July 15, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He rejects traditions

See Matthew 15:20, Mark 7:1-23

The setting for this confrontation was in Galilee, but the Pharisees and scribes with whom Jesus argued came from Jerusalem. Obviously, Jesus had become sufficiently controversial in Jeru­salem for these men to go to the trouble of making a four days’ journey to Galilee.

This time the argument was over some of the Jewish rituals. They asked Jesus why his disciples “break the tradition of the elders” by not washing their hands before eating. The Jewish elders had come up with a large body of detailed, but usually unwritten, human laws that the scribes and Pharisees believed had the same binding force as that of the Mosaic Law.

Jesus immediately took the offensive and accused his adversaries of breaking God’s commandments while preserving man-made traditions. He said that their traditions allowed them to break the Fourth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”) by telling their parents that any support they might have had from them was dedicated to God then doing nothing more for their parents.

He called them hypocrites and applied to them a derogatory prophesy from Isaiah that said that they would worship God in vain because they taught human precepts as doctrines from God. This wasn’t the first time that Jesus referred to hypocrites, but this time he made it quite clear to whom he was referring.

Jesus didn’t stop with contrasting God’s law and the Pharisaic interpretation of it. He said that nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person, thus in one fell swoop setting aside the Jewish laws concerning clean and unclean foods. It’s what comes out of a person’s mouth that defiles, he said.

Later, when they were away from the crowd, Jesus’ Apostles said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” They had been taught, from childhood, to respect the scribes and Pharisees, and here was Jesus calling them hypocrites. (But how about that “Do you know?” As if Jesus was surprised.)

The Apostles, dense as always, didn’t get the point of what Jesus had said and questioned him about it. Jesus was shocked at their failure to understand and showed some impatience: “Are even you without understanding?” He repeated that nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile because it simply passes through the stomach and into the latrine.

(Mark’s Gospel adds, in parentheses, “Thus he declared all foods clean,” ­probably because Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued to follow the Mosaic Law. As the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, whether or not Christians had to follow the Mosaic Law became an important controversy, and the author of Mark’s Gospel was clearly coming down on the side of those who said that they did not.)

However, Jesus said, we should be concerned with what comes out of a person because certain evils come from the heart. He names them: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance and folly. †


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