The climax of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day will not take place until Jesus’ crucifixion. However, it becomes a prominent theme in chapter 15.
The Religious Leaders and Their Commandments
Matthew begins the chapter with a question from the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” This question is rooted in the religious leaders understanding of the righteous life before God. In addition to the Scriptures, they emphasized the interpretations of the Scriptures which had been handed down from esteemed rabbis. The particular tradition behind this question had to do with the ceremonial cleanliness and purity required by all Israelites in the performance of their daily duties. And, eating was considered one of those duties that required cleanliness.
A Failure to Make a Proper Distinction
Jesus responded to the religious leaders challenge by calling them out on their failure to make the proper distinction between the Scripture and the rabbinic tradition. The Old Testament Scripture is the commandment of God, while the rabbinic tradition is the “commandment of men” (9). The two are incomparable — one comes from the mouth God, and the other from the mouth of men. Jesus goes so far as to say that they have “for the sake of their tradition…made void the word of God” (6).
A Necessary Corrective
Jesus teaches his disciples and those around him what the Bible has always said that purity and impurity before God is a matter of the heart’s condition not outward compliance to a set of regulations. He said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart… For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery… These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
There are certain cultural and christian traditions that I love. I love a certain style of worship music. I love Reformed theology. I love church traditions at Christmas, Easter, and throughout the year. I have certain prayer, Bible study, discipleship practices that I really think others should adopt. But, I must be reminded that all of those traditions, all of that way of life is not the commandment of God. It is the commandment and practice of men. This passage reminds me to focus on the commandments of God and to remain charitable to those who disagree with me on the traditions of men.
Do you have a similar struggle? If so, this passage is for you. Think on Christ today. Think on the commandment of God found in the Scriptures.