Session #103 Wash Your Hands
Scripture Matthew 15:1-9
Summary Matthew 15:1-9 records yet another confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders. This time, the issue is that of the tradition of the elders. Whilst tradition is not bad in itself, it can detract us from what is truly essential and miss the heartbeat of God.
Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honour his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. 7 Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honour Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ “ Matthew 15:1-9
After ministering in Gennesaret (Matthew 14:34-36), Jesus and His disciples engage in a confrontation of sorts with the religious elites—scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem—, who had likely travelled all the way to check and actively find fault with them (Matthew 15:1, 2). They accused Jesus’ disciples of transgressing the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before they ate bread (Matthew 15:2). While their accusation might have been directed at the disciples, it was ultimately targeted at Jesus, since a disciple is taken to represent their teacher. Jesus then proceeds to point out to the scribes and Pharisees about the non-necessity and inherent hypocrisy in their keeping of the traditions (Matthew 15:3-6), before rebuking them with a prophecy from Isaiah (Matthew 15:7-9).
Tradition of the Elders
The Babylonian captivity of Judah was God’s judgment on them because of Manasseh (2 Kings 23:26, 27), who had caused Judah to commit idolatry and other great evils (2 Kings 21:1-9). In seeking to prevent this from happening again, Jews like Ezra the scribe (Ezra 7:6), and the governor Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:14), sought to instruct again the Law of Moses to Judah after returning from captivity (Nehemiah 8:1-3).
This had developed over time to include the instruction of the tradition of the elders, such as the oral tradition of the Mishnah (מִשְׁנָה), which were attempts to “ring-fence” the Law. Over time, some of these extra-biblical traditions were regarded as equal or even higher than the Law, even when there was a contradiction. In finding fault with Jesus’ disciples, the scribes and Pharisees had expected adherence to a tradition that was not part of the Law (Matthew 15:2), and therefore, unnecessary to follow.
In His response to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus proceeded to point out the extent of their hypocrisy by drawing an example from the tradition of the Korban, which relates to sacrificial offerings to God (v5). The Law had made it necessary to honour one’s father and mother, with the penalty of death for any transgression (Matthew 15:4). However, the tradition of the Korban had nullified the necessity to honour parents financially, by simply allowing such money to be “dedicated” to God (Matthew 15:5, 6). This would have likely been used as a veiled attempt to protect one’s own money at the expense of following the commandment while giving pretence to obeying God at the same time. In thinking that they were obeying God, the scribes and Pharisees had held their traditions as equal or greater than the Law, even when it clearly contradicted, and therefore, transgressed the Law.
Jesus then rebuked the scribes and Pharisees by calling them hypocrites (Matthew 15:7) and describing them as people who have outward displays of obedience (Matthew 15:8, 9), but with false teachings (Matthew 15:9) and without a proper relationship with God (Matthew 15:8). The scribes and Pharisees had hypocritically kept and taught their traditions because they did not really want to obey God, given their lack of proper teaching and relationship with Him.
Modern Day Traditions
While the tradition of the elders is not directly relevant to Christians today, there are, in principle, modern “traditions’ that can be a source of the same type of hypocrisy. The ubiquitous institutionalism of the Church, which has brought about commercial and celebrity-oriented cultures, long-held conservative practices, and even denominational-specific doctrines and practices, can be a source of hypocrisy. As such, it is critical to put traditions in their proper place and context.
Traditions do not bring salvation. Before his conversion, Paul had already considered himself to be a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee who likely kept the traditions well (Philippians 3:5), even to the point of zealously persecuting the church (Philippians 3:6). However, he later counted such accolades as “rubbish” in comparison to gaining Christ (Philippians 3:9), only in whom salvation is found (Acts 4:10-12). Jesus is ultimately the one who saves, not traditions.
Traditions are useful insofar as they point to God’s word. While Scripture is ultimately authoritative for Christians (2 Timothy 3:16, 17), traditions can be important and useful as well. In exhorting the Thessalonians to stand fast in the truth of God, Paul had also asked them to “hold fast to the traditions” that they were taught (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Traditions are useful only when they point to Scripture.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, many long-held traditions of the Church are being upended, such as physical church service and many ministry activities. Archippuses must be discerning in navigating this new landscape, as they seek to obey God with proper relationship, doctrine, and even appropriate traditions, with the focus being on assignments and not activities.