Our text will best be served if we read the entire pericope from verse 1-14. We are told that the Pharisees and scribes have come from Jerusalem. Perhaps they were bewildered about this Galilean Rabbi that was making waves far from the heart of Jewish Jerusalem. They came because they were bewildered but in a short time they will be genuinely outraged.
While religion today has often become ‘politically correct’, Jesus called a spade a spade if not used a couple of colourful adjectives to supplement the nouns. Remember he called them a brood of vipers and in this case, hypocrites (verse7), a word he uses 21 times in the New Testament to describe religious hypocrisy. His offence was even registered by his own disciples who caution him about ticking off the religious establishment. Jesus’ response was ‘leave them alone’ (verse 11). It’s almost like he was saying, ‘why do you bother about these guys?’ And if this is not enough, wait till you read Chapter 23 where Jesus tares into the religious establishment.
Why is Jesus so hostile to these religious leaders who have traversed much land to seek him? For starters, Jesus was not looking for trouble, trouble found him. Surely, the scribes and Pharisees have already observed him teach and seen him heal but since his teaching is radically opposed to their tradition filled beliefs, they pick on him. Unable to pin Jesus down to a doctrinal default they attack him on issues relating to the fringes of faith which so often take centre stage. “Why do you break the tradition of the elders?”(verse2)
What is this tradition that they speak of? The Pharisees believed that the oral law came from Sinai. Remember that the written law, namely the Torah, is not in question here and Jesus has not spoken a word against the Torah. These oral laws were then codified into the Mishna and Talmud which we commentaries on the commentaries of the Law. The Talmud consisted of 63 books into 8 volumes. That’s a lot of oral tradition to follow.
So Jesus gets to the point. He confronts their hypocrisy for not keeping the commandments of God which supersede human traditions. God’s command to honour father and mother was twisted by the Pharisees to create a back door exit. Now, one was exonerated by these religious authorities from keep the commandment if they gave the same money meant for the care of their parents to the temple treasury. And none of this evil bothered their conscience.
Jesus rubbishes the hand washing tradition which began as a good hygiene practice and then got morphed into religious superstition. The Jews had come to believe that Shibtah, a deamon, attached himself to their hands as one slept and hence ingesting food would be ingesting the demon.
Jesus is not attacking scripture, he his attacking tradition. While traditions can remind us of important spiritual truths (2 Thessalonians 2:15) it cannot supersede scripture and human traditions are the worst.
The Levitical Law (Chapter 11) prohibited certain foods; animals that did not chew the cud, those that did not have cloven hooves and fish without scales. In short you could not eat any insect, no sorpotel and definitely no lobster thermidor and garlic prawns. Yet for Jesus what was important is not how we act but why we act. Religious traditionalist focus on the outward but God focuses on the inward.
What’s our take away from this? Religion today can end up as a series of acts and actions that please God with our observances of rules and regulations. For Jesus it is the state of our heart that matters. Today we have to ask ourselves if we have become a Church filled with human traditions that offend God.