15 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
3 He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”—6 then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. 7 Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:
8‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
9And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
10 When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”
15 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.”
16 So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
When you think about unbiblical traditions, traditions that conflict with what Scripture teaches, what do you think of? Since we are Protestant, maybe you think of Roman Catholic traditions, like praying to Mary or venerating the saints or kissing the Pope’s rings. Those, of course, stand out to us. But what of our own traditions. Do we ever do things that conflict with the Bible? As we walk through this passage, think about that question. “How are my traditions? Do any of them conflict with what Scripture teaches?”
Jesus versus the Religious Elite
Right at the outset, Matthew sets the scene for us: Pharisees and scribes have come to Galilee from Jerusalem to see Jesus. We should step back for a moment and think about this. Here are these very important religious leaders in Israel. These are powerful figures. These are seminary presidents and professors, and pastors with giant churches who wield great influence. These are men who have come from the wealthy and influential center of power to the dirty, grimy, countryside to see this itinerant preacher with no formal education. They have heard about this man, how He does miraculous healing and has said some strange stuff.
We don’t know where the other Pharisees that Jesus has encountered have come from, they might be the local Galilean ones, but Matthew tells us clearly that these are the bigwigs. They have left their comfortable home to travel to the backward rural region to seek this Jesus out.
Now, you can imagine, if you lived in First Century Israel, and you had a chance to meet Jesus face-to-face, what you might ask Him. How could you not just stand in awe, asking Him to unravel the mysteries of the world for you. How could you not want to take in whatever it is He has to say. But what do these men do? They arrive and immediately find something wrong with Him.
“Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
Think of this for a moment. It is clear they went to see Him for one reason alone. They knew something had to be wrong with this guy. And they think they found it. He has rejected their traditions. And if He has rejected their traditions, there obviously are even worse transgressions underneath that.
At this point a lot of people get confused. They think that Jesus has violated the Mosaic Law. That some provision of the law of Moses mandates that people must go through some hand washing rite before they can eat. But there is nothing in the Law of Moses about this. The Pharisees just made that law up. Their attitude was “the Law of Moses is good, so let’s add some more laws kind of like it just to be sure.” The inevitable happened when you add laws to God’s Law: you view the laws you added as more important than the few laws God gave.
The Influential Church Leaders thought they had trapped Jesus, but all they have done is expose their own hypocrisy. Jesus has trapped them.
He replies to their accusation of transgressing the tradition of the elders asking why they transgress the commandment of God because of their tradition. God gave very simple clear commands, “Honor your father and mother” and “Let he who curses father or mother be put to death” (as an aside, a clear instance of Jesus affirming God’s Law regarding the death penalty). But despite these clear commands, you Important Church Leaders say “whoever says to his elderly father or mother, that big life savings you worked your entire life for, that you left to me to care for you in your old age, I just donated it all to the church—is not dishonoring your father and mother.” This is what the Pharisees taught, and it is of course obviously monstrous. The eldest son would receive a double inheritance, not because being born first is good, but because it was his responsibility to care for his parents. There were no assisted living facilities or nursing homes. The nursing home was the eldest son’s home. But the Pharisees said if you donated your elderly parents’ nest egg to the temple and they lived as beggars on the street because of it, you have done nothing wrong. In fact you have a done a very holy thing donating all that money! These were greedy, evil men. Who sanctified the abuse of the most vulnerable people as a holy thing. Who called the most dishonoring thing you could do to your mother and father “good” and “holy.”
Their traditions fly directly in the face of God’s law. Their traditions cause men to be justified in their hatred of those God has commanded them to love and honor the most. What these men believe and teach is abominable, and do not forget, these men have massive influence. What they teach, Israel does. They have their hand on the rudder of where Israel goes and this is what they are telling Israel to do. So if you can imagine a place where elderly parents are commonly treated like that, you can see what Jesus preached such strong condemnation earlier in Matthew. These are incredibly wicked people. Which is why He quotes what He does in the next three verses.
“Jerusalem is about to get nuked” Who could that be about?
He tells them that Isaiah’s prophesy in Isaiah 29 is about them. If you are really familiar with the Book of Isaiah, it was written hundreds of years before Jesus came, by the prophet Isaiah as Israel was about to be attacked by Babylon and eventually the Temple would be destroyed and the people taken captive. Remember, the people Jesus is talking to. They are the important and influential Seminary and Church Leaders. These people know the Bible. They know that Isaiah’s prophecy is about Israel right before Babylon comes, but Jesus is saying “yeah, it was fulfilled in that generation. That was its near-fulfillment. But it is as much about you as it was about them.” And remember, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, we should look at it like a hyperlink on a website. Matthew gives us just two verses but we should look at the passage in context to understand the full meaning of what Jesus was saying to them. Imagine you are these Pharisees, from Jerusalem, and Jesus just said this passage is about YOU (It’s a good long chunk of Bible, so read it carefully and deliberately):
29“Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt!
Add year to year;
Let feasts come around.
2Yet I will distress Ariel;
There shall be heaviness and sorrow,
And it shall be to Me as Ariel.
3I will encamp against you all around,
I will lay siege against you with a mound,
And I will raise siegeworks against you.
4You shall be brought down,
You shall speak out of the ground;
Your speech shall be low, out of the dust;
Your voice shall be like a medium’s, out of the ground;
And your speech shall whisper out of the dust.
5“Moreover the multitude of your foes
Shall be like fine dust,
And the multitude of the terrible ones
Like chaff that passes away;
Yes, it shall be in an instant, suddenly.
6You will be punished by the Lord of hosts
With thunder and earthquake and great noise,
With storm and tempest
And the flame of devouring fire.
7The multitude of all the nations who fight against Ariel,
Even all who fight against her and her fortress,
And distress her,
Shall be as a dream of a night vision.
8It shall even be as when a hungry man dreams,
And look—he eats;
But he awakes, and his soul is still empty;
Or as when a thirsty man dreams,
And look—he drinks;
But he awakes, and indeed he is faint,
And his soul still craves:
So the multitude of all the nations shall be,
Who fight against Mount Zion.”
9Pause and wonder!
Blind yourselves and be blind!
They are drunk, but not with wine;
They stagger, but not with intoxicating drink.
10For the Lord has poured out on you
The spirit of deep sleep,
And has closed your eyes, namely, the prophets;
And He has covered your heads, namely, the seers.
11 The whole vision has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one who is literate, saying, “Read this, please.”
And he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”
12 Then the book is delivered to one who is illiterate, saying, “Read this, please.”
And he says, “I am not literate.”
13 Therefore the Lord said:
“Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths
And honor Me with their lips,
But have removed their hearts far from Me,
And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,
14Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work
Among this people,
A marvelous work and a wonder;
For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
And the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.”
Jesus is saying to them, their wickedness is as bad as that generation who saw Jerusalem destroyed and themselves carried away to Babylon. Something similar (AD 70!) is going to happen to you and for the very same reason.
A Parable the Bad Guys Actually Understand
Jesus then calls the multitude in to Him and tells them a parable “It isn’t what goes in a man that defiles him but what comes out of him.”
The disciples come to Him alarmed. Jesus don’t you know that you have scandalized the Important Church Leaders! And what does Jesus say to them? Another parable. Every plant that My Father has not planted will be uprooted. Leave them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. They are going to fall into a ditch. Jesus is telling them don’t worry. They will be uprooted soon. That ditch is coming for the blind leaders. The same thing that happened to Israel’s wicked leaders in Isaiah’s generation is going to happen in Jesus’s.
Keeping the Externals Is About the Internal
Peter still had trouble understanding what Jesus meant. Here is an example where the Pharisees clearly understood the parable, but the disciples did not. The Pharisees knew the parable was about their wicked traditions that enable sin. Peter, who like any good Jew zealously keep the Mosaic Law, was confused. Was Jesus undoing that, too? He wants to know what Jesus means. Jesus points out that the food laws ultimately are secondary to personal holiness. It is easier to not eat pork or shrimp, it is much harder to love your neighbor as yourself. The things that come out of a man’s heart matter more than what goes into his body. God cared about the laws in the Old Covenant that governed the external, because they taught about the internal. The internal is what ultimately matters.
What does all of this have to do with us? It is easy for us to dismiss rites and rituals as mere external tradition. This is a passage that is against tradition, right? Well, no, it is not. The Bible spells out all sorts of rites and rituals for us. There are two that God commands us to keep. One is even a ritual of washing and the other is a ritual of food going into the body! So God is not against tradition, or rites or rituals. He is against tradition and rites and rituals that gives us a blank check to feel justified in our sin. That is what the tradition of the Important Church Leaders in Israel did. You could do monstrous things if you held to their traditions. There are quite a few liberal churches that have all sorts of traditions where supporting abortion and flying a rainbow flag are viewed as holy things. You are a good, godly person if you support such things! But even much closer to us, there are many conservative, Bible-believing churches that have been caught up in the spirit of the age and teach that it is okay to dishonor your father and your mother and your father’s and mother’s country because it and they are irredeemably racist. There are many influential pastors and seminary leaders in conservative churches who believe Critical Race Theory, a doctrine which teaches that all white people are racist to some degree, is one which should be applied to the church.
This is a new tradition that is sweeping through the church that is not unlike the Pharisees teaching men how to hate and dishonor their parents and be seen as extremely holy. If you hate and accuse your parents, this makes you a good and holy person.
Such things must be resisted and called what they are: lies. For us, what we must resist any tradition that gives us license to sin. This is what our hearts badly want, an excuse to be justified in the things we want to do that God hates. And there is no more tempting excuse than one which allows us to not only not view our sin as “sin” but to view our sin as “holiness.” We want people not just to be okay with our sin, but to celebrate us for our sin. We should always be examining what we do and what we believe with “does this give me an excuse to do what God hates?” Does the way we worship give me an excuse to do things that God says I may not do? Do the things we have just always done around here make me think “this isn’t really a sin.” That is the test of a tradition. There are simple traditions and complicated traditions. There are old ones and new ones. The test of whether the tradition is a good one or a bad one is this: does it allow me to feel like I am good and holy when I do the things that God hates? Or does it cause me to seek God’s grace when I do the things that God hates? If that is our mindset, we can seek out the good traditions that have been handed down to us for generations. If that is our mindset we can gather before the face of God, trusting that it is the blood of His Son that causes Him to declare us “good” and not anything else. So with that in mind, love God and do what you will.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.