Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ ” – Matthew 15:1-9
The purveyors of the “old treasures” show up again in today’s passage. They did not get the memo about sharing new treasures as well as old. They are upset that the followers of Jesus are not washing their hands before they eat. They admit that this is a tradition rather than a command from God, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” So it seems they have tacked a human tradition onto the old commands and rituals about being clean and ceremonial cleanliness found in Leviticus and Numbers. Most of this washing was about gaining access to the temple and God’s presence. These teachers of the law have failed to recognize the “Godly Condensate” right in front of them.
Jesus does not answer their question directly. Instead He brings up what would seem to be a somewhat strange topic given what the teachers just said. Jesus brings up the command to honor mothers and fathers. Reading between the lines it sounds like there is a dispute about a practice that has risen up related to parental inheritance and caring for aging parents. Jesus seems to be calling these teachers out on a practice of using items or “treasure” that has been devoted to God to care for aging parents. Perhaps the parents dedicated certain items or wealth to the church then found themselves needing some of these resources and the scribes and pharisees were reluctant to release them. They were holding onto the tradition of devoting items to God at the expense of a more important commandment to honor your father and mother.
Why does Jesus choose to bring up this seemingly tangential human tradition at this particular moment? As I have thought and prayed about this it occurs to me that this command to honor their earthly mother and father is connected to honoring their spiritual Father, God. So what Jesus is reminding these teachers about is that they are not honoring their spiritual Father, who happens to be standing in front of them in the flesh. The reason they are doing this is that they are valuing human tradition over a heart to heart connection.
Jesus calls them hypocrites, which I have always thought is an interesting word. Apparently, the word hypocrite is from a Greek word that essentially means a stage actor playing a role. So these “actors” were playing the role of religious teachers but their heart was not “all in” for God. Jesus quotes Isaiah “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” The caution here is to avoid decorating the altar with things that don’t matter and distract from a vibrant relationship with God.
Our relationship with God is supposed to be heart to heart and soul to soul. It seems that human traditions have a way of getting in the way of this close connection and relationship. God wants to channel our hearts toward Himself and some of our human traditions can form barriers to this channeling process. Sometimes these barriers may need to be torn down in order for us to reach the connection to the One River that God desires for us.
My take home from this passage is that one must be very thoughtful about the traditions in which we choose to invest our time, energy, and treasures. I am not saying we need to forsake going to church and hold up in a mountain top monastery. I think this misses the point Jesus is trying to make here. He wants all our human activities and actions to take place within the context of a vibrant living relationship with the Living Water that keeps us healthy and fit. Some traditions may seem to be very “God honoring” on the surface, but if they get in the way of an intimate relationship with God they must be set aside, at least until we are able to see them with the proper posture and perspective.
Prayer: God help us to keep our human traditions in proper perspective so that we can have hearts that are channeled by You.