Scripture: Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 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 15:1-9 ESV
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Observation: As Matthew continues his Gospel narrative, we see controversies escalate between Jesus and the religious leaders, culminating in his arrest and crucifixion as he completes his mission. Indeed, the Pharisees were so concerned with Jesus destabilizing Israel under Rome’s governing rule that they dispatched Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem to assess whether Jesus was a zealot who would spur division among the people of Israel. Wanting to find grounds for arresting Jesus and fully aware of his growing popularity, they slyly ask him why his disciples break the traditions of the elders rather than attack his character.
But the wisest human in all history cuts to the core of their trap and exposes their hypocrisy. They have taken the laws of God that provide boundaries for holy living under God’s blessings and curses and have expanded them over time to 613 commandments divided into 365 prohibitions and 248 favorable rules. While this oral tradition may seem helpful, it proved overwhelming and discouraging to the masses who did not have the luxury of studying and devoting themselves to the Torah—particularly since Pharisees and scribes had weaponized them to maintain control over the people. And they even perverted God’s law to prosper their lifestyle. Case in point, Jesus elsewhere calls them out for establishing the tradition of qorban (see Mark 7:11), a gift devoted to God in lieu of carrying for one’s parents, thus violating the fifth commandment to honor their father and mother.
Having exposed their hypocrisy, Jesus quotes Israel’s esteemed prophet of the 8th century BCE: Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13). Indeed, the Pharisees and scribes functioned like the ruling party of Isaiah’s day, seeking the admiration and submission of the people with articulate prayers and praises that showed off their intelligence and masked their hardened hearts toward God.
Takeaway: Jesus earlier called them hypocrites (6:1-18) for seeking the honor of the people by performing acts of righteousness. As theologian Michael Wilkens sums it, “The Pharisees and teachers of the law perform religious rituals externally, but their primary motivation has not been to commit their entire inner person to God. Therefore, not only does their human tradition and teaching nullify God’s Word (15:6, 9), but their worship is empty of any real meaning (15:9). This is a disturbingly sweeping indictment by Jesus of Israel’s leading religious establishment” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.536). And two thousand years of church history prove that its leaders are just as prone to this pretentious behavior that can cause many to fall with them.
So how can we avoid this pitfall? By resisting idolizing our pastors and church leaders and instead focusing on the real hero who selflessly died for us: our humble suffering-servant Jesus Christ. For our pastors are merely messengers, not the incarnate Word. Still, they serve on the frontline of enemy warfare, and the devil aims to bring down churches by attacking their leaders. Thus, Paul tells Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:19 ESV). So while we should honor them for dedicating themselves to the service of shepherding Christ’s flock, we must not forget that there’s and our sole purpose is to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit in glorifying the Father and Son and growing their kingdom. And pursuing meaningful worship (both corporate and private) will nurture our souls and prioritize our affection for them.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who did not hesitate to expose the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who led the people astray. And we thank you for the Holy Spirit, who continues his work in the church. Yet, we confess it is sometimes hard to avoid idolizing our pastors and elders who inspire us. So would you please help us avoid the pitfall by listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit when we lean in the wrong direction and instead nurture our souls with meaningful worship through prayer and Scripture, both privately and corporately? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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