Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Spiritual Hygiene - Matthew 15:1-20

The Confrontation
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."
3 And He answered and said to them, "Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
5 "But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,"
6 he is not to hnor his father or his mother.'  And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of tradition.
7 "You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

We find in this passage yet another instance where the Pharisees are continually trying to find fault in Jesus.  But in this case, there might be genuine conern mixed in.  You see, the Pharisees would have fully believed that not washing the hands before eating was genuine sin.  You might recall what we've discussed before, how the Jews have both the "Written Law" (Moses's Law, the first five books of the Old Testament), and also the "Oral Law," which is extra rules passed down through the generations and which they believe are just as much God-breahed scripture as the Written Law (note here - not all Jewish denominations believe the exact same things; I'm speaking in generalities).  The ceremonial process of washing hands before a meal was a practice mandated in the Oral Law.  But Jesus has something to say about that...
His rebuttal is not defensive - He doesn't arge that the disciples actually do and the Pharisees didn't see it, or that the disciples not washing their hands isn't His fault, as so many others' go-to response might be.  Rather, He jumps right to the heart of the issue by blatantly stating that the "Tradition of the Elders" (another name for the Oral Law) is not God's Law, and that it is actually spiritually damaging.  In this case, the issue is that, even though financially supporting your parents in their old age is the right thing to do, the Oral Law set up a system in which that money would be given to the Jewish leaders instead.  Not only did this make the very leaders who taught the practice quite rich, but grown children would be  motivated to opt for that "charity" instead of giving it to their parents because they would receive public recognition for their "righteousness."  Meanwhile, the elderly struggled to survive, and all this was under the guise of serving God.  This one specific case highlights what is wrong with the entire Oral Law: It emphasizes the wrong things and mixes up priorities, thereby hindering those who truly wish to follow God.  Jesus only needs to give one example of the Oral Law contradicting God's Written Law, because one poignant example is proof enough!
I'd like to take a slight tangent now and apply that specific problem with the Oral Law to our own lives.  While making daily time for "spiritual disciplines" (i.e. spending time with God through reading/studying the Bible, praying, sitting in His presence, etc.) is immensely important, we shouldn't grow legalistic about it to the point that we don't have time to serve God in the ways that He has planned.  James 1:27 tells us that "true and undefiled religion" is helping others and avoiding sin, not racking up spiritual knowledge.  Corrie Ten Boom once said something along the lines of, We shouldn't plan our day and ask His approval for what we have planned - we should seek to learn what His schedule for our day is, and then sign our names to it.
Broadening the Lesson
10 After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, "Hear and understand.
11 "It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, that defiles the man."
15 Peter said to Him, "Explain the parable to us."
16 Jesus said, "Are you still lacking in understanding also?
17 "Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated?
18 "But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.
19 "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.
20 "These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hadns does not defile the man."
(I'm lumping together the parable and His explanation; we'll return to verses 12-14 in a moment.)
The whole point here is just that the Jews had become very legalistic, focusing on <the rules by which they followed God> instead of just <following God>.
Although Jesus is here referring to the Oral Law, there were plenty of things listed under the Written law (which is Scripture) that could make a person "unclean."  But it wasn't those things themselves that inherently made a person unclean; the act of disobeying God by partaking of those things was what made a person unclean!
Jesus isn't concerned with our outer selves; He's concerned with our inner selves.  We can have the appearance of utter righteousness (like the Pharisees did), but inside be corrupt, full of "evil thoughts" (verse 19).  Each of us must ask ourselves: Is our faith only an act?  Do we focus more on appearing godly than on actually, daily, surrendering our will to God and taking up His cross?  James 4:10 tells us, "Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you."  If we truly want to be righteous, we need to realize that we can't accomplish it on our own by "living righteously" - only God can bring about His righteousness within us.  And only if we are willing to humble ourselves and let Him in.
The Truth is Offensive
12 Then the disciples came and said to Him, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?"
13 But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted.
14 "Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.  And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit."
There are two senses in which the disciples might have meant this.  We'll start with the shortest.  It could be that they're afraid of the Pharisees (for their power to criminally prosecute people), in which case Jesus is telling them, "Don't worry - the Father will take care of it (uprooted - v13)."  Or, it could be that they were concerned since the religious leaders were condeming them - i.e., they thought the Pharisees still had some degree of spiritual authority.  In that case, Jesus's point would be that the Pharisees weren't leaders put in place by the Father (v13), so they didn't have authority over the people at all.
That latter point, combined with His comment about the blind guides and the pit, warn us of a grave danger: We need to be very careful whose spiritual authority we put ourselves under.  False teachers abound, so if we put ourselves under one of those, of course we will get tripped up in wrong doctrine and heresy.  1 John 4:1 tells us to "test the spirits" (see if what someone says matches up with God's Word) because false spiritual leaders are so prevalent in the world - it's not paranoia, and it's not a rejection of authority - it's a Biblical command.
Questions for You
When has legalism or "churchy traditions" in your life kept you from genuinely following God?
Without naming names, how have you dealt with coming across false teaching?
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image Number One: Ironstone Antique Pitcher Washbowl, by Sherry's Rose Cottage.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.
Image Number Two:  Wolfsgrube, by Georg Wabmuth and Claus Ableiter.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.  CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE.

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