Jesus’ teaching on the law (May 18, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Matthew 15:1-11, 15-20

When it comes to religion and morality (or most anything else for that matter), religious people want to have God on their side. We want to live according to God’s will even if justifying that intention requires a highly selective reading of authoritative sources such as the Bible (or for Presbyterians, the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order).

Matthew 15:1-2 — Some Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking the law

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very religious people. In today’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, they accuse Jesus’ followers of violating the traditions of the elders, by which they mean the law of God as they and their tradition understood it. The Pharisees believed that along with the written law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God also gave Moses an oral law that had been passed down to them through the centuries by their ancestors.

The law that the Pharisees thought Jesus’ followers violated prescribed that observant Jews must wash their hands before eating food. However, such a law is not found anywhere in the written law of Moses. It was most likely an oral tradition similar to those that were later collected and written down in the Mishna, a post-Biblical collection of rabbinic rules and interpretations. Mark 7:3 states that the Pharisees and indeed all Jews observed the tradition of the elders by washing their hands before they ate.

Matthew 15:3-9: Jesus responds with a counter charge 

Jesus accused these Pharisees of violating God’s law. He reminded them that Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 20:9 command people to honor their parents. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of violating those laws with the rather clever custom of declaring that their assets were reserved as an offering to God (Korban) and therefore not available to support their parents. That is hypocritical, Jesus said, because it purports to be a pious practice when it is actually a clever stratagem to avoid supporting one’s parents. That is the type of hypocritical behavior that Isaiah 29:13 condemns, Jesus says. The Pharisees have declared human traditions to be divine laws.

Matthew 15:15-20: Jesus explains what God’s law requires

Peter asks Jesus to explain what he meant when he said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matthew 15:11). Jesus very realistically says that what goes into a person’s mouth passes through that person’s body and ends up in the toilet. In Jesus’ understanding, it does not have a negative effect on the person. It certainly does not defile the person. That is, it does not render a person ritually impure as the Pharisees who were making the accusation assumed.

Jesus teaches a very different understanding of what defiles a person. Defilement is not a matter of ritual purity. It is not violating a human tradition such as eating food without praying. Defilement is behavior that breaks God’s law. To be defiled is to do evil that comes from inside a person, from one’s intentions, from one’s heart. The list of evil deeds Jesus mentions is not exhaustive, but it does reflect the perspective of the

Ten Commandments central to the Law of Moses.

Jesus points out that religious people like the Pharisees can mistakenly identify their understanding of right and wrong with God’s law. In our eagerness to see ourselves in agreement with God’s law, it is not uncommon for religious people like the Pharisees — and like Presbyterians and all other kinds of Christians — to claim divine authority for their own understanding of God’s law. Such thinking can easily lead to self-righteousness and judgmental behavior. That is what the recently deceased Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church did, and he was by no means alone. Such people are “blind guides of the blind. If one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus clearly teaches that he did not come to abolish God’s law, but to fulfill it. And Jesus also teaches that the Law of God calls for a total commitment to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matthew 22:37-40).

For discussion 

  • Describe situations in your experience when human traditions were held up as the law of God.
  • How can religious people avoid the mistake of claiming their own traditions are God’s law? In what sense does God’s law set a person free?