Matters of the Heart: The Commands of God and the Traditions of Men

Then Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to Jesus and asked, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat!”

He answered them, “And why do you break God’s commandment because of your tradition? For God said:

Honor your father and your mother;


The one who speaks evil of father or mother
must be put to death.

But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple”— he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have revoked God’s word because of your tradition. Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said:

These people honor Me with their lips,
but their heart is far from Me.
They worship Me in vain,
teaching as doctrines the commands of men.”
(Matthew 15:1-9)

The tone of the Pharisees’ opening question is especially jarring when set against its immediate context.

At the end of chapter 14, Jesus arrived in Gennesaret, and the people of that place brought him all their sick, pleading with him for the chance just to touch the edge of his garment and be healed.

Jesus’s reputation as a healer was so great by this time that the people of Gennesaret didn’t just bring themselves or their children; they actually “sent out” into the whole surrounding region, announcing Jesus’s presence and encouraging anyone in need to come to him.

This was the scene the Pharisees interrupted with a question. They too had come a distance. These weren’t just any Pharisees — they were based in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life and learning in Palestine, indicating this was a particularly important group. They had traveled about 70 miles to see the Galilean miracle-worker.

But unlike the sick, they hadn’t come to receive from Jesus. They had come to test him.

They walked into a scene of miraculous healing, what we might today call a “revival,” and asked a combative, confrontational question: Why did Jesus’s disciples break the tradition of the elders?

The Tradition of the Elders

The specific issue at hand was a ritual washing of hands before eating. As their own wording indicates, this wasn’t a matter of the law of Moses, which God had given; but of the “tradition of the elders.”

Even today, the Pharisees are remembered for their strict application of purity codes, so that they extended far beyond what the Old Testament commanded. They applied purity rules that were originally given to the priests to themselves (although they were not priests, or even Levites), and they taught elaborate systems of washings and cleansings, looking at all times to keep themselves ritually pure and therefore, in a sense, able to stand at all times in the presence of God.

(Purity laws were not the only traditions the Pharisees were concerned with. In Jesus’s time, and long before it, an entire system of Torah application and interpretation, called the “oral law,” existed. The oral law, or Mishnah, was compiled as a written document for the first time in AD 200, 170 years after Jesus’s time.

Even later, it developed into the Talmud, which is the Mishnah plus commentary from the rabbis. By this time, many believed that the oral law had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai at the same time as the written law — that Moses spent forty days on the mountain learning how the written Torah should be performed and applied, and that he taught this to the Jewish people when he descended. We don’t know whether the Pharisees believed this, but in any case, their practices and doctrines were part of what eventually became the Mishnah and later, Rabbinic Judaism.)

All of this is to say that for the Pharisees, there existed a code of behavior that equaled or nearly equaled the Torah in its authority.

For them, to keep it was to keep the Torah, and to keep the Torah was to be approved by God. Moreover, Torah-keeping for them was primarily a matter of maintaining ritual purity in order to worship their holy God and be clean in his sight.

Those are good aims. So where was the problem?

In their pursuit of ritual purity, the Pharisees had lost sight of its purpose. The purity codes of the Old Testament, which God had given them, were meant to illustrate something about the condition of the heart.

And there, the Pharisees had very much lost their way.

“It Is a Gift”

Instead of answering their accusation directly, Jesus turned it around — asking the Pharisees why they considered it appropriate to break God’s commands in favor of keeping their traditions.

This likely shocked them. In their minds, their tradition and God’s commands were the same thing — or at least, their tradition existed in order to help them keep God’s commands. For Jesus to oppose the two would have felt wrong. It was a splitting of something that in their minds belonged together.

To illustrate, Jesus brought up a practice they called “Corban,” from the Hebrew word for offering. In the Old Testament, goods could be offered to God through the temple and devoted to his use. Corban was a type of deferred giving, whereby a person could will his goods to the temple (and therefore to God) to be given after his death.

In the meantime, those goods were restricted — they couldn’t, for example, be sold and the proceeds used to support one’s aging parents. But the owner could continue to possess and use them until his death.

Now, the idea of deferred giving was not wrong in itself. The Old Testament didn’t contain specific instructions about leaving one’s goods to the temple after death, so the Jewish people developed a system for doing so.

In other words, they simply found a way to apply God’s law within a specific context.

But in the case that Jesus criticized, people were using Corban to retain control of their possessions without having to use them to benefit anyone else, including parents — to whom they owed honor and care in accordance with God’s other (and more primary) commands. It was possible to withdraw goods from Corban after dedicating them, but the process of doing so was expensive, and priests discouraged it.

For people who used Corban in order to withhold their goods from others, the practice was religious sleight of hand. It wasn’t about worshiping God; it was about dodging one’s obligations to others. To use the oft-repeated summary of Bible scholar T.W. Manson: “A man goes through the formality of vowing something to God, not that he may give it to God, but in order to prevent some other person from having it.”

Jesus used the example of Corban-as-selfish-loophole as a fairly obvious case study to show the Pharisees that yes, it was possible for oral tradition and written torah to contradict and undermine one another, and that yes, in such cases tradition could even whitewash and excuse flagrant disobedience.

If the Pharisees could admit this in such an obvious case, they might be able to open their eyes enough to their own condition to see where they too had gone astray.

Looking at the miraculous healings taking place all around them, and gazing into the eyes of the man they had come to confront, they might develop enough self-awareness to realize that even as they demanded to know why Jesus and his disciples didn’t ritually purify themselves, they themselves were speaking with unclean lips.

Tradition and Spiritual Formation

Jesus spoke so strongly against the “tradition of the elders” in this passage that we sometimes pluck it out of context ourselves, viewing Jesus as being wholly anti-tradition. This isn’t the case. In Greek, “tradition” means something delivered or handed over. In this sense, the commands of God recorded in the Bible (and the gospel itself!) are traditions — things that have been handed down to us over the centuries.

In 2 Thessalonians, Paul wrote to the young Christians of Thessalonica to “stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, either by our message or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Jesus was not against tradition per se, but he did draw a distinction between the commands of God and the traditions of men.

In the process of contextualizing the commands of God for our own times and cultures, we all tend to add traditions to them. Our churches are full of traditions; our vocabulary drips with them; our devotional lives follow traditional lines. (Even the concept of a personal “devotional life” is largely a matter of tradition.)

Along the way, the commands of God and the traditions of men easily blur together in our minds. The practices and specific understandings of our denomination, our families, or our spiritual leaders easily shade into divine status in our hearts.

And in some cases, as Jesus warned the Pharisees, this can move our hearts away from God. After all, God’s commandments are one of the primary ways we know him. Through learning his commands, we learn his character. Through practicing them, we experience the goodness and transformative power of his will. When we confuse our traditions with God’s commands, we may find ourselves forming a distorted view of God — who he is and what he wants.

Traditions formed within a specific context take on a life of their own and continue to hold sway even when the context changes or the culture shifts. The tradition surrounding a command can become so dominant that the original command is entirely overshadowed by it.

When this happens, it directly harms our relationship with God and misdirects our formation in the image of Christ. On top of that, as we’ve seen again and again in the case of the Pharisees, such traditions also cause us to misjudge others.

Because our understanding of God’s commands has become distorted, so is our perception of how others are (or are not) following them.

Drawing a Distinction

Jesus’s warning, quoting from Isaiah, is a sober one:

These people honor Me with their lips,
but their heart is far from Me.
They worship Me in vain.

To confuse our traditions for God’s commands can lead us to miss God’s heart and misform our own. God’s commands, practiced from the heart, will form us more deeply in God’s image.

In the case of Corban, those who did not draw a distinction between man’s traditions and God’s will missed out on the beauty of honor and care, of sharing their goods with generous hearts and becoming more like the God who honors, cares, and generously gives. They congratulated themselves on their shrewd handling of “holiness” while they stayed trapped in greed and selfishness.

If we are to know God and obey him, we need to take Jesus’s warning to heart. Human beings are makers and receivers of tradition; it’s how we learn and how we teach. So it’s crucial for us to steep ourselves in the Scriptures and know God’s words for ourselves. It’s essential for us to ask for his help in discerning his will and to periodically step back, look at our own assumptions and practices, and ask if we have made the right distinctions — if we are still on the path of God’s heart, or if we have veered off somewhere along the way.

Ironically, condemnation may give us the strongest clue here. The Pharisees’ misplaced faith showed up most clearly in the areas where they judged and condemned Jesus. In the same way, when we find ourselves judging and condemning other people, or even judging and condemning ourselves, it may be a good time to step back and examine the basis of our judgments.

Are we walking in the commands of God, or have we substituted something of our own making? Are our traditions honestly helping us to follow Christ, or have they led us away from the heart of God?

And when we go to hand down our faith to the next generation, just what is it that we will give them?

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This is Part 234 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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