Reading Time: 8 Minutes
Chapter 15 begins with authorities coming from Jerusalem to confront Jesus in the northern reaches of Israel. Matthew records their accusation and Jesus’ response like this:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father.
“So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15.1-9)
Tradition Versus God’s Law
When God gave the world his Law, he gave us instructions for how to experience life as he designed it. His Law shows us how to live in a good relationship with him and other people. Turn to Exodus 20 and read the Ten Commandments. If the world lived by those commandments, so much of the pain and grief of the world would be lessened.
National or cultural traditions don’t have the same value as God’s Law. An extreme example is the tradition of female genital mutilation in parts of the world. Even though laws have been enacted to prohibit its practice, it still is a tragic tradition for women to endure in developing societies.
In contrast, the Jewish purity traditions were actually healthy and beneficial to the people. Besides being healthy, Jewish people were able to show the world their relationship to God through the observance of these traditions. However, when a tradition is used as a club to trap and accuse someone like Jesus and his followers, they must be resisted.
Jesus revealed the poverty of traditions by pointing out how some of them actually go against God’s Law. How the honoring of father and mother in the the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.12) came into conflict with a particular tradition in Jesus’ day is a good example.
The tradition of dedicating a person’s possessions to God may seem foreign to our culture. It ended up allowing a man to avoid caring for his parents and made void the commandment to honor his parents. Jesus declared that kind of worship amounted only to lip service. A commitment from the heart to both God, his Law, and a person’s family was missing for someone who used the tradition in that manner.
Traditions in Conflict
Jesus used very strong words to confront the traditions of his day. He knew that people are more important than traditions to such an extent that he was willing to be crucified for people.
I have made a list of a few traditions that may get in the way of following God’s direction for life. I hope you will give serious attention to them. Please give prayerful consideration and seek to follow God’s directions as you think about these traditions.
(1) Never Be Disrespected – There is a tradition among some of my friends that if you get disrespected a fight is sure to break out.
I was riding in my truck with a man who had been disrespected. He was profoundly conflicted and angry. Never before had he been disrespected without someone getting hurt and he in trouble with the law.
He told me how much it hurt to be disrespected and to not retaliate. He said, “I know I can make this go away, but I can’t disrespect Jesus.”
Jesus clearly won the victory in this man’s life. A long-held tradition was put to the side in favor of following Jesus.
(2) Nationalism – I believe that we live in the greatest country in the world and I frequently thank God for the opportunities I have received by living here. I expect you join me in these sentiments. However, our commitment to our nation cannot exceed our commitment to God and his Law.
I think Christians owe it to God, others, and ourselves to be very aware of the principles of Jesus. We are reading the Gospel of Matthew to learn Jesus’ principles, both by what he taught and what he did. As we think about our nation’s policies, we should evaluate them by the standard of what we are learning from Jesus.
Let’s remember that our nation is part of the world’s system and it has always been that way. The world’s system opposes the things of God. We have been taught to pray, “Your kingdom come,” (Matthew 6.9) and not any of the slogans that will be prevalent in this season of political activity. For God’s kingdom to increase is what is most needed in American and in the world.
(3) It’s the Economy Stupid! – “The economy, stupid” is a phrase coined by James Carville in 1992. Carville was a strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 election against George H. W. Bush. What Carville meant was that American voters will excuse anything except a failing economy. Our standard of living is an American tradition, if there ever was one.
Jesus said this about money, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6.24).
I was seated with former Governor Warren Hearnes and a group of wealthy farmers in a coffee shop as a young pastor in Charleston, Missouri. The farmers were complaining about how the poor of our county were all on welfare. Governor Hearnes silenced the restaurant when he said to the farmers, “If you don’t like welfare, why don’t you send back your crop assistance money from the government?”
I later learned that the history of poverty in Southeast Missouri was a result of wealthy farmers discouraging the development of industry in the area. They didn’t want competition between industry and cheap farm labor. When farming became industrialized, labor was out of a job and on welfare.
The issues I raise are very complicated and controversial. I probably would have been run out of town if I had said what Governor Hearnes had said. That still doesn’t keep us from attempting to wrestle with American traditions of wealth and money with the way Jesus lived and taught. If we ask him, he will certainly be happy to give us direction.
(4) Individual Rights – I read an article last week about a very popular television minister, who also has a mega-church in California. He was holding worship services with no social distancing and is heading toward a court fight over a violation of the mandate by the California government.
In the same article, I was encouraged to know that the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, J. D. Greer, was encouraging his congregation to minister to their community in small house church gatherings in lieu of a large group meeting.
Please know, I don’t want to engage in this current battle of opinions, words, and legal actions. I do want to point out a very prevalent American tradition that has clearly found its way into the church – individual rights. All of us are affected by feeling victimized if our individual rights are somehow slighted.
If we want to align our lives with Jesus and not with a powerful American tradition, we need to hear this about Jesus.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2.5-8)
My purpose in writing this is not to vent my personal opinions. I do want to ask us to think deeply, critically and prayerfully about traditions that may end up making our life with Jesus empty and hypocritical.
Our goal in this study of Matthew is to learn how to live a Jesus-kind-of-life. Quoting Henry Blackaby, “We can’t go where Jesus is and stay where we are.” Please join me in asking Jesus to reveal ways that we need to adjust our lives to his principles. Thanks for reading.
Dear Jesus, it is difficult to be confronted by you. Like a good doctor, you only cut us in order to cure us. Please help us respond positively to you as you confront traditions in our lives that go contrary to your purpose and plan for our lives.