Truth vs. Tradition
July 13, 2014
Topic: Matthew Passage: Matthew 15:1–15:20
“Matthew: The Gospel of the Grace of God”
“TRUTH vs. TRADITION”
Much of what Jesus said 2,000 years ago STILL seems RADICAL to us today. That is because He is GOD, & so He THINKS God’s thoughts, & He SPEAKS God’s words.
But, for 1st-century Palestinian Jews, NOTHING Jesus said ever sounded as RADICAL as what He taught here on the issue of TRADITION vs. TRUTH, or scripture.
There are 2 reasons why these verses may not seem as STARTLING to us today:
Because we are so long-removed from the CULTURAL TRADITIONS of 1st-century Judaism.
Because we tend to think much like the PHARISEES of that day.
In these verses, 3 CONVERSATIONS take place:
Between Jesus & the PHARISEES;
Between Jesus & the CROWDS;
Between Jesus & His DISCIPLES.
The passage BEGINS with:
A CONFRONTATION: vs.1-2
The fact that these were NOT ONLY scribes & Pharisees, but that they were scribes & Pharisees SENT here from JERUSALEM, the RELIGIOUS CENTER of Judaism, underscores how SERIOUS a THREAT they considered Jesus to be by this time.
One may think that, due to their PRESTIGE, Jesus would respond to them with extra CARE & SENSITIVITY.
Instead, He has the OPPOSITE response: He treats them with an unusual degree of SEVERITY.
The PURPOSE of this confrontation was to prove that Jesus OFFENDED their TRADITION.
That accusation, in fact, was TRUE: by His teaching & His actions, Jesus posed a severe THREAT to the LEGALISTIC SYSTEM of that day.
“It was a religion of ceremony and tradition that the most hardened unbeliever could follow. It was concerned with covering up sin, not exposing and cleansing it, with appearing righteous, not being righteous.” (John MacArthur)
It is important to notice that their ACCUSATION was that Jesus was breaking “the tradition of the elders” (v.2), NOT the WORD of God.
In fact, so many REGULATIONS & CEREMONIES had been piled upon God’s Word over the centuries that it could scarcely be found.
As a result, the “TRADITION of the ELDERS” had long since REPLACED Holy SCRIPTURE as the supreme AUTHORITY in Judaism.
What SPECIFIC tradition was Jesus’ disciples charged with breaking? “they do not wash their hands when they eat.” (v.2b)
This referred to CEREMONY, not HIGEINE.
The ELABORATE nature of that hand-washing BOGGLES the mind today:
WATER JARS were always kept ready for use before every meal.
Enough water to fill 1 ½ egg shells was required.
The water was poured on both hands, which were held with the fingers pointed upward; the water had to run all the way down the arm as far as the wrist.
This process was then repeated with the hands held in the downward position.
Finally, each hand was rubbed with the fist of the other hand.
Not only would devoted Jews do this before every meal; they would also do it between every course of a meal.
Just how SACRED did they consider this tradition to be? According to one rabbi, “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.”
Jesus RESPONDS to this CONFRONTATION with:
V.3 – note this: Jesus is not saying that they were breaking God’s law, DESPITE their tradition, but that they were breaking His law BECAUSE OF their tradition.
Vs.4-5 – it is “God said” vs. “you said” – they were speaking IN OPPOSITION to what God had said.
Warning: TRADITION must never be placed on the same LEVEL of AUTHORITY as SCRIPTURE.
Answering their question with His own question, Jesus makes a very SERIOUS ACCUSATION: these EXPERTS in God’s law had VIOLATED one of God’s most BASIC & SACRED commandments; that of HONORING one’s father & mother (the 5th of the 10 commandments).
Here is a clear example of how they had REPLACED God’s WORD with their TRADITION: vs.4-6a.
Mark is more specific here: Mark 7:vs.10-13a.
Here is how the progression worked:
SCRIPTURE says that a VOW to God must not be VIOLATED. Numb. 30:2: “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
But a TRADITION developed that allowed a person to declare that ALL of their possessions had been DEDICATED by God, by a VOW of “Corban” (Mark 7:11)
As a result, a person could AVOID the obligation of HONORING his parents by PROVIDING for them in their old age by declaring that all he possessed had been vowed to the Lord.
But he could REVERSE that vow whenever he wanted to, so that he could use his possessions for HIS OWN benefit.
Again, Jesus relies upon SCRIPTURE to VERIFY His accusation: vs.7-9.
Basically, what Jesus is condemning here is FALSE RELIGION, which is always the result when the love of TRADITION becomes STRONGER than ones love FOR GOD.
FALSE RELIGION leads a person to SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Self-righteousness, if not corrected, ultimately leads to JUDGMENT & DEATH.
Therefore, TRADITION has a horrible habit of taking people AWAY from God, rather than drawing them CLOSER to God.
A Word of CORRECTION: vs.10-11.
Boldly, Jesus delivers a DIRECT CONTRADICTION of what the Pharisees were teaching. (“Hear and understand” – “listen carefully & pay close attention”)
As TEACHERS of God’s law, they SHOULD have KNOWN this basic truth, as it is clearly TAUGHT in the Old Testament.
For example: Ps. 24:3-4.
As a RESULT, according to Leon Morris, “They were far away from God where it counts, in the heart.”
In this passage, then, Jesus is expressing one of scripture’s most BASIC but ESSENTIAL messages:
It is the HEART that is the heart of the matter.
Think about it:
We BELIEVE in the heart (Rom. 10:9-10);
We LOVE from the heart (Matt. 22:37);
We SING from the heart (Col. 3:16);
We OBEY from the heart (Rom. 6:17); &
We GIVE from the heart (2 Cor. 9:7)
V.11 – here again, it is easy for us today to MISS the great SIGNIFICANCE of what Jesus is saying here.
To the average Jew, there were few things that were MORE SACRED to them than their DIETARY LAWS (along with Sabbath-keeping & circumcision).
But, Jesus is saying that that is SECONDARY in comparison to the CONDITION of ones HEART.
The DISCIPLES’ CONCERN: vs.12-14.
The disciples thought that Jesus had not REALIZED that His words had OFFENDED the scribes & Pharisees, but it was His INTENTION to offend them.
In fact, being OFFENDED by the TRUTH is one of the identifying CHARACTERISTICS of HYPOCRITES.
V.13 – the scribes & Pharisees were PLANTS that the FATHER had not planted.
This could also describe many people TODAY who are involved in the LIFE of the church, & even in the LEADERSHIP of the church, for HYPOCRITES are certainly still with us.
Therefore, Jesus says, “Let them alone” (v.14a); which sounds much like what God said in Hosea 4:17 about Israel: “Ephraim is joined to idols; leaven him alone.”
It was TRADITION that had become the IDOL of 1st-century Judaism.
V.14 – EYE diseases that sometimes led to BLINDNESS were COMMON then, so it was not UNUSUAL to see someone LEADING a blind person.
Jesus is not saying that these “blind guides” MAY lead others to disaster, but that they are CERTAIN to do so.
FURTHER CLARIFICATION: vs.15-20.
V.15 – it was not that Peter & his fellow disciples could not UNDERSTAND what Jesus was saying. Rather, they found what He said HARD to ACCEPT.
Read the story of Peter & CORNELIUS in Acts 10, & you will see that Peter CONTINUED to find it hard to accept.
As one commentator observed, “There is something so revolutionary in his attitude that their minds have difficulty in following him.” (Dietrich)
Vs.17-19 – Jesus returns here to the very CENTRAL POINT of much of the SERMON on the MOUNT: SIN BEGINS with the INNER THOUGHT, not the OUTWARD ACT.
For example: Matt. 5:27-28.
V.20 – Jesus’ teaching here reminds us of a grim REALITY: we CANNOT keep ourselves PURE simply by AVOIDING those impurities OUTSIDE of us; we must be PURE in HEART, for it is only they who will someday “see God” (Matt. 5:8b).
In studying this passage, there is one PRIMARY DANGER to avoid: believing that Jesus was speaking ONLY to THEM in THAT day, or only to OTHERS in OUR day.
TRADITION can be HELPFUL; it can even be ESSENTIAL! But it can also be DANGEROUS, or even DEADLY.
Why do I use the word “deadly”? Because CLINGING to TRADITION is the primary cause of the DEATH of many CHURCHES.
Some closing questions to consider:
Is there anywhere in my life, or in this church, where TRADITION is more HIGHLY REGARDED than SCRIPTURE?
Am I aware of any tendencies I may have to adopt the ATTITUDE of a PHARISEE?
Ps. 24:3-4a – will I stand before God someday ONLY with clean HANDS, or will I also have a clean HEART; a NEW heart that GOD has given me?
GOD FORBID that it should someday be said OF US: vs.8-9.