Religions can make for very exclusive clubs. A clique. It can be hard to break in from outside. All kinds of little signals that you don’t belong. You don’t know how things are done around here. So it’s hard to fit in.
Ancient Judaism was never meant to be a clique. God’s plan was for the people of Israel to be a light to the nations. Their privileges were meant to be shared. Instead, they’d become something to feel superior about. Which meant it was hard for those who were not Jews to break in, to become part of God’s people.
Matthew chapter 15 contains 3 stories. They have a common thread. They’re all about Jesus coming not only for the Jewish race. Jesus came for people of every nation, and the stories of Matthew 15 are all about how that can be.
And today we think about how he broke that religious clique. Christian churches can become cliques too. Places that are great if you’re part of the in-crowd, but very hard if you’re not.
So we need this passage. We need it to make sure that we, as a church, don’t become an impenetrable clique. And we need it to grasp how Jesus does not mean us to feel excluded. We need to see what following him is all about, and how it’s something within reach for all of us.
Here’s the setting for today’s story. The Pharisees were a group of extra-keen Jews. A group of them travelled all the way from Jerusalem to the north shores of Lake Galilee, some 70 miles, to investigate Jesus, this new rabbi.
They want to know why Jesus and his disciples don’t follow the customs. Verse 2: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Now, we all know it’s good to wash your hands before you eat. “Wash, wash, wash your hands, play our handy game. Rub and scrub, rub and scrub, germs go down the drain.”
Don’t worry: Jesus wasn’t undermining your parenting. He’s not teaching bad hygiene. This refers to a ceremonial washing. It wasn’t about germs. The Old Testament contained various laws about what you couldn’t eat, or what you shouldn’t touch. To enter the presence of a holy God, you had to be absolutely spotless. If you touched something that was not pure enough for God, you weren’t fit to enter his presence either. You’d then need various sacrifices to restore you, to make you ritually clean again.
The Old Testament didn’t contain any laws about hand-washing. Well, the priests had to before they performed certain duties, but not other than that. But a whole tradition had evolved that said you had to wash your hands in a certain way, every time before you ate. As I say, this was about ritual and ceremony, not hygiene.
And Jesus’ disciples were not falling into line. So the Pharisees wanted to know why not.
Jesus does two things. He first launches into a counter-attack of his own. Then he explains why this washing is not necessary.
And as he does so, he uncovers two vital principles as to what following him is all about. He addresses traps that it’s just as easy to fall into today. Jesus does some major clique-busting.
The word of God, not human traditions
First, let’s look at Jesus’ counter-attack, in verses 3 to 8. The key principle here is that following Jesus is about the word of God ,not human traditions. The word of God ,not human traditions.
Do you see this is at the heart of his counter-attack. Verse 2: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” Verse 3: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”
Jesus then spells this out. Verse 4 starts “For God said…”. Verse 5 starts “But you say…”
Let me just explain the example Jesus gives.
The command of God that Jesus picks is the fifth commandment: “Honour your father and mother.” This really was a command of God. It’s one of the ten commands that God wrote with his own finger on the stone tablets.
Jesus also quotes a verse from the next chapter of Exodus that spells that out a bit more, including stressing how serious it is. In Old Testament Israel, it was a capital offence to neglect your parents. This was God’s command, and God intended his people to keep it. In the left corner, we have the command of God.
In the right corner, we have human tradition. In this case, a custom that you could devote some of your possessions to God. The idea was that you could devote, say, your savings to the work of the temple. You could still use your money until you died, but then it was given over to God’s work.
Now, that might sound a bit like adding an entry to your will. But there’s a key difference. Your will doesn’t prevent you using your money how you wish. You could give it all away if you want. Nobody you mention in the will would get anything when you died, but that’s your choice. In the example Jesus is discussing, you could use it. But you couldn’t give it away because then it would be gone, and the temple wouldn’t get to have it. If you gave it away, you’d have broken your vow to the Lord.
The Pharisees had discovered a clever loophole. Mum or dad needs to go into a nursing home, and the weekly fees are exorbitant. They look to their children to help pay their way. The fifth commandment says you pay up. You look after your elderly parents.
So to get out of it, you make your vow. You dedicate that part of your savings to God and his work. Now you can’t give it away, not without breaking that vow. But you can still buy that new set of golf clubs if you want to.
Ingenious? No, it’s wicket. The important thing is why it’s wicked. God in his word says you look after your parents. This particular human tradition is being pressed into service to say that you mustn’t. Which wins? The merely human tradition. They refuse to help their parents, because the tradition of the elders says they mustn’t.
And Jesus’ words are absolutely stinging. Verse 6: “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”
A family has a son who is 17. The first Saturday each month, they always go out for pizza together. But then it’s his 18th birthday. As a special treat his parents ask him to meet them at Victoria station, half past six. They booked tickets for a West End show, followed by a luxurious meal out. Only he doesn’t show. He misses out. Why? He’d gone for pizza as usual. It’s what they always do.
You see what’s happened? His parents had something wonderful planned. So they gave him a specific instruction. But he couldn’t carry out that instruction, and spend Saturday night in the traditional way. He had to choose, and his tradition won the day over his parents’ instructions.
It’s just the same with God, our heavenly Father. He has some wonderful things planned for us. So he’s given us specific instructions. Jesus is talking about the word of God written. He means what we now call the Old Testament. Lots of human authors used lots of different creative processes to write the different parts of it. But every word is what God wants written. And when it’s read, even centuries later, God still speaks through it.
Since the Old Testament was finished, Jesus has come. So once again, God used a number of writers to tell us about him. We’ve also got the New Testament, to make the whole Bible.
Those are God’s instructions, his words. But we also have our own traditions. Ways of doing things, ideas we have about life, that build up over time. There’s nothing wrong with that. Traditions can be extremely helpful. But sometimes we have to choose. Which will take priority: God’s specific instructions, or our traditions?
And here’s the key principle for following Jesus: It’s all about the word of God, not human tradition. It’s when we lose sight of that, when we let tradition trump God’s word, that we become a clique.
This applies to us at a number of levels.
Apply this: Be free
The first thing to say is that this is extremely liberating. As I say, every church will have many traditions. Ways things are done around here. If you’re new, it can be quite intimidating trying to fit in. Trying to learn the ropes. If those traditions were the most important thing, it would be easy to feel suffocated by it all. But they’re not. All you actually have to do to follow Jesus is live by what God says in his word.
Now, don’t get me wrong. That’s no small thing. There’s a lot of Bible, because there’s a lot of God. He can ask us to make changes to our lives that can be deep, and can be wide-reaching.
But at the end of the day, it’s within reach. Step by step, read a bit of the Bible, discover something about Jesus, see the implications for your life, and then live in the light of what you’ve found.
Apply this: Be alert
The second way this applies is in how we use our time together on a Sunday. You’ll have noticed we’ve put Bibles in every pew. Why did we do that? You’ll also have noticed that I always ask us to open them at the passage we’re looking at, to follow along. Again, why do I do that?
It’s because what’s in here is the living word of God. Read this, and you hear God speak into your life. It’s dynamite! What it has to say, is supremely important. By contrast, what I have to say from the front is unimportant. Or, rather, it’s only important insofar as what I’m doing is opening up what’s in here. The world has too many people who’ll give you their opinion. You really don’t need my opinion as well. But if I can open up the Bible for you, so you can hear it speak, then it’s very worthwhile.
Two weeks ago, after the service, one of you came up to check. I’d quoted some words of Jesus, and it had been spotted that what I’d quoted didn’t quite match what was on the page. Why was that? Brilliant. Thank you. And yes please! More of that. Always check I’m not pulling a fast one. Always check I’m not lapsing back into giving just my views.
A friend of mine was preaching just last Sunday. Someone in the congregation immediately texted him two Bible references that showed he hadn’t quite got something right. Happily, not during the sermon itself. Was he threatened by this? Not in the least! He was thrilled! Praise God for a congregation that reads the Bible for themselves, that doesn’t blindly trust their ministers.
It’s liberating. We open the Bible on Sundays.
Apply this: Be careful
And third, we need to watch that our customs don’t become too dear to us.
Most of us are traditionalists at heart. We know what we like, and we like what we know.
Which means, as I’ve said, that churches and denominations develop a string of traditions and customs. They easily get very wedded to those, even to the point of ignoring what God says in his word. We need to watch ourselves to make sure we don’t do this.
Or maybe it’s more subtle than that. Maybe we’re unlikely to be so wedded to our traditions that we deliberately go against God’s word in order to keep them. But what we might do is be so wrapped up in how we like to do things that we take our eyes off God’s word. Somehow, what he has to say becomes less important to us than the things we know and love.
Or maybe we elevate our traditions, our customs, to the point where they have a similar status to God’s word in our thinking. So, again, it’s not that we deliberately go against what God has said in order to keep them. This service is fairly new, and many of us have not been coming for long. But as things settle down, we get used to them. Until maybe we should change some things to make this more accessible to people who don’t come to church. That’s when we find whether we’re treating our traditions as though they were things God actually required of us.
Following Jesus: It’s all about what God says in his word, and not about human traditions.
Which is enormously liberating. Be free!
It means we need our Bibles open. Be alert!
And it means we need to watch, because how easily we could develop some habits that become far more important than they should be. Be careful!
Well, I think that’s enough for today.
We’re discovering what it looks like to follow Jesus. What really matters.
Get this wrong, and we’ll form a clique, like the Jews of Jesus’ day.
He starts by launching a counter-attack. Next week, we’ll return to this passage, and we’ll look at how he addresses their actual question about hand-washing.
But for now, we’ve seen that what God says in his word is what really matters.
If we focus on our many traditions and customs, we may feel very comfortable. They may be good things. But it gives other people a lot to get used to. We risk feeling comfortable, but at the expense of excluding others.
Worse still, there’s the risk that we might shut God himself out.
We need to be people of the book, people of the Bible. We need to be a church that builds its life on what God says. Do that, and you’ll find the person of Jesus on every page.
Personally, get into the Bible. Read it. Live it. You’ll find Jesus is there for you to follow.
And together, as a church, let’s get into the Bible. Let’s read it. Live it. And enjoy having Jesus walk amongst us together.