A devotional from Central Presbyterian Church. Find the complete archive here.
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
On a recent afternoon—not this last week, obviously— I was driving home from work, less than a mile from the house, when the car in front of me suddenly slowed, veered left across the double yellow lines and then all the way back, creeping toward the drainage ditch on the right hand side of the road. True to my selfish and impatient nature, rather than becoming concerned for the well-being of the other driver, I was instead immediately incensed that my arrival home might be impeded by perhaps 12 seconds. When the other car resumed to a normal speed I glanced to the right and found an explanation for the erratic display; several utility workers down in the ditch clearing out debris that causes the road to flood in heavy rain. Momentarily distracted by the men in orange vests, brake lights flashing out of the corner of my eye brought my attention back to the road just in time to execute an evasive maneuver and narrowly avoid a collision with my neighbor turning into his own driveway.
Based on centuries of oral tradition concerning the proper application of Old Testament law to nearly every conceivable life situation, the Pharisees, scribes, and other Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day had turned religious observance into an absurdly impossible task. They not only divided the law into 613 separate decrees, but also painstakingly added what they called “a fence around the law” to ensure that they would not even accidentally break it. Their obsessive concern to keep both law and tradition led to some rather interesting debates and decisions over the years. The more humorous of these many discourses all revolved around the Lord’s prohibition against work on the Sabbath. Spitting on the Sabbath was permitted, but if the spit landed in the dirt and created mud, you could be guilty of “cultivating the earth.” A man who carried his wooden leg out of a burning home to save it from the fire might be in violation of the command found in Jeremiah 17:22: “do not carry a burden out of your houses.”
The Pharisees and scribes were the only ones who had the time, energy, and knowledge to keep both the letter of the law and tradition but, in fairness, to them holiness was no laughing matter. The traditions of the rabbis, such as hand washing, which Mark tells us “some” of Jesus’ disciples did not follow, were established to ensure that they remained ritually clean from the world around them. While we have quickly grown accustomed to washing our hands frequently as a hygienic practice to avoid spreading germs and viruses, the Pharisees did so for the sake of their spiritual health.
Ritual cleanliness was especially important in situations like returning from the market, where one might have incidentally come in contact with a pagan Gentile. The tradition of hand washing involved first allowing water to run down your hands onto your wrist, before then dropping your hands and letting the water roll off the tips of your fingers. Much like this last week at our house, the Pharisees were constantly washing their hands to avoid contamination, a practice that required so much water that an unnamed rabbi almost died from thirst in prison when he used his rationed water to wash instead of drink.
While these traditions were undoubtedly well intentioned, the Pharisees had allowed their legalistic obedience to become not only a point of pride, but also their hope of salvation. They believed their righteous deeds were proof of their religion, assuring them the blessing and favor of God. Meanwhile others, like Jesus and the disciples, who failed to follow all the rules of tradition, were more than deserving of whatever ills may come their way.
But Jesus saw through the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and was less than impressed. He said that although they claimed to honor God with their words and actions, their motivation was pride, not worship. Their acts of obedience was supposed to flow from their love for God, but the thing they loved more than anything was the sense of superiority they received comparing themselves to the commoners around them.
The Pharisees’ failure to love the Lord was most evident in the way they treated people and possessions. Jesus said that they actually used the rabbinic tradition to get out of obeying God. Instead of caring for their own elderly parents, in a society where being unable to work often meant being unable to eat, they declared that whatever things or money they would have provided was instead “Corban,” or dedicated to God. Not only did this give them the appearance of super-holiness, loving God more than their own family, but they didn’t even need to actually give those things to God at all. This legal loophole essentially allowed them to rob both God and family with no ramifications. And this was just one example, Jesus said that they did MANY things like this.
In James 1:27, the Bible provides us with a relatively simple definition of religion. It reads, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Now, contrast God’s version of religion with the religion of the scribes and Pharisees. Rather than caring for and pleading the cause of the widow, they devoured their homes and life-savings. Even in their own families they took advantage of the poor and had no interest in helping the sick or caring for the downtrodden. Their version of religion enabled them to ostracize the outsider and demonize anyone who held different beliefs. They were interested in pretense, not people; self-serving, not self-giving. Everything they did was just another performance seeking attention and applause.
In all fairness to the Pharisees, it is easy to get distracted from the important things. It doesn’t take much more than a couple of orange vests for us to take our attention off of the things that really matter. But Jesus didn’t come just to reorient our actions, to replace bad habits with good ones and get our eyes back on the road.
Jesus came because, whether we admit it or not, we are all Pharisees. Our hearts are not just disordered, they are diseased. Sin has a tighter grip on us than we could ever imagine, and in our own power we are helpless to redeem ourselves. Psalm 49:7 says “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life.” Nothing we could do, no amount of “good works,” could ever tilt God’s scales of justice in our favor. We all stand condemned before the righteous Judge. And that is exactly why Jesus came. No man could ransom another, no one could pay the price demanded for their disobedience, so God sent His Son. Jesus paid the price that we owed, His death is more than sufficient to bring us life. Because of what He has done for us, we can respond in love for Him. Our love for Him is expressed in praise and worship, through songs and prayers, and in sharing His love for us by loving caring for those around us.
We are not called to be Pharisees. God has not given us a ministry of condemnation, but reconciliation. Our unbelieving neighbors may be, like each of us before we knew Jesus, enemies of God, dead in their sins and trespasses, but God has called us to be His ambassadors to the world. Let’s never allow ourselves to be distracted from this mission.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, we confess that there are many things that take our attention off of You. You know the motives of even our most “holy” deeds are often selfish and impure. We ask that You would help us to see beyond ourselves and through the noise of the world and fix our eyes and our hearts on You and Your Word. We praise You today for Your incredible demonstration of love for us, and ask that You would enable us to be Your light in the world. We pray this in Your precious name, Amen.