Matthew 15:1-2 (NIV) 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!”
Neither Jesus nor His followers could be successfully accused of breaking God’s actual law. Jesus knew and followed all of the righteous requirements of the law, and taught His disciples to do the same. (Cf. Matthew 5:19.)
The things that Jesus refused to follow were the extra requirements, refinements, and human interpretations of the law that had been added over the centuries. These had been added out of good motives, to try to build a strong wall around the actual laws to strengthen and clarify them. This was driven in large part by the history of the Jewish people, specifically by their exile in Babylon brought on by their wanton disobedience of God’s laws.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the self-appointed guardians and monitors of the law. Their unwritten motto was “Never again.” They wanted to live genuinely holy lives, and to encourage (and sometimes even pressure) others into complete obedience to God’s laws so that He would never have to bring judgment on them again.
Jesus and His followers frustrated them greatly because, while they never broke an actual commandment that the Pharisees could point to, they showed a complete disregard for the protective walls that the Pharisees had erected to help people keep the law. Jesus healed and cast out demons on the Sabbath, that is true. And they had to admit that the law didn’t actually forbid healing on the Sabbath, but their extra rules categorized that as “work,” and therefore something that was forbidden. Even though Jesus’ arguments devastated their accusations (Luke 14:1-5), they were still convinced that His blatant disregard for the teachings of the elders put Him outside of true righteousness.
The disciples’ disregard for the tradition of ceremonially washing their hands before eating, ostensibly to clean from them any contamination from unclean things or people that would corrupt the food they were eating, and ultimately make their whole body unclean, continued to alarm them. Jesus had a large and growing following, and if He set an example of disregarding the traditions of the elders, what would keep the people from abandoning the law altogether?
But what their allegiance to their traditions prevented them from seeing was that Jesus was actually following and teaching a more pure form of obedience to God than they were; an obedience that went far beyond outward actions, and went all the way to the heart.
Father, I think it may be human nature to try to improve on what You Yourself have given us. But we need to see that Jesus Himself never did that. Some part of Your law He fulfilled by His sacrificial death and resurrection, and other parts He fully obeyed, and gives us the same power to obey those parts today. We don’t have to put a safety zone of man-made rules around Your laws to protect them. We simply need to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, and we will be living right in the center of what You want for us. Thank You. Amen.