Transcending Tradition

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The Proverbial Pit and the Pendulum

Matthew 14: 34-36; 15:1-14

And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent into all that surrounding district and brought to Him all who were sick; and they began to entreat Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were cured.

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH.’ “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’” And after He called the multitude to Him, He said to them, “Hear, and understand. “Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up. “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

What is your greatest tradition? By the time you read this, you will have probably exercised at least one, if not several Easter traditions. Though as I write it is not yet Easter, by the time I publish I suspect another Resurrection Day will be behind us. What did you do this Resurrection Day? Was it similar to all other Resurrection Days of years past? Did you rise with the sun to celebrate Christ’s defeat of death? Did you eat a big fat ham to celebrate Christ’s making all things clean? What are some of your favorite traditions that you did this Resurrection Day? My favorite Easter tradition is to not call it Easter, named after a pagan holiday but to call it, Resurection Day. Don’t get me started on Christmas, or even any given Sunday!

The question I have always had since childhood is, why? Most people grow up and stop asking why, usually around the age of three or four. But I am a little slower than most people. I have come to realize that I think differently than most people and see things through a different lens. I wouldn’t call it a child like faith but rather an obnoxious attempt to understand. Take for example the Easter egg hunt; why do we do this? Why is this a tradition? What do eggs have to do with resurrection? The simple, shortest answer is, nothing. Many people have tried to tie the tradition to resurrection but the truth is one must twist and turn to make the tradition fit into the gospel accounts of the resurrection.

Today’s text teaches a tiny tidbit about how tradition can trump the word of God. We begin at the end of Matthew 14 where Jesus and the disciples have reached the other side of Galilee after Jesus had walked on the water: “And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent into all that surrounding district and brought to Him all who were sick; and they began to entreat Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were cured.”

Word of mouth was spreading about Jesus and his miraculous power. People had such faith in the ability of Jesus to heal that they would simply seek to touch the fringe of his cloak to be healed.

But then the tone begins to change as we read the beginning of chapter 15. The pendulum swings from men spreading the deeds and miracles of Jesus to other men so that they would come and be healed, to news of him spreading to the scribes and Pharisees so that they would come from Jerusalem to question Jesus. Notice: “Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, ‘Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.'”

The Pharisees tip their hands right out of the gate–“why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? They didn’t ask why the disciples transgress the law of Moses but the tradition of the elders. Although we could easily stop here, because the case is closed–their phrasing of the question is enough for us to realize that they are wrong, we will come back to this.

But there is something about the response of Jesus of which I would like to focus. As was the custom of Jesus, he responded to their question with a question of his own; “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus asked more questions than we tend to remember. Jesus was an incredible preacher and back in Matthew 5-7 we read how he laid down the law through his incredible preaching. Yet more often than not, in Matthew’s account, it was not Jesus that initiated the dialogue. Look at the context; “Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem;” it was the Pharisees and scribes who came to Jesus to question him.

I do the opposite. No one asked or solicited me to write a blog. However, I do have many questions. Jesus doesn’t go to the Pharisees and scribes and preach to them but allows them to come to him. This is precisely the picture Matthew paints in his gospel account. Come and see the temple, come and see the Baptist, come and be healed by Jesus but by the end of Matthew’s account we see Jesus proclaiming, after his resurrection, for his disciples to go and tell. Nevertheless, here in the middle of Matthew, everyone is coming to Jesus, whether to be healed or to accuse him of tradition trampling.

The scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem, a long journey in those days, to ask Jesus why his followers transgress the traditions.  Don’t be misled, they are clearly accusing Jesus with the disciples. After all, he is their teacher. They ask Jesus why his followers, and by extension himself, forsake and ignore their old-time traditions? Talk about the ultimate backfire.

“And He answered and said to them, ‘And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'” This should have been enough to shut up the Pharisees but Jesus continues to make it crystal clear: “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH.’ “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’”

Imagine Jesus applying a specific prophecy, and not a good one, directly at you. I can imagine that the Pharisees were livid. The problem is that it was the truth. Jesus says, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy against you. I would actually feel terrible for the Pharisees and scribes except for one small detail–they asked for it. They confronted Jesus with a question about tradition transgressions and Jesus put them in their proverbial place. The Pharisees were indeed teaching as doctrine the precepts of man. Remember the specific question that the Pharisees and scribes asked; “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” When we look back at the question they asked, after focusing on their pursuit of Jesus and his response, it is even more evident just how ridiculous their question was. And if this were a court of law, we would say that their question goes to motive. Biblically speaking, we would say that it exposes their hearts.

Jesus doesn’t hold back, remembering that they asked him and he answered; “why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH.’ “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.'”

I realize this response, for what ever reason, can be difficult to understand. But reading it several times helps. Also, understanding our Old Testament tutor is essential. Jesus rightfully accused the scribes and Pharisees of not understanding the commandment to honor one’s father and mother by the practice of the Pharisees of giving to God that which would honor and help fathers and mothers. In essence they neglected the needs of parents to try to win favor with God with their money and or sacrifice. In summation Jesus is telling them, you just don’t get it. Actually, it is much worse than that.

Notice; “And after He called the multitude to Him, He said to them, ‘Hear, and understand. Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.’ Then the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?’ But He answered and said, ‘Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into pit.'”

Jesus let’s the multitude know explicitly that it is not what goes in that defiles but what comes out–how true. But the disciples were a bit concerned that Jesus offended the Pharisees. Jesus, king and creator of all things, doubles down, dissolving all doubt–“every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into pit.”

I cannot compare an Easter egg hunt to washing hands or forsaking parents in need. But I am allowed to ask questions. My question is, on this Resurrection Day, are we celebrating the resurrection with our traditions or are we using the resurrection to justify our traditions?

One thing is certain–every day–he has already been risen from the dead and all of our sins have been nailed to the cross and buried with him and now we can walk in newness of life if he is indeed our Lord. We don’t walk in the old laws or traditions but in the Spirit of the risen Lord. Enjoy your egg hunting but remember the following: Jesus. Don’t let tradition trump time of reflection on his sacrifice and triumph.

 

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