Thursday, April 28, 2011

Matthew 15:10-20 - "And after he called the multitude to him, he said to them..."

This passage contains teaching in verses 12-14 about the Pharisees as "blind guides of the blind," but let's save our discussion of that section for next time. Right now we'll look at the discussion between Jesus and Peter on what truly defiles a man.

The tradition of hand-washing before eating isn't written in Old Testament law. Most likely the Pharisees took the commandment for priests to wash before ministering at the altar of the temple (Exodus 30:17-21) and applied it universally to all Jews coming before the table to eat a meal. It's a way of ramping up the holiness of the nation, and maybe then God will be pleased to restore Israel to her former glory. Of course, not only were the Pharisees teaching a man-made tradition as if it were the commandment of God, but they were violating a true commandment of God, the fifth commandment, in the process.

But Jesus' criticism of the hand-washing tradition reaches far beyond the fact that it is a mere tradition. He attacks the entire rationale upon which it is based. He says it's not what you put in your mouth that defiles you, it's what comes out of your mouth straight from your corrupt heart that defiles you. What is shocking about this pronouncement is that Jesus is challenging the entire idea of clean and unclean distinctions as taught by the Mosaic Law. The parallel passage in Mark 7:1-23 even adds as an aside, "Thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean," though Matthew seems to be content with just planting that idea in our heads and letting us draw our own conclusions. The law delineated categories of clean and unclean to train the Israelites to think in these stark, black-and-white terms, but the law was only a tutor, an intensive training exercise to help God's people see that the true clean and unclean distinction is between a holy God and sinful men.

Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of understanding, because anyone with spiritual insight would realize that the real uncleanness the law is referring to lies within our hearts. Food has nothing to do with it. Our words betray how much evil is hidden inside each one of us, an unending stream of lust, deceit and murder. Jesus had to come to us as the clean one and take our uncleanness upon himself. He became unclean to God, rejected upon the cross, so that we could be declared clean in the Father's sight.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Matthew 15:1-9 - "Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying..."

Some Pharisees and scribes make the long trip all the way up from Jerusalem to Galilee just to accuse Jesus. News of Jesus' activities has apparently reached the top brass in the capital city, and they have sent representatives to get this loose-cannon rabbi in line. Their question, "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" shows that their main concern is about authority. "All religious practice done within these boundaries fall within our jurisdiction, you see. Why have you not asked our permission? By what authority do you do these things? Already we see how you teach your disciples to violate our traditions, which proves that you are a fraud."

Jesus comes right back and points out that the Pharisees commit the real offense by breaking God's commandment in order to keep their tradition. While it's unclear whether Jesus is condemning the practice of all man-made traditions, he is certainly aware of how traditions can end up usurping the place of God's commandments. They may start out in a subordinate place to God's law, then they move up to become equal to it, and soon they are taking priority over it. The tradition of Corban that the Pharisees practiced allowed them to take a vow dedicating their material wealth as a gift to the temple, which then made it unavailable for supporting their parents. Sorry, Mom and Dad, the money's been given to God. Conveniently, the sacredness of the vow took precedence over the fifth commandment.

Jesus summarizes God's view of such hypocrisy in this way: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." It's unsettling to think how many unspoken traditions we have layered on top of our Christian practice that may be taking us further and further away from God's actual commands. We have such definite ideas about how a godly Christian should dress, behave, talk, serve in church, evangelize his neighbors, prioritize his time, and vote. If any of these practices take priority over God's command to "love your neighbor," I think we'd hardly notice. Part of the reason for our blindness is that we can all think of ways that liberal Christians have abused and overused the term "love" to justify unbiblical practices. And yet that doesn't change the fact that God has still commanded that we love others, and has made that command supreme. Someone else's abuse of God's command doesn't give us reason to despise the command, nor does it justify finding man-made practices to put in its place.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Matthew 14:34-36 - "And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret."

More people, more healings, more clamoring after Jesus. This short passage appears to be a bridge that leads into Jesus' next confrontation with the Pharisees in chapter 15. But before we move quickly on, let's take note of a couple of things. The disciples have only been able to get so far from the madding crowd, and their precious break has already come to an end. The only rest they have gotten was when they were in the middle of the sea, and even then with Jesus pulling stunts like walking on water, they were never able to be fully at ease.

But Jesus himself has gotten even less of a break. He had already spent most of the night praying on the mountain, then he hiked all the way down to the seashore and walked two additional miles on the water to reach the disciples' boat. By the time he reached them it was close to sunrise ("the fourth watch," 14:25), meaning he might have gotten a couple hours' sleep on the boat before he had to rise again to start his day with the multitudes of Gennesaret clamoring for him when they docked. Surely, we can add sleeplessness to the list of Jesus' sufferings during his life on earth. If you've ever taken care of an infant around the clock, feeding and changing and rocking him all day long and throughout the night, running on only a few hours' sleep at a time, take comfort that Jesus knows all about your suffering. He keeps watch with you during those long and lonely nights.

The people of Gennesaret are begging to touch even the fringe of Jesus' cloak. News must have reached them about the hemorrhaging woman who had received healing simply by touching the hem of his garment (9:20-22). You feel tempted to despise these people who treat Jesus so superstitiously, but apparently Jesus does not despise them. Somehow there is enough faith mixed in with their superstition for him to honor with genuine healing. "As many as touched [his cloak] were cured" (v. 36). Jesus had told the hemorrhaging woman "your faith has made you well" and no doubt the same applies to these Gennesarites. It is always faith that Jesus honors--and perhaps because it is the desperate faith of the sick and needy, such desperation has made their faith true enough to overcome even the superstition that would otherwise taint it.