Traditions have been a part of human societies since the dawn of time. One psychologist wrote that traditions are essential to people in that they foster a sense of being. Traditions can even provide a sense of belonging for those who may feel like an outsider. Have you ever considered the impact of traditions that you or your family have?
One of the traditions that my family had was on Thanksgiving Day all of the guys in our family would go pheasant hunting. If we had a good day of hunting, we would cook the pheasant and have a meal with the meat that night. This tradition was something that the guys looked forward to each year. The girls, however, hated this tradition because it meant all of the guys left to go have fun while they took care of the kids, cooked the Thanksgiving meal, and prepared the house for company coming over. Without realizing it, we had created a tradition that excluded and caused division in our family. The men decided (with some convincing from the ladies in the family) that it would be best for us to move our pheasant hunting tradition to a different day so that we could help at home on Thanksgiving Day. We know that traditions can be a good thing but when left unmanaged they can also become rigid and excluding.
As we look at Matthew 15, the Pharisees confronted Jesus about His disciples’ behavior. They asked Jesus, “why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? They ignore our tradition of handwashing before they eat.” Now before you start to think this is about germs, it’s not. The Pharisees had developed a tradition of washing their hands before they ate as a way to prevent them from becoming spiritually unclean. Because if they became spiritually unclean from eating food and not washing their hands, they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the Temple.
Jesus responds to their question with a question of His own: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” You see the Pharisees had broken the law when it came to honoring fathers and mothers. In that day, a person was expected to provide and take care of their father and mother financially in their old age. If a person didn’t provide for and take care of their parents in that way, then they were not honoring them and were to be put to death. The Pharisees began accepting the money that was supposed to go towards taking care of a person’s parents and excused the person from the law by saying it was for the Temple.
As the Pharisees are trying to point out a problem with the disciples not washing their hands, Jesus confronts them with a problem of their own. They had broken the law themselves for the sake of their own tradition. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah saying, “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.” The Pharisees knew the scriptures and had all the right things to say but missed the heart of God when it came to their worship. They thought that a person was defiled or made unclean from the outside and that would work its way into them, making people unworthy of entering the Temple. Jesus taught that being unclean starts from within all of us and works its way out into our everyday life. He said in verse 18, “But the words you speak come from the heart-that’s what defiles you.”
Jesus took the surface issue that the Pharisees were trying to point out in the disciples and confronted them with the issue we all face: our heart. So often we like to look at the surface of an issue and call that the problem, when most times, the problem begins with our hearts.
The challenge we’re left with today is what do we do with our unclean hearts? We have to come back to the One who makes us pure. And once we’ve been made pure, we have the responsibility to invite others into that same freedom. We have to be careful as believers that we don’t allow traditions to become a hindrance in our walk with God. Traditions can be a good thing if we allow God to work through them and in us.