And he said unto them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.'”
And he said unto them, “Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).
This is one of Jesus’ well-known interactions with the Pharisees. It seems, in fact, to be one of the most defining moments for each.
The Pharisees do not come because they want to learn from Jesus– they want to trap Him and find something with which to condemn Him before the people. They think that they have found what they need– His disciples, with His approval, do not eat with washed hands (cf. Mark 7:1-5). This violated the traditions of the elders!
The tradition, most likely, began innocently enough. The Jews were familiar with the book of Leviticus and the various regulations regarding cleanliness. Ritual defilement could occur from contact with anyone from a woman in her menstrual cycle to an unclean animal or a dead body. With so many potential contagions around it was best to always thoroughly wash before every meal so that any defilements would be washed away before eating.
But then the good idea became a mandate, and if you did not wash, accusations would fly.
Jesus would have none of this. The issue was not really the washing of hands before eating– that was the surface matter. The real problems involved the attitudes of the Pharisees and the emphasis on the physical in terms of defilement.
Jesus would go on to show that what people really need to worry about are the things that come out of a man– evil and sinful thoughts turned into attitudes and actions (cf. Mark 7:14-23). Foods and their influences are passed out of the system– not so with sin!
But Jesus’ real concern is with the enshrining of tradition. Traditions, however innocently they may begin, take on lives of their own, and begin to re-direct the mind away from what God deems important to what men deem important. How else can the Pharisees be explained? How else can a group of people become so misdirected and misguided as to believe that God would not have children provide for their parents (cf. Mark 7:10-13), or that God would find it sinful to heal on the Sabbath (cf. Mark 3:3-6, John 9:15-16)? That can only be when their minds have been so thoroughly turned away from God because of what they deem important!
It is fashionable to demonize and condemn the Pharisees, and this tendency is understandable. Nevertheless, it is good for us to consider the Pharisee in all of us.
It should be established that Pharisaism is not limited to a particular part of an ideological spectrum. Exclusive focus on smaller commands to the neglect of greater commands is no more or less justified than exclusive focus on greater commands to the neglect of smaller ones (Matthew 23:23). The inner Pharisee may try to bind where God has not bound; he may just as easily loose where God has not loosed. Sadly, those who condemn the Pharisee in others are often blind to the Pharisee in themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5).
We would do well to stop for a moment and consider what the Pharisees are thinking. The Pharisees are trying to follow the Law exactly. They come up to times when there may be commandments at variance with each other– to do good for people versus keeping the Sabbath, dedicating things to God versus taking care of parents. God did make the commands regarding cleanliness and avoiding ritual defilement.
But the Pharisees did go terribly wrong. They focused on the externals to the neglect of the internal. They chose easily measurable rules over love and compassion. They missed the fact that God desired them to do all things well with the right attitude in mind, not one to the exclusion of the other, as is manifest in the life of Jesus Christ!
There are times when we come up against some of the same challenges, and we would do well to remember what Jesus told the Pharisees. Binding traditions and rules hinders us from finding God’s guidelines according to God’s attitude. And when we see the Pharisee in others, we should first make sure that we have expelled the Pharisee in ourselves. Let us not bind tradition, whether adding to or taking away from God’s Word, and seek to do God’s will and reflecting His truth!
Ethan R. Longhenry