3 Apr 2023

Matthew 15.9: When Tradition Replaces God’s Word (Text & Context)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Matthew, Patternism, Precision Obedience, Sectarianism, Unity

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” (Matthew 15.8-9).

A Proof Text

Years ago, K. C. Moser had a column in the Gospel Advocate called “Text & Context.” Over the years, I have honored Moser by having an off and on column with the same name. In the column he examined a text and demonstrated basic exegetical skills for proper interpretation of the biblical text. Sometimes texts are cited by disciples, devoid of their context, that do not mean what people think they do. “Prooftexting” is a very easy error to fall into, especially during a polemical exchange among followers of the Messiah.

Matthew 15.8-9 is one such text. It is frequently cited text against most anything the one quoting it does not like (i.e. opposes). Within the history of American Churches of Christ these words of Jesus have been cited to oppose

  • Missionary Societies
  • Instrumental Music
  • “Located” Preachers
  • Sunday Schools/Bible classes
  • Women teachers in Sunday Schools/Bible classes
  • Use of non-alcoholic wine in communion
  • Use of real wine in communion
  • Multiple cups in communion
  • VBS
  • Supporting orphan homes, colleges, Herald of Truth out of “the church treasury”
  • Kitchens in the church building
  • Suffrage for women, women praying, women teaching, etc
  • Etc.

A Text In Context

In Matthew 15.9, Jesus is actually quoting from Isaiah 29.13. The statement occurs in the context of verses 1-10. The Pharisees and scribes question Jesus about an issue of ritual purity. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat” (v.2). Again this question has nothing to do with Covid-19, or germs, but ritual purity.

The issue hinges, as Jesus placed it, on the creation of a “practice,” a tradition, that is used to set aside an explicit command of God. Nowhere is the issue mere tradition or practices per se. Instead of answering the question of the Pharisees, Jesus asks his own question, “Why do you BREAK THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD for the sake of your tradition/practice” (v.3).

Then Jesus cites the Ten Commandments and a command based on the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and mother” (v.4, citing Exodus 20.12) and “Whoever speaks evil of father and mother must surely die” (v.4 citing Exodus 21.17).

First to note, Jesus believes these commands. Second, Jesus points to the practice/tradition that set aside the explicit command of God to honor one’s parents.

It was subterfuge. We religious people do these kinds of things regularly (not just Pharisees!). The practice was called “corban.” In the practice under consideration, elderly parents or parent, are left “high and dry,” because the son claims he has devoted his money/property to the Lord (i.e. temple). Corban is related to the sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus offers no critique of offerings themselves here. He rejects the practice of corban which results in “sanctified” disobedience by dishonoring a parent. The son (and it would be a son) is, after his money has been declared corban, was no longer obligated to care for his elderly father/mother because now his money is only devoted (belongs to) to God. Corban was a fake way to sound holy while being selfish. It violates the message and values of the Hebrew Bible on virtually every level.

Jesus states explicitly, “So for the sake of your tradition/practice, you make VOID the word of God” (v.8 ). The term translated “void” (ἠκυρώσατε) means to nullify, to cancel, to make of no effect. The practice of corban nullified the explicit command to honor one’s parents. It is after Jesus declared the tradition to be explicitly contrary to the Ten Commandments that he quotes Isaiah “they teach human precepts as doctrine/rules.” The “religious practice” nullified God’s explicit word, while claiming to “honor me [God].” Corban claimed to honor God while dishonoring parents. The religious practice of corban allowed one to hurt another human essentially in the name of God. Jesus was having none of it!

In all likely hood Jesus of Nazareth did not care if the Pharisees and scribes chose to wash their hands for the sake of ritual purity. It is important to remember Jesus did not initiate this conversation. In fact, according to the text, Jesus never addresses the washing of hands. What Jesus did however was expose the underlying hypocrisy. This practice allowed them to look zealous and corban allowed them to look better than average for the sake of God’s honor all the while they were in express disobedience to what God actually did say. You honor God by taking care of your parents. That this is a “heart” issue Jesus makes quite clear in verses 10-11. This by the way is a very Mosaic reply as Moses is constantly concerned about our hearts, especially a circumcised heart (cf. Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; etc).

Not Mere Tradition

When we religious people set up a practice that subverts obedience to the express word of God, we have a scenario just like Matthew 15. However, Jesus was not rejecting mere tradition or practices. Nor is Jesus rejecting “ritual purity” out of hand. Jesus had to be ritually pure to enter the temple and participate in Israel’s worship (which the Gospels show him doing regularly). But the Law never made the command the Scribes dreamed up. But it did command honoring parents.

There are practices/traditions that express devotion and reverence for God that do not nullify other direct commands. Jesus himself participates in many traditions/practices which more than substantiate that Jesus is not talking about mere tradition but the replacement of a divine command by a human precept/rule which enabled the disobedience of the express will of God. This is the whole point of Jesus’s question as a retort.

Mikva at Magdala Synagogue

What might some of those traditions be that Jesus was happy to participate in? Perhaps the most obvious and prominent is the synagogue system itself. Synagogues are never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. They are not even mentioned in the Apocrypha. Jesus was, however, deeply embedded in the synagogue. Archeologists have unearthed hundreds of Mikva’s from first century Judea and Galilee. Most of these are attached to synagogues as in the case of Magdala synagogue discovered in recent years. For more on the layout of the Magdala Synagogue see temple/synagogue expert Leen Ritmeyer’s A Reconstruction of the Magdala Synagogue. Thus Jesus would have had to pass through one in order to get in. But the synagogue did not set aside God’s express command.

Second, Jesus participated in extra biblical tradition in his observance of the Passover. Jesus does this in at least two ways. Jewish tradition called for cups at the Passover meal. Since the Passover is a meal, a cup would be natural. But there is not a peep about cups at the Passover in a single text in the Hebrew Bible, nor the Apocrypha. I want to stress this point. There is not a single cup mentioned in connection with the Passover, much less a command, in the entire Hebrew Bible. The first known reference to a cup used at the Passover is in the Book of Jubilees. But Jewish tradition did not have just a cup but four cups. The other tradition surrounding the Passover Jesus participated in was some form of the Passover Haggadah, which includes the singing of the Hallel Psalms. Psalms 113-118 were sung by Jesus and the disciples just like every other Jew at the Passover meal. In fact these Psalms leave their “finger prints” literally all over the Passion Narratives of the Gospels (which of course are themselves written against the backdrop of Passover festival). But nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there any instruction to incorporate the Hallel Psalms, or singing of any sort, into the Passover liturgy. But Jesus does it. The singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in the Passover, though not commanded anywhere did not set aside and nullify the command of God.

Third, Jesus participated in the Feast of Dedication, known today as Hanukkah. Themes of Hanukkah are embedded in the Gospel of John and is explicitly mentioned in John 10.22ff. But no where in the Hebrew Bible can we read of Dedication. We do read about it in the Apocrypha in 1 & 2 Maccabees. But these traditions/practices did not set aside the command of God. They did not nullify the Commandment of God as did corban.

In Matthew 15.1-10, Jesus checkmates those who want to use religion to get out of doing what God actually said to do. Anytime we religious people come up with a logical reason (as the Scribes thought they had) to disobey the express command of God then we have a problem as large as the Pharisees. But there are many traditions that in no way nullify, set aside, what God said to do.

We need to understand the difference brothers and sisters.

Of Related Interest:

Hurricanes & Unity: Faith vs Issues … Lessons from Paul and Carl Ketcherside

2 Responses to “Matthew 15.9: When Tradition Replaces God’s Word (Text & Context)”

  1. JT Says:

    Enjoyed this. Everyone, whether people, churches or nations have “traditions”. I can’t say I don’t love “tradition”. It’s sad in religious circles, that so many confuse tradition with doctrine, etc. Of course there can be such a thing as “bad” tradition. But usually it seems that people confuse the two, making “tradition” into “required”, which crosses the line. But it seems too often the problem is that tradition is not recognized for what it is – tradition! Too many times traditions are foisted upon folks as salvational issues – even if it might be denied as it is occurring.

    Thanks for the link to:
    Hurricanes & Unity: Faith vs Issues … Lessons from Paul and Carl Ketcherside
    Lots of gems in that little blog. I particularly loved, “The only type of unity the Bible knows as unity is diversity,”. Was good to revisit it.

  2. Dwight Haas Says:

    This shows the difference between what one could do within the Temple and what one could do outside the Temple in regards to worship. The Temple was highly regulated in practice and form, but even when God commanded such practices such as the Passover with certain elements…lamb, unleavened bread and herbs, the Jews were allowed to contribute to the Passover meal without condemnation…wine and oil were added in, despite no commands to do so. Due to the Temple worship not being in place, we follow the worship that God allowed us to do towards him in what ways we can contribute to His will.

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