To understand this text, you really need to understand the world in which it was taking place. I looked into it. It is eye opening.
The Tradition of the Elders
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law come to Jesus and ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” And what was the tradition that was spoken of? The tradition of washing hands before they eat.
To better understand why this was a big deal, you need to understand where these traditions came from.
The Jews supposed that when Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, two sets of laws were delivered to him: one, they said, was given during the day time, and was recorded, and is that contained in the Old Testament; the other was given during the night time, was not recorded but rather was handed down from father to son, and kept uncorrupted to their day. The reason it wasn’t written down, they say, was so that it wouldn’t be taken and corrupted by the heathen.
They believed that Moses, before he died, delivered this law to Joshua; he to the Judges; they to the prophets; so that it was kept pure until it was recorded in the Talmuds. In these books these pretended laws are now contained. There are huge numbers of laws, and they cover all parts of life from the complicated to the very trivial. They are, however, regarded by the Jews as more important than either Moses or the prophets.
That’s saying something quite significant, because the Jews hold Moses and the prophets as pretty important.
These traditions were passed down by word of mouth, and this meant that more were ‘found’ or ‘explained’ along the way. Some of the traditional laws then were clarifications on written laws which seemed doubtful or confusing. Others were to give clarity on how one ought to live when the written law didn’t give direct command (don’t you wish God would just tell you in black and white writing whether a certain practice is sinful??) Other traditions were called sepimenta legis, rules that were there to protect anyone from getting to close to breaking a law. So…sex before marriage is against the law. But just so that we don’t fall into that, we’ll make kissing against the law as well. And holding hands. And being in the same room as a female.
In fact, that’s were the tradition of the elders that the Pharisees are arguing about now come from. One commentator says that washing before meals was alone regarded as a commandment; washing after meals only as a duty. By and by the more rigorous actually washed between the courses, although this was declared to be purely voluntary.
Think I’m being ridiculous? You should read some of these traditions. When it came to purification, the ladle out of which you drew the purifying water had to hold at least one and a half egg-shells of water. The water had to be poured over hands positioned upwards so that the water would run to the wrist in order to ensure that the water polluted by the hand did not again run down the fingers. It’s astounding that these guys got anything done! You can see how frustrating these traditions are to God by the way Jesus reacts to them.
Anyway, all these things at first were not imposed as laws, but commended by way of advice and counsel, and afterward they came to be looked upon as laws, and grew broader, becoming almost infinite.
What happened to these laws? Tradition says that Ezra the Scribe was the one who gathered the traditions together, and made the Cabbala in seventy-two books, which was kept by Gamaliel and others till the destruction of Jerusalem. A hundred and twenty years after Ezra, Rabbi Judas ben Simon composed a book of them called the Misna. Three hundred years later, Rabbi Johanan found more traditions, and he and his colleagues collected them into a larger book, called the Jerusalem Talmud. A hundred years after this, another rabbi made a collection of the traditions amongst the Jews that remained in Babylon, which he called the Babylonish Talmud; and these two Talmuds govern Jewish ecclesiastical matters – or how their religious life is organised – all over the world, even to this day.
Their whole Talmud is divided into six parts. The sixth part is about purifications, out of which they probably brought these traditions to criticise Jesus’ disciples over.
The Pharisees were very strict about these traditions. VERY strict. That’s why Paul called them the strictest sect of the Jewish religion in Acts 26:5. They had a saying that, ‘If the scribes (that is, that which is written in the Talmuds) say our right hand is our left, and our left hand is our right, we are to believe them.
Breaking one of the traditions was considered worse than breaking the written laws of God. Another rabbinical saying was, “Whoever eats bread without washing of hands, is as if he lay with a whore.” Rabbi Eleazer said that whoever despised washing his hands, he shall be rooted out of the world – executed. But it doesn’t end there, oh no. Another rabbinical saying: Whoever does not wash his hands as is fitting, although he is punished above, he shall be punished below.
So, this is the world into which the crowds were born. There was the law of God, but their every movement was governed by certain traditions that had become a style of life, a way of living. They weren’t thoroughly aware of these traditions any more than a fish would be aware of being wet.
We’re going to come back to that matter in a minute. But there’s another statement here that needs explanation.
The Command of God
When the Pharisees come firing at Jesus, I love to always watch how Jesus stands His ground. He barely ever answers them, He simply grabs their weapon and uses it powerfully against His aggressors. What a Warrior we have in our Saviour, am I right?
Firstly, Jesus uses the same wording as the Pharisees. He didn’t say, ‘if’, ‘but’, or ‘maybe’ – He says and. “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your traditions?” As if to say: “Yes, my disciples are breaking the traditions. I don’t deny that. But isn’t it infinitely worse for you? You break God’s commands!”
And Jesus quotes two commands from Scripture – from Exodus 20:12 and 21:17. These laws make it clear that not taking loving care of your parents amounts to cursing them, and God’s punishment for that is death. But the traditions had found a way to circumvent God’s command. What happened was, if you could see that your parents were coming to an older age and would soon need to be cared for, the traditions said that you could simply say, ‘Mom and Dad, whatever you would have had from me to care for you is Corban’ – that is, it would go into the Temple Treasury. Then you could happily live your life free of parental care obligations! And there was no time set on when you had to actually give the money to the treasury. You could do it 5 minutes before you died of old age.
According to Jewish traditions, held as higher than Scripture, this was perfectly decent. Why? Because if you’ve dedicated it to God, it wouldn’t be right to give it to your parents – who, though they ought to be respected, were not at the same level as God, obviously.
And what’s more, and apparently what often happened, was you could call your possessions Corban out of hatred and spite towards your parents and you would still be righteous in your actions because you were giving this stuff to the temple!
And Jesus looks at this and says, Catch a clue! “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!” You’re playacting with God and you think God doesn’t know?
Alright, I think we have enough context for the message tonight.
1) The Mouth – An Indicator of the Heart …is the Indicator of Cleanness and Uncleanness
Vs. 17 and 18 Jesus says “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 hearts, and these make a man ‘unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
The mouth has two functions. One is to be the machine through which you feed your body. The other function is that it serves as a loudspeaker for the heart.
Imagine you were to walk through an overgrown forest. The trees stretch far above you, blocking out much of the sunlight. Your path is blocked with smaller trees and thick bushes that press against you. Your feet are getting tangled in the thick grass.
Then you come to a dead patch. Just out of nowhere, there’s an uneven open space of ground where very little grows, and what does is gaunt and sickly-looking. This can’t be because of outside circumstances. That patch of land gets the same weather, the same sun, the same rain and air as the forest around it. That leaves one possibility, there must be something wrong with the soil there.
If all you had was two test tubes with the different soils, they might look the same, but you can tell that one soil isn’t healthy because of what comes out of it.
Jesus says it’s the same way with our hearts and our mouths. Our hearts are the soil, and what comes out of our mouths and our lives are the trees that grow from that soil. If the stuff that comes out of our mouths and our lives are gaunt and sickly-looking; if they are evil, impure, selfish, false, harmful – that shows that our hearts are evil, impure, selfish, and false. ["The mouth is that by which, as Plato puts it, mortal things enter, and whence immortal things issue.”]
That’s why writer of Proverbs (4:23) exhorts us to guard our hearts – “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Now does that mean that all I have to do is learn to speak nicely and be kind to others, and that makes me right before God? No. The point is that the mouth is an indicator of the cleanness and uncleanness of our hearts. But God doesn’t need to listen to our words – He looks directly into our very hearts.
1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
God doesn’t need to listen to our words or watch our actions – He looks directly into our very hearts. He knows our secret thoughts and our secret motivations. He knows what we think about as we fall asleep every night. He can tell whether our obedience is full of joy or full of begrudging. He knows our hearts.
The mouth is an indicator of cleanness and uncleanness to you and to me, so that we won’t be fooled by our own hearts when they say, ‘Don’t fear the judgment of God – you’re okay.’ The way we speak and the way we live our lives shows ourselves (if we’re willing to look honestly), and shows those around us (if we’re willing for them to speak to us about our lives) what our true stance before God really is.
2) God’s Commands Supersede Man’s Traditions
Now let’s go back to what we said a short while ago about the culture into which the crowds were born. It was a culture where their every movement was governed by certain traditions that had become a style of life, a way of living.
These traditions determined what they wore, where they went, how they went, who they spoke to, what they spoke about, what they ate, how they ate, when they ate – and while some of these rules were God-given, many of them were regulations and laws taught by men.
The people were being boxed in to a life that God had never intended for them. They were imprisoned. And the Jewish people became like slaves being dragged to places they didn’t want to go and being forced to do things they didn’t want to do.
Instead of doing what the leaders had no doubt intended – aiding the people of God to walk closer with their God – these laws became a weight tied onto their shoulders and their necks till they were more slave than son and more imprisoned than their ancestors in Egypt.
The sad part about it was that they were unaware. They wore their chains like gold medals. Their traditions hadn’t been given by God, but they proudly hoisted the weights onto their shoulders – and the ‘more righteous ones’ hoisted the greater weights. These rules were pulling them ever further from the place they wanted to be, these traditions were dragging them into the mud, and instead of crying out for help they boasted in their chains.
Blind they were; and Jesus points it out. Blind!
You and I are no different from them.
Look around you. Why do we do the things we do? Why do you sit there, and I stand here? Why do we close our eyes to pray? Why do we sing three songs before preaching? Why do we pray before meals? Why do we feel guilty all the time for not telling more people about Jesus? Why do we blame our struggling quiet times for our unconquered sin? Why do you call me pastor? Why do we tithe? Why do we meet on Sundays? Why do we have a youth ministry?
Ask yourself: What traditions do you have that are keeping you from knowing and enjoying God? I’m not saying that all or any of those things are bad, but are they serving the cause of helping you to know and enjoy God more today than you did yesterday? If not, why do you keep doing them?
Why do you do what you do? If you have a prayer meeting at work, why do you have a prayer meeting at work? If you don’t, why don’t you? If you’re on the worship team – why are you? If you sit in a particular spot in Church – why do you? If you raise your hands in worship, or don’t – why do you, or why don’t you?
God’s law was given for one reason: So that we can know God and walk with Him. What God wants more than anything else was to draw you to Him. Look at the verse Jesus quotes from Isaiah: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
You and I grow up in a certain culture in which our every movement is governed by certain traditions that have become a style of life, a way of living – but is that way of living drawing you near to God?
We get comfortable with the way we do things. Maybe five years ago you listened to hymns in your car on the way to work, and found that your heart was more ready to face the day as you knew you and God were facing it together. So, you made that a habit, but your heart has become disconnected from it and you still do the same old thing but it isn’t serving the same purpose anymore.
What are you doing?
Maybe you’ve even become proud of your practice, and you remember how well it benefited you and you’ve told everyone at work about how you listen to hymns and how good that is and how they should do it too, but it’s become empty and worthless for you.
What are you doing?
Colossians 2:8, 16-23 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ…Therefore (check out the previous section – title is ‘Freedom from human regulations through life with Christ’) do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen [the Pharisee, however, went into great detail about what he knows], and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
What do these verses say to you?
My friends, examine your life. Are your actions, your habits, causing you to draw near to the eternal God, or dragging you from relationship with Him? This is very important, because left unchecked our hearts will happily float downstream. But God’s heart lies upstream. It lies where intentional pursuit takes us. It is far easier to ‘read Bible’ than to go to meeting with God, to enter the prayer closet, thereto have our hearts opened, emptied, sewed back up and blessed, and to go out only in the strength and joy of the Lord. It is far easier to say the Lord’s prayer as we fall asleep at night then to drag our sinful hearts, kicking and screaming, before a holy God and hold it there until He has cleansed it and purified it and calmed it down.
Hardened habits die hard, and it is difficult to get free from old ways of thinking. So, examine your ways of thinking; examine your habits; examine your traditions; examine every action and ask yourself this question: Does this practice draw me nearer to God? and if it doesn’t: cut it out!
What will you do?