Thursday, April 10, 2014

But where's your Scripture to back that up, Jesus?

Jesus has a few things to say about the Pharisees' "traditions" in Matthew 15:1-20. Apparently they focus way too much on following the rules, and miss the big picture.

And back when I was a "good Christian," I read this passage and agreed. Ah yes, how silly the Pharisees were, making up all those extra rules that weren't even in the bible. But if it's rules that are in the bible, no matter how arbitrary, well that's a different story.

But now I think the "good Christian" interpretation misses the point.

Image source.

Okay first let's summarize what happens in Matthew 15:1-20. Some Pharisees were giving Jesus a hard time because his disciples "break the tradition of the elders" by not washing their hands before eating. Jesus doesn't address their objection, but instead asks why they have a loophole to get around God's command to "honor your father and mother." I'm not exactly sure on how this worked, but I guess sometimes people would say "I can't take care of my parents- everything I have is devoted to God." Well that's convenient.

That's an interesting point. You know, I've always believed "God first, others second, myself third"- which yeah, there are several problems with that, but for now let's talk about putting "loving God" above "loving others." It implies that in some cases, you must make a choice between these 2 options. It implies that in some cases, you must "love God against your neighbor," as Richard Beck puts it.

So in Matthew 15, we have people who are apparently so devoted to God that they're unable to help their parents. And Jesus is like, yeah, no.

(Another interesting thought: It's so tempting to say "yeah they weren't really devoted to God, they were just saying that to get out of helping their parents" because everything would then be tidy and convenient. But what if there really were people who did so much "for God" that they weren't able to take responsibility to help their parents? Doing something that sounded more spiritual, rather than helping others, because they really thought that was the right way to follow God. Dude, that's been me, so many times.)

Jesus gives us a relevant quote from Isaiah:
"These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules."

Hmm that last bit reminds me of every time people say "the bible" when they really mean "my interpretation of the bible." For example: "Are we going to follow the bible or just take the easy way?" And "This is the biblical way." Or everyone's favorite: "The bible is clear..."

Alright. We're halfway through the passage. So far, so good. Jesus makes a distinction between God's commands and the Pharisees' traditions. Jesus backs it up with Scripture.

In the second half, not so much.

"What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, this is what defiles them. ... 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 a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts- murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them."

And God is sitting up there in heaven going, "well that's news to me."

I mean seriously! What about everything God commanded back in the Old Testament about being clean or unclean? What about Leviticus 11, which explains which animals are clean and therefore can be eaten, and which are unclean?

Yeah Jesus, this whole "what goes in vs what comes out" thing sounds great and all, but we're dealing with a bible that contains the word "unclean" over 100 times just in the book of Leviticus. And I don't think it was talking about "evil thoughts."

So, Jesus, are you going to follow the bible or be led astray by what "sounds good"?

Here's the point: Loving people is so much more important than following all the rules.

And you know what? Even though the Old Testament contains a ton of rules, it also hints that the rules aren't really what matters:

"Is this the kind of fasting I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustic
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?"

"For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings."

A-freaking-men. Image source.
But here in the second half of the passage, Jesus doesn't quote Scripture. He just acts like this is common sense. You eat stuff and then later you poop. How could that make you unclean? "Unclean" is really about the kind of person you are. Quite a different definition than we were using in the Old Testament, huh?

And no Scripture to back it up...


I'll say it again: Loving people is so much more important than following all the rules. Even if they're the bible's rules.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Jesus' Time Management (Matthew 14:13-36)

Next post: Jesus didn't want to break the rules? (Matthew 15:21-39)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. I so appreciate the in-depth studies you do on specific passages in the Bible. It's refreshing and I'm always left nodding my head and going "Yep. How did I never think of it that way before?"

  2. This is so good. I've been reading a book that talks about how Jesus/Christianity changed the concept of purity from bodily purity to moral purity. It's amazing how many Christians still focus on purity in terms of the body, making the moral purity of mercy, compassion and so on, secondary.