Biblical justice is not just about what a culture thinks is legal or illegal. Biblical justice (conforming to God’s standard) encompasses good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, action and attitude, and external and internal—as defined by the Lord. In our text today, Jesus defended his disciples and taught what truly commends us to God and what truly defiles our lives. It is the difference between plastic religion and real faith.
The Traditions of People Can Pervert Justice
Matthew 15:1, 2
A story about bread led up to our text today. Jesus fed 5,000 people in the wilderness (in contrast to Herod’s elaborate birthday party—Matthew 14:1-12). The huge crowd ate bread in the wilderness without the opportunity to observe the ceremonial washing of their hands. When Jesus returned to the western side of the Sea of Galilee by walking on the water, he was met with controversy. Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem (a long way from home) and attempted to drive a wedge between Jesus and his disciples. The religion police were in attack mode. Their complaint concerned a tradition of the elders that had to do with the ceremonial washing of their hands before they eat.
In Jesus’ time, the traditions of the elders were oral interpretations of God’s law that, however well intended, went way beyond the actual commands of God. Tradition simply means “something handed down.” The teachings of the rabbis who gave commentary on God’s law were handed down. One such tradition concerned ceremonial washing of hands. It was quite detailed. The empty shell of an egg was used to measure out water. The contents were then poured into open-palmed hands. The water would run through the fingers symbolizing that any defilement was being washed away. We are people of tradition. That is not all bad (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6). Some traditions allow us to reclaim our identity and hold us together. But when our traditions become greater than the commands of God, the justice that we long to see fulfilled actually goes to seed and turns into image management.
The Commands of God Preserve Justice
Jesus took the battle to the criticizers. His retort was strong. “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus will not stand for his innocent disciples being wrongly accused. In fact, he will charge the religious elite with having ugly faith.
It might seem that Jesus randomly selected commands from the Old Testament to substantiate his charge. But that is not so. He knew bout their duplicitous practices, and he had a word link in mind for his argument. The word honor occurs three times in the rest of our text (vv. 4, 6, and 8). Honor means to respect and revere, but it can also mean to support (to put your money where your mouth is). The Pharisees had devised an elaborate plan to act like they were honoring their parents when in reality they were just being selfish. Jesus quoted Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 20:9 about respecting one’s parents. Part of that respect meant taking care of them in their elderly years. But the Pharisees would simply say, “Mom and Dad, I would love to help you, but I have dedicated all of my money to God” (this is what is meant by “Corban” mentioned in the parallel text of Mark 7:11). The Pharisees would then dismiss themselves from any responsibility to their parents. Jesus said that they nullified (brought to nothing) the command of God for the sake of their tradition. “Scripture plus” or “Scripture minus” is no good. Only the authoritative voice of God can give us true justice. True to our Restoration Movement roots, inferences from Scripture are not equal to Scripture.
Hypocrisy Distorts Justice
Jesus had this famous text from Isaiah in mind when the argument began. Isaiah dealt with hypocrisy in his day. But Jesus said that Isaiah prophesied about them. The quote is from Isaiah 29:13. Physically one’s lips and heart are separated by about 12 inches. But sometimes they are light years apart. Once again Jesus drew attention to the word honor. Lip service is cheap. It is what the Pharisees were doing with their parents. But their duplicitous practices proved that their hearts were far from God. When religious “play acting” mixes with the commands of God, we end up with human rules.
When this accusation and defense concluded, Jesus took the occasion to teach about what truly defiles a person. Jesus put the accent on the internal—not the external. Biblical justice is when the heart fully embraces the standards of God.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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