Matthew 15:1-9

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.’”

All this fuss over washing hands before dinner! It almost sounds like this scene could describe some of the conversations I’ve had with our kids rather than an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. 🙂 But of course what’s at stake here is far more than a dispute about manners. What’s at stake is a distinct understanding of law and tradition.

The Pharisees, who by this time have more than had it with Jesus, criticize the eating habits of his disciples, charging that by not washing their hands before eating they are violating the tradition of the elders. Jesus counters by leveling against them a greater charge, that the Pharisees are not simply breaking the tradition of the elders, but have actually used their traditions to defy God’s commandments. In particular, he lifts up the practice of renouncing obligations to care for one’s parents when entering religious service. Jesus says that by doing so they are disobeying the commandment to honor father and mother.

Beneath what can feel like a somewhat hard-to-follow squabble, however, is the deeper divide over the nature and purpose of the law. For the law is first and foremost intended to help us live lives that are pleasing to God by creating for us and those around us more abundant life. His problem with the Pharisees is that they honor tradition for tradition’s sake and keep the law for the law’s sake, not because it yields a more abundant life for you or your neighbor. But the law is always directed to the care of neighbor and was never intended to establish one’s righteousness or become a means by which to judge the worthiness or holiness of those around us.

As we’ve seen before, it’s sometimes hard to know whether this kind of critique reflects Jesus’ actual difference with the Pharisees or Matthew’s own struggle to strengthen the faith of his community. Whatever the case, this issue of why we keep the law and how we regard tradition persists. All too often, Christians have been quick to use both law and tradition as a litmus test by which to determine whether others are moral. (Think “family values.”) But here and throughout the Bible we’ll see the law lifted up as the means by which to best care for, rather than criticize, one’s neighbor. Perhaps what’s needed, as much today as then, is less judgment and more compassion and help.

Prayer: Dear God, let us see in your law a way by which to care for those around us and, in turn, to be cared for by them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.