Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 4, 2015
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.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die. ’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father. ’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips,but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 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.”
— Matthew 15:1-20, ESV
Marking Matthew’s Gospel with chapters and verses makes today’s text the crossing of the middle line. It is really like arriving at a mountain peak. Having reached the height of Jesus’ popularity by the end of chapter 14 (with the feeding of the five thousand and His walk on the water), we now begin His descent in chapter 15 (in which He feeds four thousand and begins His walk to the cross). It starts with a conflict story, typical in the Gospels, between Jesus and the men who hounded, cast doubt, slandered, and conspired to end Christ’s earthly life, the Pharisees.
While the Beatles once brazenly claimed to be more popular than Jesus, the Pharisees would not have made this claim in vain. They were the most respected religious rulers of their day, especially within the confines of Judea and Jerusalem. They put Jesus down because He was from Galilee. They put Jesus down because His wisdom did not come from their particular schools of thought. They put Jesus down because He did not bend to their rules and regulations. But in building their traditions they had broken the commandments of God. So, this conflict story becomes a cautionary tale for us all.
The Gospels are full of conflict, or corner, stories. In one corner, with an average weight and dressed in white, Jesus of Nazareth. In the other corner, weighed down with hypocrisy and dressed in clothing as black as their hearts, the Pharisees and the Scribes. The bell sounds, the conflict begins, and the battle is for the truth of God.
The Pharisees claimed to have the truth, but tradition is all they really had. Instead of reading Holy Scripture with an open heart and seeking to obey it, they read it like a pack of unscrupulous businessmen looking for loopholes and angles to take advantage of other people. The result was an oral tradition that was eventually written down, an extra-biblical list of rules and regulations, a kind of old-style constitution and bylaws, that trumped Scripture when it came to telling the truth. Jesus showed them that because of their tradition, they were violating the truth. Building traditions can be a helpful thing, but they become most harmful when they are used to overrule the commandments of God, especially the greatest commandment of love.
The Pharisees had built traditions that broke the commandments of God concerning love for other people. They should have loved Jesus and His disciples. They could have learned a lot from them. But instead of learning from Jesus, they were always looking closely at Him to see if He would keep their traditions. When the Lord did not ceremonial wash His hands before eating like the Pharisees, they pounced on Him in an attempt to discredit Him among the people. Judging someone because they don’t keep your own extra-biblical traditions breaks the commandment of God.
The Pharisees had built traditions that broke the commandments of God concerning love for their own parents. They invented the concept of “corban” (ref. Mark 7:11), the dedication of a possession or sum of money exclusively for the Lord’s use. This sounds good on the surface. But the loopy loophole served the grotesque greed of the Pharisees. When their parents needed financial support (and in those days without Social Security and IRA’s, older parents often needed help from their children), they would declare their bank accounts “devoted to God” and piously refuse to help their parents. And in almost all cases, the money set aside for God never got spent on the things of the Lord. Turning your back on family and friends just to spend more money on yourself breaks the commandment of God.
The Pharisees had built traditions that broke the commandments of God concerning love for the Lord. I think Jesus said often, and John quoted Him, “If you love Me [the Lord], you will keep My commandments” (ref. John 14:15). Creating your own rules or looking for loopholes in the Bible is ultimately a lack of love for God. This breaks the greatest commandment of all.
The Pharisees were building traditions that broke the commandments of God. So God spoke. Jesus made a pronouncement, shed light on Scripture, then produced a parable, all of which deeply offended the Pharisees.
To the astonishment and confusion of friend and foe alike, Jesus pronounced publicly that the Pharisees were nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. He quoted Isaiah 29:13 and said it applied to them. Then, the Lord spoke a parable to the whole crowd. In the end the Pharisees were deeply offended by Jesus. But we should not worry when people get offended by God. We should worry when God gets offended by people.
God is offended by hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is exposed when people are found putting their traditions, or any other personal preference, ahead of the word of God. It is not that all traditions are bad. But building traditions that break the commandments of God is terrible. It is horrible hypocrisy. Washing your hands or doing certain things before a meal, being a Baptist or belonging to some other denomination, abstaining from or enjoying food and drink, giving to the poor or to missions directly or through a program, using the King James Version or a retractable screen in worship — these are traditions that express our faith, not the commandments of our faith. And when we judge and hurt people who are not keeping our particular traditions, even though they are by no means violating the word of God, we become horrible hypocrites, and God is offended.
Speaking of worship, God is offended by vain worship. The quotation Jesus recites from the prophet Isaiah makes this plain. What is not so plain to most people is that worship is not a one-hour experience on Sundays, but the sum total of our entire lives (ref. Romans 12:1-2). What you do at home, at your job, for your hobbies, and yes, in your activity in church (or lack thereof) is an expression of worship to God. It is either a valid expression or it is vain worship. Valid worship and lifestyles are based squarely upon Scripture. Vain worship is conducted by man-made rules. One is pleasing to God, the other is deeply offensive. Which way do you live, by the traditions you have built, or the commandments in God’s book? Keeping traditions requires a part of you. Keeping God’s commandments requires all of you.
God is offended by hypocrisy and vain worship. So, He tells us a peculiar parable that puts it all into perspective. Jesus said it’s not what goes in, but what comes out, that really matters to God.
Since this parable is told against the backdrop of a particular conflict over dinner, Jesus used food as a foretaste of what His kingdom is and is not. Remember that parables always highlight some aspect of the kingdom of God. The kingdom contains realities that are visible, and deeper realities that are invisible.
What you eat and drink, how you wash your hands, the clothes you wear, the entertainment you enjoy, the time and ways we worship God — these are all things we do that can be seen with the eye. They are visible. And if we claim to be Christian, they are visible expressions of our lives in the kingdom of God. God cares about the things we do with our hands, but perhaps not as much as we might think.
Yes, God cares about the hands. But what He cares about most is the heart. What goes into the heart is a matter of tradition. What comes out of the heart is a matter of truth, a revelation of who we really are. Choose your traditions wisely, and make sure they do not cause you to break the commandments of God.
Pharisees, hypocrites, and other unbelievers make unwise choices in regard to their traditions, lifestyles, and ways of worship. What goes in causes something unsavory and sinful to come out, like the list of sins that fell off Jesus’ lips in verse 19. Some people are quite good at washing their hands, but their hearts are rotten to the core.
It has often been said rightly that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Jeremiah knew this well when he said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (ref. Jeremiah 17:9). This is a prophecy that applies to everyone. While Jesus was obviously picking on a particular group of people in the first century, this text has much broader application in the twenty-first century. For there is potentially a piece of Pharisee in all of us.
So what can we do to make sure we have a heart that does not offend the Lord? How can we have a heart that honors God? How can we have the kind of heart fit for the kingdom of God?
Make sure you have a new heart through the new birth (ref. John 3:3). The birth that makes you a child of the King and a citizen of the kingdom comes about by repentance and faith (ref. Mark 1:15). A child of God (ref. Mark 10:14) loves God, and because they love God they want to obey God from the heart (ref. John 14:15).
Make every day a new opportunity to learn and live by God’s word (ref. Psalm 119:105). The only way to discern between truth and tradition, holiness and sinfulness, Heaven and Hell, is by surrendering your life to Christ and submitting to the word of God. Easier said than done, mastering Scripture requires a daily, weekly, and lifetime commitment.
Make use of every tradition that helps you apply the truth of God. Tolerate or jettison the rest. Remember, tradition is not innately bad. Tradition supplies some structure, and some structure is necessary for proper worship, Bible study, and other Christian disciplines. But always remember it is the truth, not the tradition, that counts. Never build traditions that break God’s commandments.