“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is “devoted to God,” they are not to “honour their father or mother” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘ “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”’” (Matthew 15:1-9 NIV)

Traditions. Even today we struggle with traditions – perhaps because we are so used to doing something that we don’t recognise it as being a tradition.

Traditions often caused problems for Jesus. One tradition, which we may also practice, was washing their hands before eating. We might say, “But that isn’t a tradition, that is good hygiene!” – which is true. In the times in which we live during a global pandemic we have learned that one of the simple things everyone can do to keep the virus at bay is to wash our hands. It is very simple but very effective.

The tradition the Pharisees had was far beyond merely cleaning your hands before you ate. We find from Mark 7 that this involved not just washing their hands, but washing them up to the elbow. Why such excessive washing? They were being meticulous, trying to insure that they did not defile themselves because they had been in contact with someone or something that was designated as ‘unclean’ under the Mosaic Law.

But despite such detail in hand washing this was not applied to other areas of their lives. Jesus pointed out that they ignored blatant commands of God such as honouring their parents by taking care of them. They were so concerned about their traditions that they ignored what God actually required of them.

The problem was deeper that just hand washing.

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’” (Matthew 15:10-11).

You see, it isn’t what we eat that defiles us, as Jesus went on to explain, but it is what comes out of our mouths – what we say – that will defile our lives. What are these things that come out of our mouths? Notice how Jesus identified 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.” (Matthew 15:19-20)

This calls for us to examine ourselves and what we do. Living in a different culture, even one that speaks English, makes a person examine what they are used to, even as it has to do with our worship. American Christians are sometimes critical of those in Britain because worship doesn’t end with an invitation song, or because a rented hall does not have the name of a church on it, or even because it isn’t practical to have an evening worship on Sunday. Many years ago I heard a wise American teacher ask, “Where do we find these in the Bible?”

That is the point, isn’t it? Traditions are not wrong. They are only wrong when we try to bind them on others and in situations that are not the same as we are used to. We need to worry less about traditions being broken and concentrate more on obeying what God has revealed in the pages of scripture.

Image by Roberto Gomez from

Readings for next week: Matthew 13-18

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