Well, it's been a while since my last post, but things have been busy - filling in for a friend and teaching his adult Sunday School class can get a bit tricky, especially when fresh material isn't coming quickly to mind...
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"
Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:" 'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'"
There's more going on in this passage than meets the eye. When Jesus' disciples are challenged for not practicing handwashing before eating, Jesus responds by pointing out a hypocrisy among the Pharisees. Specifically, the Pharisees have permitted people to give offerings to God that could have, instead been given to support thier parents. The Pharisees believed this was a good thing - after all, God is bigger than our parents. However, they overlooked the point that God said, "Honor your father and mother - that it may go well with you" (see Exodus 20). Thus, for whatever reason, the Pharisees were actually breaking God's law in a show of religious piety.
But what's really interesting in this passage is that Jesus isn't just defending his disciples by turning the attention on the Pharisees' hypocrisy; he was actually pointing out that his disciples didn't even need a defense. The reason? No where in the law of Moses (which the Pharisees charged Jesus' disciples with breaking) is there a command to wash one's hands before eating. The only handwashing command to be found deals with purification rituals priests go through before offering sacrifices. While not that washing your hands before a meal may be a bad idea, it's not a law of God. Rather, it's a "rule taught by men".
So where did the Pharisees over-zealous sense of religious piety come from?
Turn to Leviticus 11:42-45:
'Whatever crawls on its belly, and whatever walks on all fours, whatever has many feet, in respect to every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, you shall not eat them, for they are detestable. Do not render yourselves detestable through any of the swarming things that swarm; and you shall not make yourselves unclean with them so that you become unclean.
'For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth.
For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.'"
The first paragraph provides us some context. If you know anything about Leviticus, you probably know it's the least interesting read in the Bible, since it consists largely of the several hundred laws that God gave to Israel through Moses. In this particular instance (about halfway through), God is going into detail about what creatures are clean and unclean. Then in the middle of all of this lawmaking, God commands Israel, "Consecrate yourselves ... and be holy, for I am holy." Then He repeats Himself, "thus you shall be holy for I am holy." (One does well to remember that when something is repeated in the Bible, it's usually because it's important. )
God gives Israel two commands regarding what to do with His law:
- Consecrate yourselves (an external act)
- Be holy (an internal state of being)
To consecrate oneself is to set oneself apart (by ceremonial cleansing, prayer, fasting, etc.) for the purpose of performing a sacred ritual. The Pharisees were skilled at consecrating themselves - in fact, that's what the word, "Pharisee" means: "separate one". They did this because they honestly believed that by acting holy and consecrating themselves with God's law, they would eventually be holy or be like God.
Case in point: I am a seven-week-old father of a son (there's a way of putting it, eh?). I know I have many new experiences in child-rearing yet ahead of me and one that I anticipate with a mixture of excitement and fear is when my toddler son starts to mimic the things that I do. That means when I get up to go to work in the morning, he might pretend to do the same. Certain mannerisms and habits that I have, he'll mimic. Why? Because he wants to be "just like dad". (I find it funny that we all do this as children, but when we've grown up, we bemoan the fact that we really are just like our parents...)
But no matter how perfectly my son mimics what I do in an effort to be just like me, he can't accomplish it - not just by doing what I do. Why? Because in order for my son to be like me, he needs a lot more maturity - and that takes time. Eventually, I expect my son really will be like me, and if he's smart, he'll be greater than me. (I admit, there's a lot of areas where I'm not as mature as I could or should be...)
But can we say the same about God? If we act like Him long enough, will we eventually be like Him?
There's this tension throughout the Old Testament about God's Law. Moses says, "Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out." (Deuteronomy 27:26). Contrast that with what Solomon says in Ecclesiates 7:20, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." (His father, David, stated it a bit more dramatically in Psalm 14:2 & 3.)
Clearly, there is a very big difference between acting like God and being like God. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that being like God takes, well, an act of God. Case in point: Only one man is reputed to have led a sinless life - Jesus of Nazareth (Hebrews 4:15). Yet did Jesus somehow become God by obeying the law? Or did he obey the law because He already was God?
That's what the Pharisees missed. The purpose of the law wasn't to make Israel holy. It was merely to show them that they could never measure up to God's standard. Thus, trying to obey God's law to the letter doesn't make a person holy - it only makes them aware of how sinful they are. Paul said exactly that in Romans 3:20.
This is Jesus' point back in Matthew 15. When he talks about what makes us clean and unclean in vs. 10 & 11, he expounds in vs. 17-20:
"Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.' "
Very simply, then, our deeds do not define us, they reveal us.