Life of Christ 77
Jesus is back in Galilee following the feeding of the five thousand, the forced attempt at making Him king, and Peter's successful and unsuccessful attempt at walking on water. He is being constantly shadowed by Pharisees from Jerusalem who were almost certainly charged with sending reports back to headquarters. At the same time these Pharisees were actively looking for opportunities to embarrass or harass Him, and when they discovered that He and His Apostles were not strict about ritually cleansing themselves from Gentile defilement they went on the attack (Matthew 15.1-9).
The rabbinism of the Pharisees was not monolithic in belief about many things, but it was in its attitude toward the Gentiles. Even the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai agreed on 18 specific things a Jew should do to remain clean, or to cleanse themselves from defilement with Gentiles. For instance, if you came back from the public market you ought to take a ritually cleansing bath just in case you accidentally touched some bread that had been previously touched by a Gentile. The Sadducees, normally antagonistic toward the Pharisees' theological hullabaloo, poke relentless fun at them over this issue, saying that 'soon they would think it necessary to wash the sun' because its rays shone on the Gentiles also.
The Pharisees had started centuries before for sincerely good reasons as a reaction against the growing hellenization of the Jewish people under Grecian influence. To do this they had erected a fence around the garden of the Torah. They called this the Oral Torah. They claimed it had been handed down from Moses, the first rabbi, and then later codified into the Mishnah section of the Talmud. There is, of course, zero scriptural support that Moses did this, and even if he had it wasn't scripture. In essence, then, these extra-biblical rules had no more support than the fact that they were traditional, yet in reality the Pharisees paid them such respect and obeisance that they had elevated tradition to the place of equal authority with the actual Torah. Thus, it really bothered the Pharisees that Jesus and His Apostles ignored these traditional decrees regarding ritualistic Jewish purity.
'Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread' (Matthew 15.1-2). We aren't talking about dirty dirt here. In fact, your hands had to be clean of physical dirt before you ever started in on ritualistically cleansing them of defilement. The idea was that you had to cleanse any imaginary defilement from your hands in case they had touched something a Gentile had also touched. For this purpose, one and a half eggshells of water were to be used, and after scrubbing the hands you were instructed to raise them so the now defiled water would drip off your elbows rather than off your fingertips for that would defile the hands all over again. So we see, then, that the Pharisees aren't questioning Jesus and the Apostles' conformity to the Law; they are questioning their conformity to tradition.
Jesus responds by illustrating how bankrupt rabbinic tradition actually was. 'But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition' (Matthew 15.3-6).
The Torah required, under the general instruction of the sixth commandment, that children financially support their aging parents if such support is needed. This is absolutely a scriptural interpretation, not a traditionally extra-biblical one. Yet the Pharisees, for all their talk of obedience to the Torah, had ingeniously found a way out of it.
If a Pharisee pronounced the word 'Corban' over his money and property he was essentially saying that he no longer owned it, and that he was going to give it to the work of God via the Temple – but it wouldn't go to the Temple until his death. Until then, he 'managed' it or held it in trust for the Temple. Sadly, it just wouldn't be a wise use of 'the Temple's money' to support his elderly parents. Voila! Said Pharisee has gotten around the sixth commandment. You can see how such a wicked system, while following the letter of the Law, completely contradicted the actual point of the sixth commandment.
The problem wasn't that Jesus and His Apostles were violating tradition. The problem was that the Pharisees, with their slavish adherence to extra-biblical tradition, were violating the Torah. 'Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me' (Matthew 15.7-8).
Then, as His custom was, Jesus used the subject they brought up to deal with a deeper problem. The Pharisees assumed they were inwardly righteous, as Jews, and that defilement came from what touched them externally. In that light, their complex system for avoiding defilement made sense. Jesus' view, however, was exactly the opposite. Eating bread that had been touched by Gentiles had nothing to do with whether you were defiled or not. After all, what you ate entered into your stomach and bypassed your heart entirely (Mark 7.18-19). No, defilement came from inside a man precisely because his heart was so wicked. 'For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man' (Mark 7.21-23).
So with this by way of explanation let me give you two quick observations from this story. First, we must keep the heart front and center in our emphasis on holiness. I'm for externally visible standards. In fact, I'm so old-fashioned and extreme and legalistic and out of touch (at least if my mail is correct) as to believe that a lady ought not to wear pants and a man ought to have a short haircut. I'm also for personal separation from external defilement, and as I understand scripture that includes things like rock music and the American public school system. (Go ahead, write me about this. Really. I'm just dying to have another conversation about it.) But what I am not for is equating the observance of these separations with holiness or spirituality, nor am I for making them the point. They are nothing more than a wise use of principle, but they are not, in and of themselves, holiness. See, the problem of sin is a heart problem, and the solution, therefore, must be a heart solution. Paul explains, in that section of Romans which contains the greatest passage on holiness in the Scripture, that holiness is a heart issue. 'But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you' (Romans 6.17).
Secondly, religious tradition may lend us insight, but we must never view it authoritatively. This is one reason I don't like the label 'traditional'. Yes, our church is considered a traditional one, and I'm considered a traditional preacher, but we don't do the things we do because they are traditional. We do them because we honestly believe them to be scriptural.
The classic attack on a church like ours, or a ministry like mine, that thinks ladies should still dress like ladies, and that men should still look like men, and that we should still use the KJV, and that our music should still flow instead of rock is that we are trying to survive in a cocoon of the 1950's. Such an attack is laughably inaccurate. Our Bible is from 1611, or 1769, depending how you count it. Our music encompasses songs from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Our emphasis on modesty was the position of the church in every culture of which I am aware for almost two millennia until American culture shifted in the sixties. More importantly, though, such an attack is completely untrue. We aren't trying to mold people into Leave It To Beaver land. We are trying to be scriptural. If the byproduct is that we happen to still look like people think churches looked like in the 1950's, fine, but that isn't the goal by any means, let alone the model.
It isn't critical that those who attack us, or fire away at me understand this. It is, however, critical that young people understand this. If we don't teach them the why's behind the what's we stand for they will throw them overboard when they think that the only reasons we had were traditional.
By the same token, we must diligently study to make sure the reasons we have for holding our positions or structuring our churches and ministries the way we do are more substantial than mere traditions. As Baptists we profess that the Bible is our sole authority when the actual truth is that, far too often, tradition plays a huge role in why we do what we do. If that is, indeed, the case, let us refrain from attacking the man or church that shifts something that has no more to support it than mere tradition.
Let us be true to Scripture rather than tradition. Let us be holy from the heart. In other words, let us not be Pharisees. Instead, let us be like Jesus.
If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 45, 'Transgression and Tradition'.