The 6th Sunday After Trinity July 3, 2005
414, 369, 388, 53
Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”—then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Fellow redeemed in Christ Jesus, whose salvation is our great liberty:
People of a certain group often do things to identify themselves as part of that group. For instance, some may wear a hat to show their devotion to a certain baseball team; and others will do the same for a religious philosophy.
Jesus observed that the Pharisees in His day took pains to dress in such a way that people would recognize them as a strict religious sect. They often took regulations of Scripture to extremes just to draw the attention and admiration of the public.
But, sometimes it’s what you don’t do that singles you out. That is the case in our text today when Jesus’ disciples are criticized for not following a certain custom of the Jews. The outcome of this encounter is the realization that what counts is not what people see, but what God sees. Jesus’ disciples give Love-service, not Lip-service, to the Lord! May the Holy Spirit lead us to see and appreciate the difference.
One thing that becomes obvious from our text is that the lip-service of the Pharisees reveals their hypocrisy. Jesus had done some remarkable things in the past few days. For example, He had fed thousands of people from a handful of supplies. His popularity was growing, but it was also evident that He was very much out of step with the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees devised a plan of discrediting Jesus so that people would begin to fall away from Him.
You’ve heard of “test cases”—situations where people with a legal or social ax to grind will purposely transgress a law or bring charges against someone else just to prove their point in court. The Pharisees thought they had their test case all made when they observed that Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands. In other words, the disciples didn’t observe the customary Jewish practice of ceremonial washing before they ate after they had been out in public.
It was not an issue of hygiene which might, after all, make sense to us. It was an issue of accepting the rule of tradition and showing regard for long-cherished teachers and elders. The hand washing practice was handed down for generations by the teachers among the Jews. Although we don’t know quite how it started, the hand washing tradition made a clear statement. It emphasized the separateness of the Jews—that they, as a people, were distinct from the world and unlike the Gentiles were “clean” and righteous before God. But there was another undercurrent that arose around the tradition, namely, this was one of those things that a person had to do to be acceptable toward God. By actions such as hand washing, the Pharisees thought they were rendered clean and righteous in the eyes of God.
Because of this, Jesus pointed out the spiritually devastating effect of the Jews’ traditions. The man-made traditions had the effect of nullifying the claim God’s Word made on His people. People were directed to the “wisdom” of long-dead rabbis rather than to the truth of God’s own Word. They became comfortable working within a religious system that focused on the outward deed rather than with the condition of the heart and the inner man. They came to believe that their deeds, so effective in fooling men, could also fool God.
So Jesus turned them to God’s Word, and to the penetrating statement of Isaiah: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me” (Isaiah 29.13) Their hearts were far from the true love of God which must be at the heart of all service and worship if it is to be pleasing to God. They had other things in mind when they sang their psalms, offered their sacrifices, and made their prayers.
Then Jesus produced a test case of His own to show how man’s self-service lay at the root of his lip-service to God. He pointed out that God’s Law required that you should “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20.12). In Israel, to speak evil of one’s parent was even worthy of death. Now, on the face of it, the Jewish leaders certainly agreed with that word. But Jesus showed how, in their hypocrisy, they really didn’t agree with it. Jesus showed that, in fact, they supported at least one tradition that circumvented the word of God. The Jews had a formal tradition that allowed people to dedicate money or resources of their own as a gift to the temple. Under their rules, this became a sort of tax-shelter, only it was from their own parents that the money was to be sheltered! In the end, many of these “gifts” never even went to the temple. The owners just used the ploy to keep from using the resources for the care and comfort of their own parents.
You can see the point: How dangerous it is when, first of all, people use human tradition as a way of claiming to be righteous before God, and then use the very same tradition to avoid rendering true obedience toward God.
Since man is by nature corrupt, such rebellious thinking has continually crept into the Church. In the Middle Ages, for instance, men forsook God-given responsibility when they were convinced that they could gain more favor with God by joining a crusade or entering the cloistered walls of the monastery while leaving elderly parents or wives and children destitute and fending for themselves.
Beware of the tendency to look on the outward as the important thing in our lives. Beware of the tendency to choose the more prominent as the most important: the pastor who spends all his time with parish work and neglects to discipline and shepherd his own family, the teenager who speaks politely in the presence of his parents but runs around behind their backs with the darkest of the dark in the community, the person who attends church regularly but has no serious intention of hearing God and conforming to His holy will. All of this is lip-service that our Lord can see right through.
There is a better way. There is an alternative to the lip-service that Jesus so heartily condemns—the lip-service of which we may find ourselves guilty. The better way is what we would call “love service.” The love-service God seeks comes with true faith.
There is not much Gospel in this text—not a lot to direct us toward God with a changed heart. But it is there. It is present in those disciples who had come under the Pharisees’ criticism. Remember the issue: it’s what the disciples of Jesus didn’t do that bothered them. They failed to observe a custom. In that respect, they were guilty, and Jesus didn’t bother to try to excuse them.
The disciples were guilty of a lot more than simply breaking a tradition. These men were very human, very weak, frail, self-important, and thick-headed. And Jesus never whitewashed or excused any of their other faults. But Jesus did defend them. He accepted them just as they were because they themselves realized their sins. They deeply recognized their miserable estate and the holy wrath of God that their sinfulness deserved. But in Jesus they found grace and mercy. They couldn’t earn it, but Jesus called them to receive it. He called them to believe in Him and realize that in Him they were reconciled with God. They believed that Jesus was the Son of God.
Jesus didn’t burden His disciples with human regulations—they dared to eat with unwashed hands. But He did teach them to respect God’s Word as God’s Word—a Word to be cherished and accepted as absolute: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
The greatest, most precious, and holiest thing that man can find in God’s Word, is Christ. The Christ in whom we find true righteousness and peace with God. The Pharisees were quick to condemn the disciples for their failure. But believing in Jesus, safe in the Father’s good pleasure, they were untouchable! Remember Paul’s great words: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus; to those who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).
While the disciples walked with Jesus, they walked according to the Spirit. By the Spirit, working faith in their hearts, they freely and willingly gave themselves to the Lord, knowing all too well their own sinfulness and need for redemption. Jesus came by the fishermen’s boats one day and said, “Follow Me,” and they dropped their nets, and followed Him (cf. Luke 5.11). When Jesus finished His work, ascended to Heaven, and poured out His Holy Spirit on the disciples, they went on to do things that no laws and no traditions could have moved them to do. They spent themselves in proclaiming that salvation is in Jesus Christ.
What about us? Do we often try to hide behind routines, habits, traditions, or the approval of mere humans to excuse our sinful offenses against God? Or do we acknowledge our sins and flee to Jesus for His salvation? Do we grudgingly do our religion thing dragging ourselves off to church once in a while? Or do we find life in God’s words. Is the Gospel our joy and peace? Is Jesus the heart and soul of the things we do, the choices we make, and the solution to the struggles we endure?
The love we have found in Christ Jesus is the love that shields us from the condemnation of the world, the Devil, and our own conscience. From that love that we have found in the presence of Jesus, let us love—loving God with a whole heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Let us give true obedience to our parents in the fear of God and truly honor them when we’re older. Let us realize that we already are separate from the world through faith in Christ. Let us make life choices and do things out of a love for Christ and not a love for this world. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.