“Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…”
Pope Benedict XVI
Scripture context: Matthew 15:1-9
Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?
For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” (Matthew 15:1-9, New Living Translation)
-------------------------------------- Question of Jesus: And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?
What comes to mind when you hear the word “tradition”? Do you hear the voice of Tevya singing in “Fiddler on the Roof?” Do you think of rituals that are less common today (picking up the morning paper on the front porch, checking messages on a physical answering machine)? Or of customs you still hold dear—routines on Christmas morning or the family platter you pull out for Thanksgiving turkey?
In the context of this story, “tradition” has a weight that is hard for us to imagine. I have lived among Muslims. Their personal identity is often linked with reverence for God as defined by their community. Small deviations from propriety can be harshly judged and even lead to exile. Some Jewish communities, even today, give similar importance to tradition. Amazon lists ceremonial kosher handwashing cups, including some suitable for a “sophisticated décor.” Multi-volume reference books (also for sale on Amazon) compile interpretations of Judaic law that have evolved since before the time of Jesus. Jewish authorities still assess what is allowed on the Sabbath, and in compliance, elevators in hotels in Israel stop at every floor on Shabbat so that guests can enter and exit without the labor of pushing a button.
So, in this incident during the life of Jesus, what is happening? Religious leaders (as rigid as any today) have traveled to see Jesus, intent on judging his ministry. Why, they ask, does he not require his disciples to observe traditional handwashing? Instead of answering the question, Jesus moves decisively, straight into controversy. He asks, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” He points out that a specific “tradition” added to the law of Moses actually undermine the law’s intent. A giant loophole allows assets to be pledged to the temple rather than used for supporting parents in need. Apparently the owner may continue to use and profit from these assets while maintaining a veneer of compliance with the law.
Then Jesus sets up a second contrast, between false and true worship. The Old Testament labels false worship as idolatry. People watching the same video may disagree about whether or not someone really intended violence, but here it is clear: Jesus is pulling no punches. These religious leaders know how Isaiah describes the process of creating idols. Perhaps, Isaiah says, a carpenter begins by felling a tree. “Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." (Isaiah 44:16, 17). Foolish? Yes. Even worse, Isaiah goes on to point out that idols have to be carried. “Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.” (Isaiah 45:20). This mental image of straining to carry an idol that you yourself have labored to make brings to mind another passage in which Jesus describes religious leaders. "Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help.” Matt. 23:4 (MSG) Jesus describes the burden on followers, rather than on the leaders themselves. Could this be because following the traditions is easier if, like the leaders, you are rich? If your servants are the ones who prepare food according to dietary laws, calculate the tithe on your herbs (Matt. 23:23) and refill the 20-30 gallon jars used for ritual bathing (John 2:6)? Easier to make rules than do the work yourself. There is one more contrast. Unlike these religious leaders who burden their disciples, Jesus has one primary purpose for his disciples: to set us free. As always, during his ministry Jesus couples teaching with real-life examples. He “breaks” Sabbath traditions as he heals men and women in synagogues and houses and in the temple itself. He allows his hungry disciples to “harvest” grain as they walk through a field. Do we think of this “breaking” as accidental? Do we see it as Jesus inadvertently stepping out of bounds, like an athlete trying to catch a pass? Or do we think of the timing as incidental, with Jesus saying afterward, “Oh--the Sabbath is TODAY?”
The Greek word translated “break” suggests a very different picture. It is the word used when John the Baptist says he is unworthy to undo the strap of Jesus’ sandal, and again when Jesus frees the tongue of the man who is deaf and dumb. Most powerfully, it is the same word Jesus uses after he raises Lazarus, when he commands, “Unbind him.” (John 11:44).
Over and over, Jesus deliberately, publicly, provocatively sets people free. He is not putting a toe over the line or losing track of the day. He is bending bars and initiating a prison break.
I have so many questions. Some traditions are easy to shed. I can say good-bye to new white gloves for Easter and singing only hymns in four-part harmony. But how clearly do I see the false beliefs/habits/prejudices/interpretations that still weigh me down, keeping me from the freedom Jesus is offering and the feast he has prepared? An old Scottish preacher described things we feel we ought to do, restrictions we must observe, as “oughtery and mustiness.” What are the musty, dusty things in my life?
My eyes fill with tears as I picture the scene with Lazarus. The skeptical crowd. The clueless disciples. The grieving, believing sisters. Jesus—marked for death himself—calling his friend by name. The dead man emerging like a mummy. Jesus commanding, “Unbind him.” I can still hear Tevya’s cry, “Tradition.” But these words of Jesus ring louder, like the shout of William Wallace in Braveheart: “Freedom!”
Lord, we don’t want to remain weighed down by manmade burdens you never intended us to carry. We are slow to see “oughtery and mustiness” with our own eyes, so we ask for the wisdom of your Holy Spirit. We want to move beyond “Tradition!” to “Freedom!” We believe that even today, you come to us, call us by name, and release us from bondage.