On this Remembrance Sunday we have come in our series of studies in Matthew's Gospel to chapter 15. And we are to look at verses 1-9. Our subject, quite appropriately, is TRADITION. Tradition is important. The tradition of Remembrance Day is a good tradition. It preserves the memory of those who gave their lives for freedom and to defeat tyranny. How we need to remember especially the Second World War and the evils of the totalitarian Nazi regime! We need to do that because, I believe, there are dangerous drifts in the West today. Thank God, it is nothing like Nazism. But there is a creeping totalitarianism even in this country. I wonder if we didn't see that in the case of Jodi and Mary - the Siamese twins.
This was an agonizing case, I know. The arguments were finely balanced. However, Mary was surgically killed this past week by a gruesome decapitation on the order of the State but against the wishes of the parents. And that is the issue. For the Appeal Court ruled that the parents' objections were reasonable. They were not, it said, like Jehovah's Witnesses' objecting to blood transfusions. It would, it was said (and I quote), "have been a perfectly acceptable response for the hospital to bow to the weight of the parental wish." Yet even though medical opinion was divided, the State, through the Court, overruled the parents' reasonable objections. That, surely, is very serious.
One key strategy of totalitarian States is to take away from parents the responsibility for their children - witness Hitler's Germany and the Hitler Youth. Of course, the State to maintain justice must interfere when parents are abusing their children. Romans 13 makes that clear. But the Bible indicates that parents are responsible for their children. So, memories of Nazism and totalitarianism are important. With a good memory, you will instinctively be worried when there are godless and dangerous drifts in society today and then be ready to respond. But a poll recently informed us that significant numbers of young people in this country did not know that Winston Churchill had been our Prime Minister. Social amnesia is a sad condition. Tradition helps to ward off that amnesia and keeps memories alive. We need traditions. But tradition is not always good. And that is what we are going to think about this morning as we look together at Matthew 15.1-9. And you will see from the outline that I want to focus on three things: first, MANDATING SECONDARY ISSUES; secondly, NEGLECTING THE FUNDAMENTALS; and thirdly, PLAY-ACTING.
First, MANDATING SECONDARY ISSUES
Look at verses 1-2:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"
There, in verse 2, you've got a reference to "the tradition of the elders". You say, "what is that?" Well, "tradition" means, literally, "what is handed down". And the Pharisees, one of the religious Jewish groups at the time of Jesus, believed there were non-written traditions handed down orally - by word of mouth - that went right back to Moses. The Pharisees, then, believed you needed these oral traditions in addition to the written Old Testament. They believed there were two parallel divine revelations - the written law, but also this oral tradition. Both were equally important and equally authoritative, they said.
During the second century BC these oral traditions got written down in the Jewish Mishnah. That was added to later by the Gemara which was a commentary on the Mishnah; and together, the Mishnah and the Gemara, formed the Jewish Talmud. But you will probably know that the Pharisees were not the only religious group at the time of Jesus. There were a number of other groups, one of which were the Sadducees. The Sadducees, far from adding to the Old Testament scriptures like the Pharisees, took away from them. They only recognized part of the Old Testament. They said the first five books alone had divine authority. They rejected the rest of the Old Testament.
Perhaps you can already see why all this is so important for us. There have been throughout history - and the history of the people of God - two recurring temptations. On the one hand, there is the temptation to take away from God's written word. To deny parts of it - particularly the bits you don't like. On the other hand, there is the temptation to add to God's written word. The Sadducees in the time of Jesus did the first, and the Pharisees did the second. And we are to be warned. Jesus said, as we shall see in the next chapter - chapter 16 verse 6:
"Be careful ... Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
And ever since the time of the Pharisees and Sadducees you have had those two tendencies. Like yeast they gradually spread. For example, on the one hand, there were the errors of the Roman Catholic church that our own Reformers saw. These were errors of adding to the Bible - to God's written word - all sorts of later traditions and making them essential to salvation, even when they contradicted the Bible. So Article XXII of the Thirty-nine Articles says - in 16th century language, but still relevant:
"The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also invocation of Saints [praying to saints] is a fond thing vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God."
But those things are part of the Pharisaical tendency. On the other hand, there is the great error of those who, for example, in modern times especially, are liberal in their theology; and take away from the Bible and deny parts of it. They say, "you can't believe this and you can't believe that in the Bible." This is the Sadducean tendency.
Now the specific problem here was that Jesus' disciples, verse 2b, didn't wash their hands before eating. Nor was this a simple matter of hygiene. The Pharisees had developed this washing to become very elaborate and also to signify moral purification - hence the elaboration. They believed that their hands would have been touching worldly, material things and so morally polluted. This "tradition" had undoubtedly sprung from a sensible piece of etiquette, namely that it is good to wash your hands before eating. So you rightly make your children wash their hands before eating - and I hope those of us who are older do the same!
But supposing you don't - and you don't even have a cursory wash. You would be very put out, if I said: "This is terrible - this is like murder, theft or adultery. And your standing with God depends on your washing your hands." But that is what the Pharisees said. In fact, it was worse. They taught that to neglect not just simple hygiene but these elaborate washings was exactly on the same level as those crimes: it was a primary religious duty. "To neglect [washing]" writes one historian, "was like being guilty of gross carnal defilement." So they were taking a secondary hygiene issue (which if not taken to excess is something good) and making it a fundamental religious requirement - something on which your standing before God depends. They were taking an external piece of ritual and saying that this is essential for your salvation. And that is what so many do.
Who this morning thinks that your salvation comes from church attendance, or baptism as a ritual, or taking Holy Communion, or reading your bible? These are all good things. But Jesus taught that they are secondary to having your heart right with God, as we shall see later.
This principle also works in other ways. There are people whose hearts are right with God - or appear to be - but they then make secondary issues fundamental - whether it is having or not having bishops or the mode of baptism or a number of other things. In the Church of England today there are those who suggest that Canons that deal with secondary matters of church order are more important than the primary Canons that deal with fundamental doctrine. But Jesus' disciples would have had none of that. They were "breaking the tradition of the elders" - the traditions that were on secondary issues. And that leads on to our second heading ...
NEGLECTING THE FUNDAMENTALS
Look at verses 3-6:
Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, 'Honour your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' 6 he is not to 'honour his father ' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
The Pharisees were not breaking the tradition of the elders. But Jesus says they were breaking the command of God for the sake of that tradition. If something has to be broken, it must be the tradition of the elders, not the command of God. So what was happening? And notice this carefully - for again you have a classic example of what can happen in religious circles.
First, these religious people were flatly contradicting the plain teaching of the Bible. When that happens, you should realize - and people in Jesus' day should have realized - that something is radically wrong. Verse 4:
God said, 'Honour your father and mother'.
That is crystal clear. It is, of course, the fifth commandment. But what, after a considerable amount of arguing, do these Pharisees end up by saying? Look at verse 6:
a man ... is not to 'honour his father'.
That is a flat contradiction. And you have that sort of thing today. You have in the Bible, crystal clearly, that Jesus is the only way. Acts 4 verse 12 says:
salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
But there are religious leaders, bishops, clergy and theologians, who say that you can be saved through Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism and all sorts of other ways. And there are crystal clear messages in the Bible about sexual morality; but there are religious leaders who are saying the opposite to what the Bible says about the wrongness of sex outside marriage, including homosexual sex.
Secondly, these Pharisees did not say, "God says, 'honour your father', but we think we know better; so we say, 'do not honour your father'." Such open denials are easy to detect. That is why the dangerous religious teachers are not the ones who are up front about their denials. No! It is the ones who are more subtle, like the Pharisees, and that use clever arguments, even claiming to be Biblical. Look at verse 5 and the reference to "a gift devoted to God". The Pharisees' traditions covered a case when someone had made a vow to give some money to the Temple. But then, perhaps, their parents hit on hard times. So what should they do? The Pharisees said that a vow is a vow and must never be broken. After all, the Old Testament taught about vows in Deut 23.21:
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it.
But those vows were for God's glory not to allow you to defy God's plain commands. The Pharisees, we are told, used to say that a man's parents must starve rather than a vow be unfulfilled. Of course, the Pharisees were two faced. The letter of the law could have been fulfilled by ruling that in such a case the Temple could take the person's money and pay it straight back to the hard-up parents. But that didn't happen. So Jesus said to the Pharisees, verse 6:
Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
They nullified the word of God not by a flat denial - people would have easily seen through that. They nullified the word of God by quoting a scriptural principle about vows. Shakespeare says: "the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." He did that when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. He does it through Pharisees. You say, "well, if all these churchmen and theologians - these Pharisaical types - can use the bible to erode its message, what hope is there for people like me - I can't match their arguments." But look at Jesus here. He is implying that the word of God is clear. Nor were the Pharisees denying it was clear. They were simply elevating their oral traditions to try to get round the clear message, "Honour your father and mother."
One of the great claims of the Reformers of the 16th century was that there was a "perspicuity" about the Bible. They believed that if it was translated into plain English even the simplest of people could read it and understand it. Where someone needed help, they could go to another Christian. But the essential message, if their heart was open, would be clear. And that was the trouble with the Pharisees - it was not a matter of their minds or their logical faculties. The problem was that their hearts were not right with God. That brings us to our final heading. For Jesus said that they were ...
Look at verse 7:
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 "'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"
A hypocrite is basically an actor. And Jesus says that these religious people were just that. They were not the genuine article. They were not real. They were just "play-acting". There are always a lot of people who are just playing games when it comes to the claims of Jesus Christ. Notice the exact words of Jesus after he has called the Pharisees "hypocrites". He says this (verse 7):
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you.
You say, "but Isaiah was not prophesying about the Pharisees. He was prophesying about the Jews living when Isaiah 29 verse 13 - this quotation - was originally written in the 8th or early 7th centuries BC." Yes, but Jesus sees that the OId Testament was so relevant. He saw that there was an exact match between the people of Isaiah's day and his day. He is saying that there is a universal condition that occurred in the 1st century AD as well as 700 years earlier. So Isaiah was, in effect, speaking about the Pharisees and to all to whom the cap fitted. He speaks, therefore, to us in the 21st century.
And this is the challenge for this Remembrance Sunday. Millions today are "honouring God with their lips" - at cenotaphs and war-memorials and in churches. But the challenge is this: "are their hearts right with God?" - the heart in the Bible stands for the "real me". You say, "how do I make sure my heart is right with God?" Listen to another Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, chapter 36, 25-27:
[God says] I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Christ came not to fight the Pharisees - he had to do that when necessary. No! He came to bring good news, namely that what Ezekiel and the other prophets had pointed to, was now fulfilled in him. He offered cleansing from impurity, a new heart in tune with God, and a new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. You say, "how do I get that cleansing and that new life?" Answer - by faith. You admit that you are a sinner - that you are just like these Pharisees or the Sadducees. Christ then says, "I forgive you, if you want to be forgiven. On the cross I bore every kind of hypocrisy and every kind of sin. And I will give you (to quote Ezekiel) 'a new heart and put a new spirit in you'."
If you need to, why not pray along those lines this morning? So, to summarize - our passage gives these warnings about religious traditions:
beware of mandating secondary issues; beware of neglecting the fundamentals; and, beware of play-acting - rather become real with God.