He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
(Matthew 15:3-9 ESV)
Yesterday a group of senior-level Pharisees confronted Jesus because His disciples didn’t follow their man-made rules. Today Jesus responds to them. As He usually does, Jesus responds to an accusatory question not by answering it, but by asking a question of His own, essentially telling them that they are the ones breaking God’s commandments with their tradition.
God commands children to honor their father and mother. This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments. But the Pharisees had invented a way for people to circumvent this law by declaring all their possessions “corban” – irrevocably given to God. And since a vow to God could not be violated [Numbers 30:2], those possessions, including money, could not be subsequently used for any other purpose, including helping one’s parents as they aged.
Furthermore, the corban possessions remained with the person; they did not have to be given to the Temple or synagogue. The person was still allowed to use the possessions himself. This practice was simply a way to get around God’s law that a child take care of his parents. It allowed a person to appear godly when they were actually breaking God’s commands.
As we can see tradition can be dangerous. It is almost always followed mindlessly, without questioning its benefit. It does not require love or sincerity. As a result, following tradition makes a person prideful and self-righteous as they think they are doing the right things. But, as Jesus points out, they are actually sinning.
To be sure, not all tradition is bad. Traditions that help us remember God’s word, such as the practice of communion which Jesus commanded us to observe [Luke 22:19-20]. Tradition becomes sin when it is based on the commandments of men and replaces God’s doctrine, thereby making God’s word void. A person who does this has a heart that is far from God; they worship God in vain by simply honoring Him with their lips (what they say) not with how they live.
Religion based on human authority is worthless. We must worship God His way or we are not worshipping Him at all; we are worshipping ourselves. God is not interested in outward rituals, such as the correct way to wash one’s hands before eating [Isaiah 1:11; Amos 5:21; Hosea 6:6]. Sadly, many people think that following man-made rules such as lighting candles and praying the rosary is pleasing to God. It isn’t.
And while the original intent of such rituals was probably sincere, the problem is that over time we have a tendency to raise our own man-made practices above the authority of God’s word. That is where the danger lies.
God is interested in the internal reality of who we are; He is interested in our hearts. Humans, on the other hand, are interested in the external image we portray to others. And while we may be able to fool other human beings into thinking we are something we’re not, we aren’t fooling God.
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