Matthew 15:1-20: Human Tradition
February 12, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Perhaps one of the most important teachings of Jesus is in a context where religion is common, and faith—real faith—must be contrasted against the mere externals of “Pharisaic religion” (under its various guises). It is possible to look very impressive on the outside, and follow all sorts of forms and ceremonial observances, fastings and the like, but actually be very far from having a genuine heart for God.
The Pharisees and the scribes criticize Jesus’ disciples for not washing—meaning ceremonial washing—before they eat (15:1-2). But, as they point out, the real issue here is that they are not thereby following “the tradition of the elders” (15:2). In other words, they were going against the time-honored traditional teaching, so honored and upheld in Jesus’ time, and still so among religions of our own day.
Jesus’ reply is stunning, and the right answer to anyone who hauls us over the coals for breaking tradition when we are following the plain teaching of the Bible: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (15:3).
They had a particular habit of exacting money for donations that otherwise would have been used to take care of the individual’s parents, and getting leverage to do so by saying that because the money was going to God’s work, they were released from the obligation to their parents. Jesus rightly sees this as a clear breaking of one of the Ten Commandments—to honor your father and mother. They are hypocrites, acting so pious but really breaking God’s Word.
In fact, the matter is more serious still. When tradition is put in place of God’s Word, that tradition actually has the effect of doing what you would have thought otherwise to be impossible: “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (15:6).
In other words, such tradition actually empties God’s Word of its power. This still happens today. When human tradition—usually attractive because it alleviates us of more strenuous obedience to God—is put in place of the clear teaching of the Bible, it empties the Bible of being heard and received as it otherwise would be. We must therefore constantly ensure that our tendencies, practices, “traditions” are being brought into line with, corrected by, adjusted by, challenged by, reformed by God’s Word.
The reality is, as Jesus will teach from verses 10-20, that it is not ceremonial washing, or the lack thereof, that make someone clean or not clean before God. It is a matter of the heart, and the thoughts that derive from the heart lead to action, and all this is what defiles a person. The great battleground is the battle of the heart, of the mind, and of the affections. It is there that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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