We’ve been looking at how Jesus interpreted Scripture with view to how we ought to interpret God’s word in our own lives. Since Jesus is our pattern for living and came to give us a clear exposition of the Father then his interpreting of the Bible is absolutely the correct means of interpretation. So we are looking at different times in the Gospel accounts where he specifically referred to some Old Testament Scriptures and gave us an interpretation of that text. Today I want to focus on one of the clearest of these Scriptures, in Matthew 15: 1-20.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law prompted Jesus teaching on this occasion as they did on so many others. I suppose we ought to be thankful for these religious leaders because they led to Jesus giving us many of the powerful teachings on how to understand God’s word. This time they were complaining because the disciples were disobeying the traditions of the elders when it came to their washing of their hands correctly before they ate. It wasn’t that they broke some Old Testament Scripture or that they were eating with filthy, thus unhealthy hands. It was that they were not following the standard that had be set up by the interpretations and applications of the Old Testament by these religious leaders through the years. One thing is obvious with people is that we seldom are willing to allow the law, even if it is from God to simply stand as it is given. Quickly we begin to add our details to it to make certain everyone follows the implications of that law as we see them. When Jesus heard their charge, he made no effort to defend the disciples action. Instead he focused quickly on their own failings with regard to following the word of God itself. Why do you set aside the law of God by your traditions? Notice how they came to argue about failings in following their own traditions and Jesus turned quickly to how they were failing to follow, not the traditions but the word of God itself. Usually, when folks get uptight about other people not doing things according to their traditions they are completely overlooking if not violating some clear teaching of God’s word in the process.
Jesus went back to the Ten Commandments and referred them to God’s command that they honor their father and mother so their days might be long on the earth. That is as fundamental as it gets. They didn’t think they were violating the law. They felt that they were just interpreting it in a way that felt good to them and perhaps to the majority of the people. They had taken a general command about showing honor to parents to be able to stay in the land and had missed the implications of the law and even found a way around a clear interpretation. They were saying to the people if you will pledge to give your money to the temple treasury you will be extinct from the whole law of showing honor to your parents. In making such a charge they were violating the very word of God by their traditions. When we as a church are so intent on doing things the way we’ve always done them and start making laws in areas God never made them whether it has to do with some dress code or what translations you read or what can or can’t be done in worship or the church building we are following the tradition of these Pharisees and religious leaders.
Jesus said they were setting aside the law of God to follow their traditions. Imagine making a law that would make it legitimate for people not to take care of aged parents as long as they put into a will or trust that all their money was going to the church. That is what they had done. Like many since then they went looking for a way around a clear command from the Lord and searched for a loophole until they found it. Now do understand that like most spiritual loopholes it is one that is available only in the mind of the one who makes it. They thought they had come up with a fantastic way around Jesus teaching . They would just have the people make a pledge of their money or inheritance and give the money to those in need or some good cause and then be able to say to their parents who are now in trouble. “I’m sorry that I can’t help you pay your bills or help you with your life. I’ve pledged all my money to the temple so I just can’t help you. I hate that. Good luck to you.” It is interesting that Paul will later refer to the same attitude and say that those who do such are worse than unbelievers. Jesus said they were acting as hypocrites, who were not obeying the law to honor their parents and were nullifying the word of God.
He in the process also said their whole faith was just a matter of show. They honored him with their lips but their hearts were far from him. Their worship to him was completely useless since they were teaching human rules rather than God’s. Here is a huge lesson. When we take some teaching from God and reject it’s clear intent to give it some meaning or interpretation that misses entirely the intent of God in giving the teaching, we are following the traditions of these religious leaders and violate the entire will of God. Our worship becomes useless and we are mere hypocrites. Any application of Scripture must be in complete harmony with the intent of that Scripture to begin with. When God gave the command to honor our parents it wasn’t just about giving them some respectful greeting or calling them on some regular basis. It was about looking after their needs when they are no longer able to look after their own needs. You can never set aside that principle because it just doesn’t fit into our lifestyle or for any other selfish reason we might come up with.
But notice Jesus turns from that specific situation to make an even broader application to God’s teachings. He notes that it isn’t what goes into the mouth of a person that defiles them in any way but what comes out of the mouth. Eating with unwashed hands isn’t the problem. It is that we too often have a dirty heart from which proceeds all kinds of evil thoughts and actions. God is concerned about a pure heart not simply cleans hands or mouth.
Notice they said to Jesus, “Did you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” This just plain seems funny to me. Can you imagine Jesus’ expression when they said this? I can imagine him shaking his head in unbelief. “Guys, don’t you get it? So what if they are offended. Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” This whole Pharisee, separatist movement didn’t come from God. It has no future with God. It will be pulled up by the roots. It is amazing that with such teachings from the Lord that the Pharisee movement among Christ followers just won’t die down. We seem to produce them by all kinds of names and positions in every generation that comes along.
God is looking for a heart devoted to him. We can eat what we will but when the heart is wrong it produces evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. “These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
So, we learn that we look for the intent of a passage to give any real clear interpretation and we recognize that men’s traditions mean little to nothing to God. We learn that God is shooting for the heart of a person not just actions and that when our heart is messed up our worship is worthless. Any time we try to find ways around the teaching of the Lord we are far afield from what he intends. Stop looking for a loophole and search for God’s will and desire in our life.