The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
Traditions and Commandments
15 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,”[a] 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word[b] of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their Heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Last week’s post discussed Jesus’s second visit to Gennesaret, which concluded Matthew 14.
Matthew 15 opens with a religious delegation from Jerusalem who came to confront Jesus. John MacArthur says that ‘Then’ is indefinite. We do not know when this took place: possibly the same day in Gennesaret or perhaps a few days later. What we do know is that (emphases mine):
this was around the time of the Passover, according to John 6, which means this is the third Passover in the ministry of our Lord, and the fourth one was the one in which He was crucified, so there is a year of His life left.
MacArthur surmises that the religious leaders in Galilee asked the howitzers (my word) from Jerusalem to confront Him. The Galilean leaders were just as angry with Jesus as those in Jerusalem.
They asked why the disciples broke with tradition in not washing their hands before meals (verse 2). Their tradition had expanded beyond hygiene and worship considerations. MacArthur explains:
They believed, because it taught in all this material, that you had to go through ceremonial washings of your hands for two reasons. Reason number one was that if you had touched a Gentile that day, you had been defiled, and there was a prescribed ceremony to detoxify your Gentile touch. Secondly, the rabbis taught that there was a demon by the name of Shibtah, and he dwelt on people’s hands while they slept. So if they did not go through the ceremonial washings that eliminated him, they would pass him to their food and into their bodies.
This became so important to them that Rabbi Ta’anith taught, “Whosoever has his abode in the land of Israel and eats his common food with rinsed hands may rest assured that he shall obtain eternal life.” They believed that you received eternal life by going through the ceremonial rinsing of your hands.
Granted, in the Old Testament there were washings that God instituted in Exodus 19 before the people came before God; He had them wash all their garments. The priests in Leviticus 15-17 had to wash themselves before they could carry out any rites of the priesthood, but those were outward symbols of an inward reality. They had long ago slain the reality and now, they had magnified the symbols and invented their own. Nowhere in any part of Holy Scripture does God ever say to go through this kind of stuff, to rinse your hands in a ceremonial way to get rid of Gentile influence or to drown the demon Shibtah so he won’t get in your body.
Matthew Henry’s commentary tells us that:
it came to be practised and imposed as a religious rite and ceremony, and such a stress laid upon it …
He pointed out that some Christian clergy are also guilty of similar legalism in the Church:
This mighty zeal in so small a matter would appear very strange, if we did not still see it incident to church-oppressors, not only to be fond of practising their own inventions, but to be furious in pressing their own impositions.
Next week’s entry will provide Jesus’s direct answer to the Pharisees and scribes. However, He first wanted to probe more deeply into their hypocrisy about their counsel against caring for — honouring — one’s parents, one of God’s Ten Commandments (verses 3-6).
The parallel verses are in Mark 7:9-13, about which I wrote in 2010.
Essentially, in both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts Jesus brought up the manmade tradition of reneging in a ‘holy’ way from providing for one’s parents. According to Jewish tradition at the time, offspring could simply say their money was ‘corban’ — destined for God via the temple and the priests. That supposedly (erroneously) excused them from any family obligation. That they were breaking divine law was secondary to observing tradition.
MacArthur explains that the only way the Jewish leaders in the Old Testament thought the Jews would Obey Mosaic Law was to create all sorts of their own laws around the 613 tenets that God gave them in the Old Covenant.
In time, there were so many manmade laws obscuring the God-given ones that the situation moved from the divine to the ridiculous.
When the people turned away from God, which led to their Babylonian Captivity, they realised they had to obey Mosaic Law and the Commandments in order for Him to rescue them. It was decided that all the laws should be written down — hence, the origin of ‘scribe’ — to make the people faithful once more.
MacArthur explains that the religious leaders moved on to incorporate tradition, the by-laws of the Law:
A man by the name of Ezra fathered a whole group of people known as scribes, and the job of a scribe was to collect, collate, interpret, propagate all of these slats in this traditional fence. It kept building up, and every rabbi commented on it, and every student commented on it, and more and more stuff kept piling and piling. This is a key point that they lost the distinction between the law of God and the tradition of men; it got rubbed out, and was a big mishmash. The commentary effectively obscured the basic law of God.
By Jesus’s day, as we see in this reading, God’s law was superseded by man’s tradition. By 200 AD, there were so many traditions that Rabbi Yehuda went through all of these and committed them to writing. This collection is called the Mishnah (‘to repeat’ in Hebrew). However, the Mishnah needed interpreting, so the commentaries on it were compiled 300 years later into a separate work called the Gemara. Together, these comprise the Talmud.
To explain the rationale for so much on tradition and interpretation, the great Rabbi Hillel, who died when Jesus was a child, said that the only thing the Torah taught was how to love one’s neighbour. To know how to do this, however, one had to study tradition:
the rest is the explanation; go and learn. 
Back to Jesus’s indignation at the hypocrisy before Him: supposedly holy, pious men who put their own tradition above the law of God (verses 6,7).
He then referred to Isaiah 29:13 (verses 8,9):
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
Henry’s commentary explains:
A hypocrite says one thing, but thinks another. The great thing that God looks at and requires is the heart (Proverbs 23:26) if that be far from him, it is not a reasonable service and therefore not an acceptable one it is the sacrifice of fools, Ecclesiastes 5:1.
We will read the outcome of this confrontation next week.
For now, John MacArthur gives us his thoughts to contemplate:
Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter My Kingdom,” and the kind of righteousness the scribes and Pharisees had was external, superficial, rules and regulations, playing around with the fence. The kind of righteousness that Jesus demanded was that of the heart, and that’s why, from there on in that passage, He says, “You say not to kill, but I say not even to be angry. I’m going deeper, to the very heart attitude. You say not to commit adultery, but I say not to even look at a woman and lust after her.”
In other words, He takes them from that external kind of behavior which they had ascribed as truth and pushes it into the heart and the attitude. That is the reason Jesus was crucified, because the ceremonialists couldn’t tolerate the religion of the heart, because their hearts were black and sinful. They were filled with the darkness and night of sin.
May our worship be true, and what God wants it to be. I guess we could say that in closing, you need to examine your heart, and look deeply within it to examine whether you love Jesus Christ with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Do you long to be with Him, in His presence, like Him, to obey Him from the heart? That is the stuff of true religion.
Next time: Matthew 15:10-20