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 before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)
Today’s passage takes us into an area where most of our stereotypes about Pharisees come from as hypocritical legalists. It’s good to note that not all Pharisees were this way, however the ones that oppose Jesus’ ministry in the gospels certainly have this tendency. But as usual in Matthew, there’s a bigger picture behind this little incident, and the quote from Isaiah gives us the clue.
First, let’s start with the offense.
In our passage, Jesus and his disciples are being confronted over a tradition that comes from the Talmud – you’re supposed to wash your hands before eating any meal that has bread. Some scholars believe this tradition was instituted so the people would remember the priestly washing rituals that had to be performed before accepting certain kinds of offerings.
This tradition was held in very high esteem, as Sotah 4b tells us:
R. ‘Awira expounded sometimes in the name of R. Ammi and at other times in the name of R. Assi: Whoever eats bread without previously washing the hands is as though he had intercourse with a harlot; as it is said, For on account of a harlot, to a loaf of bread.
R. Zerika said in the name of R. Eleazar: Whoever makes light of washing the hands [before and after a meal] will be uprooted from the world.
There is precedent for bread being treated as unclean food, as we read in Ezekiel 4:12-13 where the bread is baked over human dung. So it was with the the tradition of washing hands before eating meals with bread. As Sotah 4b states:
R. Abbahu says: Whoever eats bread without first wiping his hands is as though he eats unclean food; as it is stated: And the Lord said: Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean.
So, this was a traditional practice, not one that is actually found commanded in the Law, but you can see how highly esteemed this tradition was among the rabbis.
And there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. The concern behind this tradition is the symbolic holiness of Israel to God, and this is the same concern behind a rather large chunk of the Torah laws. Jesus does not criticize having traditions or declare this tradition as bad, although he will later criticize some of the foundational ideas behind it.
What sets Jesus off is that the very religious leaders and teachers who are criticizing him for not following this man-made tradition are themselves in hypocritical violation of God’s actual Torah for His people.
For the past several centuries of Israel’s history, the corruption of her leadership had led the nation into unfaithfulness. God sent prophet after prophet to warn Israel about this and the curses that would fall on her because of the covenant she made to be God’s people and be faithful to Him. Always the hope of repentance and restoration was held out.
But this was not to be, as Israel did not listen to her prophets and often persecuted them and even put them to death. Instead of those being opportunities to turn things around, they were opportunities for the nation to plug up their ears and blind their eyes that they might not respond to the warnings in faith.
It is this dynamic that brought Israel through exile from their land, the dominion of several pagan empires, the predations of Antiochus Epiphanes, and finally the oppression of the Roman Empire.
It would be a mistake to think of every individual in Israel during this time as incurably sinful. Instead, we are to see them as a nation being steered by their leaders, and it is the corruption of their kings, teachers, priests, etc. that come into the crosshairs of the prophetic critiques. Yes, this unfaithfulness does characterize the people in general, but it’s the leadership that takes them there.
This is why Jesus’ words to your common Israelite are generally gentle and kind, but his clashes with religious leaders or the rich and powerful tend to have a lot of animosity behind them. Those in power in Israel should be doing what Jesus is doing – calling the nation to repentance and pursuing new lives of faithfulness to God so that they might be restored and saved through the judgement that is to come (or perhaps even avert it altogether).
It is those with authority in Israel who should be sacrificially giving of themselves, seeing that the sick and the poor are cared for, seeing that those who are spiritually struggling are made whole, seeing that neighbors are treating each other justly in love, and seeing that their people’s hearts are captured with the love of God.
But they have not done this. Instead, they have allied themselves with the power structure of that age. They have used their position to get money, comfort, and fame for themselves even at the expense of their own people. And they have been at this for a very long time.
During this time, Israel’s religious leaders continued to observe certain measures of the Law (usually the religious ones – the ones that gave them their authority), even as they ignored important parts of the Law like justice and mercy, caring for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner. These are all longstanding items in prophetic indictments against Israel’s leadership.
Here’s a small sampling:
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for someone,
so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
they commit a monstrous crime.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
Ephraim’s whoredom is there, Israel is defiled.
Hosea 6:4-10 (NRSV)
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)
Know, then, that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being, which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.
Malachi 2:4-9 (NRSV)
And we could go on and on. Most of the prophetic writings are full of stuff like this. If they aren’t going after Israel’s enemies, they’re going after Israel herself. It is clear that the unfaithfulness of the leadership has led the nation as a whole astray and, as such, she is subject to the curse of the Law, even though she may be technically observing portions of it.
In this passage, Jesus points to a practice where religious officials, instead of using their wealth to support their parents, offer it “to God” instead. This sounds very pious, right? Well, that’s exactly the problem.
Jesus points out that what God wants in the Law is for Israelites to honor, respect, and care for their parents. That’s what He asked for. The Law serves love, here. In this case, these aren’t just Israelites in general, but your own parents.
Here, the Pharisees and scribes escape this obligation by declaring their money to be “corban” (sacrifice) – in other words, the money was donated as a consecrated offering given to the Temple for its ornamentation or operations. Basically, this is like the money you give in your church offering with more of an official connotation. Money given as corban was like a vow or a pledge. That money was to be used for the Temple and could not be used for anything else.
As far as I know, there is no specific rabbinical writing that spells out that you can take the support you normally would have given to your parents and consecrate it for the Temple, thereby removing your obligation to provide for them. Corban is talked about both in the Talmud and the Mishnah particularly underscoring how binding that vow is when you declare something as corban, and I found one passage in the Mishnah that describes the situation where someone may declare their financial benefit as corban.
So, this practice Jesus is criticizing seems to have sprung up. Through a complex path of systematic theology, the religious teachers of his day were holding that you could take money you would have normally used to support your parents and declare it to be for the Temple’s special use, instead. And this was honoring to God.
It doesn’t take much imagination or cynicism to figure out what interest “Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem” would have had in this practice. Perhaps it enabled a public show of piety by giving lots of money to the Temple. The odds are also pretty good that these exact people benefitted financially from money given to the Temple.
Whether the Pharisees do this to promote the public image of themselves as pious and faithful, or whether they do it to line their own pocketbook, the facet of the problem Jesus brings into focus is that they have neglected something the Law requires – for them to care for their parents who can no longer care for themselves.
By saying this, Jesus does what he has done countless times in Matthew. He reveals the religious leaders of the day to be lovers of their own selves and not at all interested in the welfare of the people under their charge, while he and his disciples are working their butts off and sleeping in fields healing the sick and feeding the hungry.
In this case, Jesus’ accusers try to demonstrate his lack of faithfulness by pointing out a violation of a tradition, but Jesus shows how they have used a tradition to violate the actual Law of God – specifically, laws that would require them to give sacrificially for the care of Israel. It is a massive failure to keep the covenant that has plagued Israel’s leadership for centuries, has led to their current state of affairs, and keeps them trapped in their current state of affairs.
It is here that Jesus quotes Isaiah 29.
Scholars are in agreement that, when you see a quotation of the Old Testament in the New, that the quotation is meant to imply the surrounding context. In other words, those quotes entail the much larger section they came from.
Isaiah 28, interestingly enough, is about judgement coming to Israel’s leadership. They have made themselves prosperous and drunk and they teach “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
It is this chapter that contains the well known passage:
Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
“One who trusts will not panic.”
Isaiah 28:14-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
I doubt this was lost on the Pharisees.
Isaiah 29, then, begins to describe a siege against Jerusalem as a result of what these leaders were doing, and the passage Jesus quotes is right in the middle of it, offering the reasons why Jerusalem is being destroyed.
I mean, how on the nose does this need to get?
Jesus is appropriating these observations about Israel for his own day. In Jesus’ own day, the leadership is doing what Isaiah described – right that very second in fact, and in Jesus’ own day, a destruction of Jerusalem is coming in response. This is not just an occasion to point out the hypocrisy of Jesus’ opponents, it is a warning of a coming destruction.
But the end of Isaiah 29 tells us what is to be hoped for when the smoke clears:
Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
become a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?
On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.
Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:
No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,
no longer shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
the work of my hands, in his midst,
they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
and those who grumble will accept instruction.
Isaiah 29:17-24 (NRSV)
- What are some instances you’ve seen in out in the world or even in your own life where a particular practice or interpretation of “what God wants” seems to actually obscure or interfere with what God has revealed He wants, especially in Jesus?
- How much of modern Christian expression would you classify as “tradition?” Given that traditions are not intrinsically bad, which traditions do you think keep us pointed in the right direction, and which ones have perhaps steered us wrong?