The Tradition Keepers – Part One

My parents had a set of rules by which we, as a family, lived. They were based loosely on the Ten Commandments. Sort of rules that help us to apply the rules. Some were well known and referenced often. Other were somewhat unspoken but recognized and upheld nonetheless. 

Mt parents were not the first to establish a secondary rule to keep someone from breaking a primary rule. Thousands of years ago certain religious leaders were making careers out of it. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, more than five hundred rules had been added to the laws handed down to Moses by God Himself. This ever-growing body of regulations was called “the Tradition of the Elders.” Its sole purpose was to prevent the Jewish population from accidentally breaking one of the original commandments. For example, the Law of Moses forbade commerce on the Sabbath; so they added a clause that forbade the handling of money on the Sabbath, thereby ensuring that no one would violate the original Sabbath law. Over time, the religious leaders had assigned to these traditions a status equal to the Law of Moses.

To the continued chagrin of the Pharisees and Sadducees – the self-appointed guardians of “the Traditions” – Jesus paid very little attention to their traditions. While He and His disciples observed the Mosaic Code, Jesus seemed to go out of His way to violate the man-made laws of the Jewish hierarchy. The religious authorities would often point to these infractions as evidence of His blatant disregard for the Law, thereby refuting His claim to be a spokesman for God.

Matthew records once such incident. Interestingly, the rule that got Jesus into hot water on this occasion was a rule we had around our house when I was growing up. He forgot — well, I guess Jesus never forgot anything. He decided not to wash His hands before He ate. And His disciples followed suit. This was troublesome to the Pharisees, just like it was to my mom.

According to the Tradition of the Elders, everybody was suppose to wash from the tips of their fingers all the way down to the elbows before partaking (there’s a neat church word) of food. Persnickety as it may seem, the Tradition of the Elders went to great lengths to explain how one should wash his hands before eating. Beyond basic hygiene, this rule was designated to keep people from accidentally becoming ceremonially unclean — that is, to keep a person from unintentionally putting the wrong thing, or something that had touched a wrong thing, into his or her body.

But washing your hands before a meal wasn’t required by the Law of Moses. Sure, it’s a good idea, but the rabbis had made it a standard for righteousness. Over time this rule had taken on the same significance in the Jewish community as the original laws handed down at Mount Sinai.

But Jesus ignored this rule and didn’t insist that His followers apply it either. Here’s how the whole thing went down as recorded in Matthew 15:1-20 (you can read the whole story ahead if you so which before moving on…)

“Then Pharisees and scribes 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 (verses 1-2).

Clearly these guys needed something to do. Here they are, standing in the presence of a man who heals the sick and calms the seas with His words, and they’re in a tizzy over the fact that He doesn’t wash His hands before meals. 

Jesus answers their question with a question (which He often did).

“And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (verse 3)

He turns it right back around on them. The Pharisees accuse Him of ignoring the rules they’d tacked onto the Law. Jesus in turn accuses them of breaking God’s law in order to keep one of their tacked-on rules. Then before they can respond, He launches into a scathing mini-sermon. He doesn’t hold back. Calls ‘em hypocrites. He accuses them of nullifying the Word of God for the sake of their homemade traditions. It is brutal.

As soon as He finishes with the Pharisees, Jesus turns His attention to the disciples (who were probably busy high-fiving each other over the spectacle of seeing the religious referees beaten at their own game). He picks up on the cleanliness theme the Pharisees have introduced:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? (verse 17)

Now there’s an insight. What enters a person’s mouth will ultimately pass through the body and exit … I doubt anyone wrote that down, except Matthew. But now that He has their undivided attention, Jesus drives home His point.

“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (verse 18).

His point? God isn’t nearly as concerned about what goes in our mouths as He is about what comes out of our mouth. God isn’t nearly as concerned about what goes into our bodies as what comes out of our bodies. This is new territory for the Jews; they were extremely cautious about what they put in their mouths. Now Jesus was saying that God was more offended by what came out than what went in. 

But it was this comment that must have gotten their attention: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” 

The heart? Everything that comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Everything? Did He really mean that? At first glance, I’m inclined to disagree. Surely, not everything that comes out of my mouth originates in the heart?

If you’re like me, there have been plenty of times when you said stuff you didn’t really mean. Again, we’ve covered our mouths and muttered, “I don’t know where that came from!” But apparently, Jesus would respond, “I do. It came from within. It came from your heart.” 

But it gets worse.

Jesus goes on to say that the heart is responsible not only for our words but for our deeds as well.

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (verses 19-20).

Evil thoughts? I thought these originated in my …mind. If Jesus is right — and I’m betting He is — my mind isn’t the source of all my thoughts. It goes deeper than that. My evil thoughts originate in my heart. Take a look at the other items on His list. They are all actions, deeds, and behaviours. And they all come from the heart as well.

The implications of this are huge. More next time….