Theme: True Religion
This week we see the pitfall that is self-righteousness
Then Pharisees and fscribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,”he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have mmade void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you,
There are three teaching conversations in these verses: 1) between Jesus and the Pharisees, 2) Jesus and the crowds, and 3) Jesus and his disciples. The first is Jesus’ response to those who had complained about the disciples’ nontraditional practices. The Pharisees had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat” (v. 2). According to the Pharisees’ way of thinking, this meant that the disciples were “unclean” and therefore “nonreligious.” If Jesus were a true teacher, he would have straightened these disciples out, they thought.1
Jesus’ response was twofold, as I indicated earlier. He confronted them directly in regard to their own religious practices, and he condemned their false understanding of religion.
1. “You break the command of God for the sake of your tradition” (v.3). This was a direct counterattack. But it was not as if Jesus were merely saying, “If I am guilty, then you are guilty too.” It is a shifting of the issue from the matter of tradition to the revealed law of God. The Pharisees were accusing him of breaking the tradition of the elders, but he is accusing them of breaking God’s commands because of their traditions.
The issue Jesus raised was a particularly despicable practice of that time. The fifth of the Ten Commandments, the first from the second table of the law, said that a man must “honor [his] father and mother” (v. 4; see Exod. 20:12). One chapter later in Exodus states, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” (Exod. 21:17). These verses add a specific divine command to a universally recognized human obligation, to provide for one’s parent when a father or a mother is in need. But the Pharisees had devised a way of avoiding the obligation. They even had a word for it: corban. (The word is actually used in the parallel account of this exchange in Mark 7:11.) It referred to a gift dedicated to God, and it worked this way. If a parent approached one of these people asking to be helped and the person did not want to help, all he had to do was say “corban,” meaning that the money that might have been used to relieve the parent’s need has been dedicated to God and was no longer available.
What made this practice even worse, the greedy and uncaring son did not even have to give the money to God. It was enough that he had promised to give it. He could give it later, on his deathbed perhaps, or not at all. In this way the parents of such men were dishonored and God’s law was broken. What concerned Jesus most was that by this false piety these men nullified the Bible, making it of no effect, which is the problem with traditions (v. 7). It is what human traditions almost always do.
2. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13). Jesus’ second response was even stronger than the first, strong as it was, for he reminded his accusers of Isaiah 29:13, thus accusing them of hypocritical and therefore utterly false worship. He said that Isaiah had been prophesying about them when he wrote,
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
That is a damning accusation for people who were regarded as the best people of their day, but it was a just condemnation. For a love of tradition more than a genuine love of God always leads to false religion. In fact, it leads to self-righteousness, which was the chief characteristic of these men as well as of many in our day. Self-righteousness does not bring a person into heaven. It leads to judgment and death since the only possible basis of our justification before God is Christ’s righteousness rather than our own.
1 The extent to which such ceremonial washings were carried out and the legal niceties that attended them are explained in Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1883), vol 3, pp.9-13
What did Jesus accuse the Pharisees of breaking?
How did this occur?
For what purpose did Jesus quote Isaiah 29:13?
What is so destructive about self-righteousness?
Can you distinguish between true religious practice and tradition? What role do these play in your life?
A love of tradition more than a genuine love of God always leads to false religion.