Why do we love to look and feel religious? And I mean by “religious” being on another level compared to the common man. I mean not just worshiping God by living life—getting out of bed, eating breakfast, going to work, interacting with other people in as moral a manner as possible, coming home exhausted, eating dinner, conversing with our family or roommates, going to bed, and sleeping in preparation for repeating the activities of the previous day. Everyone does these things. By “religious,” I mean “having a relationship with God where we feel close to Him” because we perform religious practices that allow us to walk about six inches off the ground, transported into a realm that seems to transcend the mundane and routine of human life because it feels more significant than a non-religious life.
Jesus encountered people like us:
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus [in Galilee] from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat food.”
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said [in the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Covenant], “Honor your father and your mother” [Exodus 20:12], and, “He who speaks evil of father and mother is to be put to death” [Exodus 21:17]. But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever I have that would help you is already committed to God as a gift’, shall not honor his father,” and you have invalidated the message of God because of your tradition. [Matthew 15:1-6]
The Pharisees and the scribes were the seminary professors and theological “authorities” of Jesus’ day. Plus, to add weight to their authority and correctness, they came to Galilee from the biblical and theological capital of the world, Jerusalem—the Rome, Constantinople, Dallas, or Philadelphia of their day. And they were on a mission. They wanted to air their complaint to Jesus: Why were his disciples not bowing to the authority of the Pharisees and scribes? Why were they not following the religious practices established by the theological authorities of previous generations, religious practices the Pharisees and scribes accepted without question—even though these practices were never commanded by God in the Bible?
This is what always happens to the biblical message. Rather than being content to retain the Bible as our authority, we construct new statements and practices that we consider to be higher in authority than the Bible. And rather than doing the hard work of figuring out the truth of the Bible for ourselves and taking it seriously, we fawningly acquiesce to church leaders—past and present—and simply go along with the crowd.
But Jesus questioned these Jewish leaders who were so sure they were right, “Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” They firmly believed they were being obedient to God; yet Jesus turns the tables on them and says that their so-called obedience results in disobedience to one of the pillars of morality, the Ten Commandments. In the Mosaic Covenant, God commanded the Jews to bring their offerings of animals and food and to consider these offerings as “gifts” to Him [Leviticus 1:2]; thus, they were giving up material resources they could have used for their own benefit, indeed for their own earthly survival. But in the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Covenant, God also commanded the Jews to honor and care for their parents [Exodus 20:12], even materially if necessary. In evaluating these two commandments, previous generations of Jewish leaders had decided that God was more important than parents in the sense that it was “righteous” for a person to give to God resources that might otherwise have been used to help his parents survive. Too bad for the parents.
The Pharisees and scribes failed to understand that God does not need food and that the commandments to bring Him offerings were rituals to be performed under the Mosaic Covenant from a changed heart of true faith that understands that people, their needs, and treating them morally are more important than rituals. But Jewish leaders (at Jesus’ time and before) loved religion more than truth, and they therefore chose to break a moral commandment in order to keep a less important ritual commandment. We see this again in Matthew 12:1-14, when they chastised Jesus for allowing his hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. Again, keeping a ritual commandment (Sabbath-keeping was not a moral commandment) was more important to the Pharisees and scribes than was compassion for people. They turned the biblical message upside down, substituting ritual for morality. And we do the same. We can become more concerned about praying, fasting, and performing other religious disciplines than we are about kindness, compassion, patience, and love towards our co-workers, neighbors, friends, spouses, and children.
After questioning the Pharisees and scribes about their tradition, Jesus confronts them by quoting Isaiah, who had prophesied 700 years earlier:
You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said, “This people honors Me with their lips, and their heart is far away from Me. And in vain do they worship Me because they teach as moral teachings the commandments of men.” [Matthew 15:7-9]
Jesus was pointing to the problem of both the Jewish leaders of his time and the past leaders whose “correct” traditions and beliefs his contemporaries felt so compelled to follow: while these Pharisees looked religious and obedient on the outside, they were hypocrites and disobedient on the inside. Instead of having an authentic, biblical “inwardness,” they only acted as though they were worshiping God. Indeed, they were just like actors on a stage: they wore the mask of religion, but inwardly they were as pagan as polytheistic idolaters. While they thought they were good expositors of the Scriptures, their teachings were nothing more than the extra-scriptural—and therefore unscriptural—instructions and commandments of men, not God. They preferred to follow men instead of God. Rather than consider only the Scriptures and do the hard work of trying to understand them correctly, the Pharisees and scribes chose to grab hold of previously formulated man-made traditions and human doctrines and to follow them instead, perhaps even reading them back into the Scriptures.
The issue the Pharisees brought to Jesus concerned food and eating it with clean instead of dirty hands. Does eating food with dirty hands make someone morally dirty in the eyes of God? Absolutely not, according to Jesus:
And summoning the crowd, Jesus said to them, “Listen and understand. It is not that which enters into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles a man.” [Matthew 15:10-11]
What makes a person morally dirty is what he says and does of a true moral nature, which Jesus explained in more detail. First, however, He spoke to his disciples’ concern about the Pharisees’ negative response to his calling them “hypocrites”:
Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard what you said?”
But Jesus answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. 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.” [Matthew 15:12-14]
Perhaps the disciples were afraid of getting on the bad side of the respected religious leaders of their day. But Jesus answered that how the Pharisees responded was not his problem; rather, the Father chooses whom He creates to understand and live out the truth and whom He creates to misunderstand the truth and only appear religious and good. And so Jesus commanded his disciples simply to leave the Pharisees and scribes alone. No one except the Father could change their blindness to the truth. The Pharisees and scribes had heard the truth, but they were rejecting it by being offended by it. Nothing more needed to be done for them.
I find Peter’s request encouraging:
Then Peter said to [Jesus], “Explain the parable to us.”
And Jesus said, “Are you still lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated into the latrine? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immorality, thefts, false witness, and slanders. These are what defile the man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” [Matthew 15:15-20]
Even Peter took a while to grasp fully the truth of Jesus’ message and to interpret simple parables. So why should it not take us a while, too? And notice that Jesus does not say, “Oh, Peter, don’t worry that you do not understand the truth; just keep performing your religious practices because these are what really matter.” Nor did Jesus say, “Peter, just keep fasting and praying, and you will gain more understanding from God.” Instead, Jesus urges Peter towards greater understanding and then explains the parable to this effect. Here, certainly, is an important point: Jesus advocated for Peter (and us, by extension) greater understanding through thinking about biblical truth (we would say through Bible study), not more religious rituals and practices.
Jesus explained to Peter and the other disciples that food neither makes a person morally clean nor unclean, even if it is eaten with dirty hands. Under the New Covenant, rituals and religious practices neither make a person morally acceptable or unacceptable to God; they are morally neutral. But a person’s thoughts, words, and actions that are of a true moral nature come from the person’s heart, from his inner, spiritual condition. Over time, they reveal whether the person has been “planted” by the Father to understand and grasp biblical truth or “not planted” by God, in which case the person will be more attracted to human practices and doctrines that may even contradict the Bible. And these defile him before God.
In his explanation, Jesus listed certain immoral actions (evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immorality, thefts, false witness, slanders), which, interestingly enough, are prohibited by the Ten Commandments, the core of God’s moral instruction. This provides another clue for understanding the point of Jesus’ explanation. When religious people rationalize their violations of God’s moral instruction, they demonstrate that they are more concerned about human doctrines than they are about God’s truth; violating the Ten Commandments (except for Sabbath-keeping) and following man instead of God, go hand in glove. When a person thinks evil thoughts (including thinking that religious practices are more important than authentic morality and are able to move God to act on the practitioner’s behalf), when they murder the innocent (in thought or external action), when they commit sexual immorality, when they steal what does not belong to them, when they misrepresent those who have done nothing wrong, when they call good evil, then they defile themselves.
And finally, Jesus repeats the lesson of his interaction with the Pharisees: “These [evils] are what defile the man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” [Matthew 15:20]. If a person violates God’s moral commandments, then he demonstrates himself to be immoral. If, however, a person violates man’s religious commandments—or even if he keeps them—then he is neither demonstrating that he is moral nor immoral because man’s religious commandments are irrelevant. Yet if a person substitutes keeping religious commandments (whether God’s or man’s) for acting morally, then he demonstrates himself to be immoral.
How will we realize and embrace these truths Jesus taught? Ultimately, we will only embrace these truths if God plants them within us so that they are not uprooted. But we need to expose ourselves to them from our only authoritative and inerrant source of truth, the Bible. Other “authorities” may be helpful, but they may also be “blind guides,” in which case we should “leave them alone” because “if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”