Why was Jesus criticized for breaking with tradition and opposed by the religious elites?
Things are getting dicey. The fact that the religious elites (scribes and Pharisees) united in this attack and came all the way from Jerusalem to speak to Jesus, indicates the seriousness of their purpose. It is likely that this committee represented the leaders of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
Their accusation about “washing hands” had nothing to do with cleanliness. They were referring to the ceremonial washings of the rigidly orthodox Jews. It was bad enough that Jesus and His disciples mingled with outcasts, but they did not even seek to be purified! Of course, in making this accusation, these religious elites were forcing Jesus to deal with the very foundation of their religious faith. If Jesus rejected the sacred traditions of the nation, then He was a heretic!
- Matthew 15:1–2 — 1 Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
- Luke 10:16 — 16 “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.”
- Luke 11:38 — 38 When the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal.
Where did these traditions come from? They were handed down from the teachers of previous generations. These traditions were originally the “oral law” which (said the rabbis) Moses gave to the elders, and they passed down to the nation. This oral law was finally written down and became the Mishnah. Unfortunately, the Mishnah became more important and more authoritative than the original Law of Moses.
Our Master’s reply to their charge began with an accusation. It was they who were breaking God’s Law by practicing their traditions! He then proceeded with an illustration, their practice of “Corban”. The Hebrew word Corban means “a gift.” If a Jew wanted to escape some financial responsibilities, he would declare his goods to be “Corban — a gift to God.” This meant he was free from other obligations, such as caring for his parents. But in so doing, the person was losing the power of God’s Word in his life, and thus hurting his character and missing God’s blessing.
Jesus concluded His reply with an application, quoting Isaiah 29:13. Jesus made it clear that obedience to tradition made a person disobedient to the Word of God; and this proved the tradition to be false. Exodus 20:12 taught a man to “honor” father and mother. But the “Corban” rule would make a person dishonor his parents, and, at the same time, disobey God.
Tradition is something external, while God’s truth is internal, in the heart. People obey tradition to please men and gain status, but we obey the Word to please God. Tradition deals with ritual, while God’s truth deals with reality. Tradition brings empty words to the lips, but truth penetrates the heart and changes the life. Actually, tradition robs a person of the power of the Word of God.
Unfortunately, there are many “evangelical traditions” in churches today, man-made teachings that are often considered as authoritative as the Word of God — even though they contradict His Word. By obeying these traditions, Christians rob themselves of the power of God’s Word.
God wants us to give Him our hearts, and not just our lip service. We believe in the heart, love from the heart, sing from the heart, obey from the heart, and give from the heart. No wonder David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” (Ps. 51:10)
Jesus declared boldly to the multitudes that sin comes from the heart, not from the diet. It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles us, not what goes in.
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