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And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
”This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.
The motivation behind the things we do is always a little tricky. We tend to judge others by the outcomes of what they do, and we judge ourselves by our intent, not the outcome. We all know somebody that was a real hypocrite and didn’t do what they told others to do, but that seems like too easy of an application for this reading. It’s too easy to point fingers and call people hypocrites.
It’s also too easy to read this and then beat ourselves up. We can all think of times we sinned and blundered and set a bad example for others. We are bad good examples and we are good bad examples. (Nothing makes a man yell at his kids like trying to get to church on time! Yuck!)
Jesus quotes Isaiah to the Pharisees here because they are upset that the disciples are breaking the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. The religious leaders made up a bunch of extra customs and practices to make it hard for people to break the Law of Moses. Breaking the law of Moses was a sin; breaking these extra rules and customs that were
There are a lot of things that God loves us to do that have become customs or rituals. It doesn’t have to be in a church to be a ritual. Kissing your kids goodnight after a bedtime story is a ritual. The real meat that we can pull from this verse goes back to Isaiah. God’s people drew near to God with their lips but not their hearts. Jesus’ commentary was that they had left the commandment of God to follow the custom of Man.
Calling a custom or a practice a command from God is a big deal. There are definitely things that God really doesn’t want us to do, but if we catch ourselves saying “Christians shouldn’t…,” all of our alarms should go off. A better ruler to use would be “I want to draw nearer to God and serve Him more, so I should…” See how the attitude changes?
Instead of walking in judgment, we begin to walk in love with the Lord when we measure our actions by what will increase our love and devotion to the Lord. One person draws near to God through heavy metal and another by singing songs by Sandi Patty (I’m sure this is true somewhere). When we honor God with our hearts, we don’t teach ’as doctrines the commandments of men.’ Instead, we remove every stumbling block for others to turn their hearts to God. (Acts 15:19 was a whole discussion in the early church about not forcing new believers to follow Jewish laws).
This doesn’t make all traditions evil, but it does give us room to let our hearts be turned good. Look for the deeper meaning in the traditions and customs that point you toward God. Some of them will become more meaningful and spiritual than ever. As we draw near to Jesus from our hearts, from our deepest passion and intentions, the customs that were empty will drop off and be replaced by meaningful things.