Matthew 15: 1-20, Defilement from Hypocrisy.
General Idea: Jesus confronted, head on, the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who have elevated their traditions over honoring and knowing God. This infuriated our Lord who called them to task and gave them up to themselves by saying, let them alone, which means, let their own evil ways bury them. Total condemnation! They had their chance to repent, but, the hardness of their will and the focus of their pride alienated them from the very thing they said they were honoring! Their traditions clouded them and their people from knowing the real God! Why such a strong stance from our Lord? Because, rituals and traditions can easily become equal to or have even more authority to men than God and His Word. They can elevate what is not important over what is!
Traditions can be a good way to honor our Lord if they come from the right place-from our sincere devotion to Christ and our desire to give Him the glory. Traditions and the theme, "we have always done it this way," can also hide the purpose of the church and neuter the gospel very effectively. If we become over- devoted to our traditions and rituals, we will surely miss out on the possible intent of those rituals, which is seeking to glorify God. All too often, rituals become the worship and focus of a church, so, all of the energies are upon this thing or that program, so that discipleship, teaching, learning, and spiritual growth are absent, as in reaching out to the neighborhood and the world.
1. Scribes and Pharisees relied on the repository of the wisdom of the people who came before, and those who discipled and taught them. This developed into the classic Jewish writings, and became their traditions and mindsets. Over the centuries since the captivity, commentary and the insights of another became the norm in understanding God and the faith. Thus, the dependence was on traditions, not real faith or what God had plainly revealed.
a. Perhaps the Scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus to evaluate whether He was a false teacher. What irony (Duet. 13:13-14)!
b. Washing hands was not about cleaning oneself before dinner or eating with filthy hands; it was rather a specific ritual that the Pharisees followed but Jesus and His disciples did not. This tradition, which consisted of how much water, how many rinses, the proper prayer, and so forth, had no Scriptural basis, and was a perfect illustration of the pious, fraudulent Pharisees versus the Righteous Christ.
c. Their dependence was on commentary without substance; and, Christ was the Substance of the Word. This tradition may have come from Roman influence.
d. The Pharisees considered their oral and written traditions equal to the Torah, God's Law! This collection of writings, The Mishnah, which was formalized in the second century, is still in use today. In fact, every Jewish sermon I have ever heard uses the Mishnah over the Torah (first five books of the Bible). There are a lot of good insights and sayings in it, but, it is not the Truth of the Word. It would be like a Christian preaching out of a best selling Christian book, but not referring to the Bible.
2. Why do you. Jesus uses their own classic "counter question" technique to further challenge them and point out their hypocrisy.
a. Honor your father and mother was not only a commandment but a central Jewish cultural nexus. This meant not just respect, but also the care of them when the children took over the home; they could not kick their parents out.
i. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, said this was the most important commandment and point of the Jewish culture that set them apart from the rest of the world. Most societies then "threw away" the elderly when they could no longer take care of themselves. They took their money, goods, and property.
ii. The Pharisees were supporting this heinous act by creating legal loopholes for those who wanted to get around their responsibilities while claiming they were pious, and while focusing on this trivial hand washing, which also has no Scriptural foundation!
b. Isaiah's prophesy (Isa. 29:13) was about confronting leaders who focused on traditions and negated God's Law, which was His Word. This is the classic problem that crosses culture and time, elevating traditions over Truth, which is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is one of the biggest problems in the Church today, as it was then! The leaders kept the traditions in the public eye so they could control and have power over the people. Makes you wonder about the causes and motivations of some of our church leaders today, does it not?
c. Hear and understand. Jesus is not talking about the biochemistry of bacteria and disease; rather, He is indicating the spiritual. How do we go before God? Do we use repetitive, meaningless traditions that have no foundation; or, do we seek Him in truth, worship, and devotion for His glory, and not ours?
d. Jewish Rabi, Johanan ben Zakkai, who lived a century after Jesus, taught that outward impurity did not defile a person as long as God's commandments were kept. Almost Gnostic, but very similar to our Lord's teaching, this was also a teaching point for some of the Pharisees in Jesus' time. So, not all of them were bad.
3. The Pharisees were offended. We might say, "oh well, too bad," but, consider that it was like offending your top denominational leaders and your top government leaders all at once today!
a. The Pharisees had no real political power under Roman occupation; but, they had considerable influence amongst the people, so the Romans used the Pharisees to keep the people under control.
b. Jesus was not afraid of confrontation, because, His focus was God's Truth.
c. Uprooted is classic OT judgment language (Jer. 42:10; 45:4). It is the image of a farmer planting a crop and getting rid of the weeds that would harm his crop. Jesus is making it clear how important the responsibility is for the leader to teach truth. Leaders will not get away with false doctrine or misleading people!
d. Jesus tells His disciples not to worry about the Pharisee's power; He places the focus on Truth and away from falsehoods (Matt. 3:10).
e. External rituals cannot replace the inward condition of the heart. They can be a good program, or social gathering, but, not take the place of our attention, especially our worship and devotion. The heart is purified by our faith and obedience (Isa, 1: 10-20; 29:13; 59:13; Acts 15:9).
Jesus does not attach traditions as being bad in of themselves; He attacks the religious leader's inconsistency and practice as hypocrisy. I like traditions in the church for the most part. If it works, I try to do it again, even better. Evangelism campaigns, Easter celebrations, and such, are sometimes sacred cows in our church, and for the most part for good reason. However, when the traditions become the focus, such as, when the Easter service becomes more important than who and what the service is about, or, the evangelism campaign has become more about the mobilizing and rallying than the focus of reaching our neighbor, we have missed the point, and have become "Pharisees." I have been a "Pharisee" with traditions in the past. I had to learn to wake up and see His glory, not what I wanted to do or redo. A good tradition glorifies our Lord; a bad tradition glorifies its founders, leaders, and/or participants.
1. Does your home church have traditions in which you like to participate? Do these traditions provide comfort to you or others? If so, why? And, is that bad? Why, or why not?
2. Why and how did the Pharisees infuriate our Lord?
3. Jesus pronounced total condemnation to the hypocritical Pharisees. Why? Was that fair? How about when church leaders today do the same? Should they also receive such reprimand?
4. How can traditions be a good way to honor our Lord? Is this possible?
5. How can traditions, and the theme, "we have always done it this way," hide the purpose of the church?
6. Why do you suppose the Scribes and Pharisees would rely on the wisdom of the people who came before and those who discipled and taught them rather than on the Word and faith itself?
7. When do church traditions turn into legalism?
8. What would be good definitions for legalism, tradition, and hypocrisy?
9. How do you honor your parents? How will you do so when they become infirmed? How is honoring our parents a reflection of our spiritual condition?
10. Jewish culture and the Fifth Commandment set them apart from the rest of the world. How, and why? How can honoring our elderly be a sign of righteousness?
11. Read Exodus 20:12. How does this commandment pronounce a promise? Why is this promise important? Consider that the Jews, as an ethnic group, have stayed tighter and together through the centuries, through prosperity and travesty, better and longer than any ethnic group in recorded history!
12. How do we come before God? Is it with repetitive, meaningless traditions that have no foundation, or, do we seek Him in truth, worship, and devotion for His glory and not ours? Why is this so hard for some?
13. What would happen to you if you offended your top church elders, denominational leaders, and your top city and state government leaders all at once today? What kind of boldness and confidence does this take? How do we get such confidence? Remember, there is a line between boldness and recklessness!
14. How can the focus of God's Truth give you confidence to face challenging situations?
15. Does your church consider it important and take responsibility to make sure the leaders teach truth? If not, why; and, what will be the end result?
16. Jesus tells His disciples not to worry about the Pharisee's power. How can this truth maintain our focus so we do not worry?
17. Why can external rituals not replace the inward condition of the heart?
18. What is the difference between a good tradition and a bad tradition? How can you evaluate the traditions you and your church observe?
19. What can your church do to prevent, or at least inhibit, Hypocrisy?
20. What can a Christian do to realize when he is being hypocritical? Consider that most hypocrites are in denial, and never consider themselves to be the problem.
© 2003, Richard J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org