“‘Abandoning the command of God, you hold on to human tradition.’ He also said to them, ‘You have a fine way of invalidating God’s command in order to set up your tradition!'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We have an innate sense that we’re not enough on our own. We constantly seek out the authority of someone we deem higher than ourselves in order to give cover and justification to what we are doing. Today people tend to seek out the authority of a politician or a political movement to gain the justification they seek. In the past, God was the more likely target for such reaching. At the same time, however, we have an innate desire to be our own authority. We want to do what we want, when we want, how we want, and so on. What we want, though, doesn’t always accord with what we or the culture around us feels like we should do. We need that layer of external authority to give us cover. So, we take that authority, throw it over ourselves like a blanket, and keep doing what we want. The Pharisees were doing this and Jesus didn’t like it.
As we talked about yesterday, the Pharisees considered themselves the guardians of Jewish tradition and custom. They would have told you this was all because of their devotion to the Law of Moses, but their first devotion was to their traditions. God was the cover they used. But they controlled the levers of power at the time so they got to enforce their will on the people. In this case, when they had observed Jesus and the disciples not observing some of the customs they kept, they pounced, thinking they finally had a line on discrediting Him. The specific custom was the various ritual washings the Talmud prescribed in certain circumstances. They cornered Him publicly and demanded an answer for why they were eating with ceremonially unclean hands.
Nobody likes to be ambushed like this, Jesus included. But what was even more infuriating to Him was the duplicity of the Pharisees in these matters. Again, their devotion was not to the Law and the God who gave it like they put on. Their devotion was to themselves and the traditions they and their ancestors had helped to craft. God was simply a blanket thrown over their shoulders to give their power claims an aura of legitimacy. In other words, they were using God for their own ends, using their power to spiritually abuse others, and calling it righteousness. As you survey the Scriptures, there are many things that consistently provoke God to anger faster and more completely than this kind of thing.
As a result, rather than trying to explain why He did what He did, Jesus took the opportunity to turn the tables on them. He called them out for their hypocrisy in specific and unequivocal terms. He called them out for using the framework of God’s commands to create a pathway for them to avoid having to keep it while appearing to do that very thing. They demanded the people follow a long litany of traditions in order to remain pure and in a right relationship with God while they ignored God and continued to seek the increase of their own power.
One of the examples Jesus used as evidence against them was the practice of corban. One of the implications of the command to honor your father and mother was that you would care for them when they could not any longer care for themselves. I still see faithful believers do this same thing today in ways that bring great honor to God and reflect the character of Christ. I know of a couple who brought her mom home from a nursing home when it became time to transition her into hospice care understanding fully the burden it would bring on their family because they didn’t want her to die alone in a place where she couldn’t have visitors. That kind of thing brings glory to God and eternal rewards to the people who pursue such a path.
Taking on that particular challenge is not just emotionally difficult and a scheduling challenge, it can be expensive. That was the case in the first century too. These men who were rich and Scrooge-like in their holding onto their wealth didn’t like the prospect of having to use their money to help anyone else including their own parents. But to simply refuse to help them would be a clear violation of the command to honor father and mother. That wouldn’t do. So they found a loophole. They created the tradition of corban wherein someone could dedicate a portion of their material wealth to God to only be used for purposes of righteousness. At the same time, they worked out just how much of one’s wealth one had to give to aging parents in order to meet the requirements of the Law. They would then declare that percentage of wealth corban. It was already tied up in other God-honoring purposes (which, conveniently, fell exactly in line with things that advanced their own interests and comforts) and thus was not available to help their parents. Sorry, my financial hands are tied. I wish I could help more. I really do. You don’t want me to break my promise to God, do you?
I know, disgusting.
So Jesus called them out as the hypocrites they were.
You see, God really, really doesn’t like when people use His name and reputation to advance their own selfish interests. There aren’t many things that make Him angrier and garner fiercer promises of judgment and destruction. Religion used as a vehicle for self-righteousness is wrong in every instance. No exceptions.
And while it is easy to sit back and cherry pick guys like the Pharisees, they make too convenient of a target. Doing that ironically allows us to do the same kinds of things without attracting our own due criticism for it. It’s a classic red herring tactic. We rant and rave about how bad they were while ignoring the fact that we are following in their footsteps.
Let’s get uncomfortable for just a minute, though, and ask the hard question: Do we have any places where we use the commands of God as a cover for advancing our own interests at the expense of His? Do we have certain sins we rail against while completely overlooking other sins we are ignoring? Do we take twisted understandings of God’s commands and use them to escape really giving them the obedience they warrant? Do we use public commitments to certain acts of righteousness to cover up private sins? Do we ever play God’s commands against one another to create an illusion of them cancelling each other out so we can avoid keeping them entirely?
Do you know how to avoid this? Leave behind the old covenant thinking that plays directly into this kind of thing and lean into the new covenant thinking that Jesus commended to us. Under the new covenant there aren’t a bunch of commands we can play one against the other and split hairs on some in order to avoid others. There is just one command: Love one another as I have loved you. There aren’t any loopholes to exploit there. There’s just love. It’s simple. It’s righteous. It’s good. And when we get it right, the world changes. The Pharisees didn’t do this and a whole lot of folks – including folks in the church – have followed in their pattern over the centuries. But where we take instead the real path of Christ, lives are changed. There’s no hypocrisy. There’s no self-righteousness. There’s no duplicity. There’s only love. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a whole lot better to me. Let’s take the path of Jesus and stay away from the path of the Pharisees.