that the religious leaders were offended at what Jesus had to say to them and so bring it to His attention - probably because Jesus showed very little concern that this had been the effect of His words!
But Jesus echoes the second verse of the prophetic Scripture from Isaiah when He states (Mtw 15:13) that
‘...Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up’
a statement which must have caused the disciples to gasp and wonder if this, too, was meant to be a parable (Mtw 15:15) for it was a hard saying that undercut the religious authority within the land. Though the people looked to the Pharisees for guidance and direction and that they held them in high regard amongst the people was certain - but that God hadn’t planted their movement and that He would overthrow their empire?
This was an extremely difficult position to accept but, be that as it may, the early Church soon found that God had to by-pass the religious leadership in order to multiply the believers and to establish His plans throughout the earth. Instead of the Pharisees becoming a part of the new move of God within the nation, they remained opposed to it (though some still tried to keep a foot in both camps - Acts 15:5) and so were removed from the will of God (Luke 7:30) - and this, not by a choice of God, but because of the hardness of the heart of man.
Their inability to lead anyone into a true knowledge of God is indicated by Jesus in Mtw 15:14. It wasn’t the case that they were a bit out in their understanding of God and His ways but that they had no ability to see clearly the way ahead and could only destroy both themselves and those who they were attempting to lead.
These are radical words and they shouldn’t be watered down to make them any less offensive than they were back then. Religion is not ‘everything’ and never has been when a wrong concept of the character of God is being proclaimed - it isn’t good to have a bit of moral preaching when, underlying it all, are the wrong foundations and insincere motives. Matfran comments that
‘...the Pharisees’ claim to be God’s true people is false...Their failure to perceive the true nature of God’s will is disastrous not only to themselves but to those who follow their teaching and share their approach to religion’
And we would do well to be warned that Jesus still opposes movements who misrepresent both Him and His Father. Jesus’ instruction to the disciples is plain - they are to leave the misguided alone and dissociate themselves from them (Mtw 15:14). They shouldn’t think that they can be guided into any truth by their instruction and teaching.
There seems hardly to be a greater condemnation possible which isn’t spoken by Jesus here of the Pharisees. As I’ve said above, they weren’t a little wrong in their outlook but fatally flawed. If the disciples had any such doubts as to whether the religious leaders might turn around and accept Jesus at the very last moment, this incident should have dispelled any such thoughts.
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