The Pharisees turned God into a checklist of traditions people could accomplish, making their faith superficial and their hearts far from God. The Pharisees were the elite religious leaders during the time of Jesus and they looked down their long noses at Jesus and his disciples. Verse 1 says they had “come from Jerusalem,” indicating to us right away that they were coming from a place of authority and tradition. The Pharisees, “saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (2). The disciples didn’t do the proper ceremonial washing like they were supposed to do, they didn’t follow the rituals of the Pharisees, but just dug in!
We are also told the Pharisees never ate without washing; in fact, it says they washed not just their hands, but also their cups, pots, copper vessels, and dining couches (4). That’s quite a list! So they asked Jesus about his renegade group of followers, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (5). They were trying to catch Jesus and his followers doing something wrong, so they could accuse and condemn them.
I’ve got a big secret to share about overly religious people like the Pharisees, wanna hear it? We look at all their hundreds of traditions and rituals and think, ‘Wow! They must really be serious about their faith! I could never keep all those commandments!’ We tend to think the more rules and regulations there are, the harder the religion is. (Let me put on all caps for a moment.) BUT THAT IS COMPLETELY FALSE! That’s where they are tricking you. They are not serious about their faith, but they are serious about looking good in front of others. They want you to think more highly of them; they want you to think they are super-spiritual; they want you to believe their way is the hardest and most godly one, but it’s not! Allow me to explain…
Have you ever had a huge project to do? Have you ever had an enormous goal to reach? As you sat there overwhelmed by it all, what did people encourage you to do? Take it one step at a time, right? All the experts agree on this: if you have a huge task, break it down into small, accomplishable chunks. Take one baby step. Then take another. After 15,000 small steps, you’ll eventually arrive.
The way to accomplish big goals is to break them down into small pieces.
This is exactly what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’s day. They knew God had told them to “Be holy” (Leviticus 19:2). But how could anyone reach this enormous goal? So the Pharisees got an idea: they would break it down into small, manageable steps. Wash your hands. That’s easy enough to do. Wash your cups. Again, any idiot can do that. Clean your couch. Done, I’ll even clean my pillows. Scrub your copper vessel. My what?? Nevermind.
Do you see how it worked? In order to accomplish the huge goal of “be holy,” the religious leaders broke it down into small steps that anyone could do. But let me ask you, if your life depended on it (and it does!), which commandment would you rather have to do today: ‘be holy’ or ‘wash your hands before dinner.’ Do you see the difference? The first is impossible, but the second is doable. Here’s the principle: the Pharisees made the commandments easier, not harder. They made the law doable, at least, according to them.
And by refusing to wash their hands before dinner, the disciples were protesting against the artificial religious traditions of the Pharisees.
Jesus called them out on another commandment they were trying to make “more doable” with their religious traditions, which was the fifth commandment, “honor your father and mother” (10). Since that true commandment from God seemed impossible to accomplish, once again, the Pharisees broke it down into manageable steps. So they created a new tradition called “Corban” (11). According to Corban, you simply had to give a few bucks to the religious leaders. Easy enough, right? You didn’t have to take care of your parents when they got old, honor them when you were a child, respect their wishes when you were a young adult, and so forth. According to the Pharisees, you only had to hand over some dough to the religious leaders (not your parents, notice, but to the religious leaders!).
Jesus denounces their tradition of Corban, letting the Pharisees know it actually did the opposite of honoring your parents (12). Then he added, “Thus making void the word of God by your traditions that you have handed down” (13).
But the center of Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees is found in verses 6-7, “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.” Jesus called them hypocrites, for they pretended like they were religious, but they were actually doing more harm than good. Do you know any religious people like this? I do, and just to be honest, there are times when I act like the Pharisees, too.
What can we learn from this? First, understand the difference between human religious traditions and God’s Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-17). The Ten Commandments are from God and we are meant to keep them; the religious traditions are from humans and they are an attempt to make the Ten Commandments doable, easier.
Second, however, no matter how hard we try, nobody can keep the Ten Commandments. Nobody, except for Jesus, can keep God’s law. God’s law condemns us all, which is what it’s supposed to do. We are not supposed to keep God’s law, but it is supposed to keep us in line. God’s law shows us how sinful we are, so we do not rely on ourselves, but on Christ, to save us. The Pharisees want us to think we can keep the law, so we rely on them and on ourselves.
Third, we must put our faith in Jesus, not in ourselves and our efforts to keep the law (or any other religious tradition). When others point their accusing fingers at us and say, ‘You’re not clean enough’ or ‘You’re not good enough,’ we don’t then have to try to get clean or get good; rather, we have to trust Jesus to save us. He makes us clean. The real question is not ‘Am I clean enough,’ but ‘Where is my heart?’
We all give God quite a bit of lip service. We also give the world quite a bit of lip service, too. We pretend to be more than we really are. But Jesus doesn’t care what you can accomplish, he only cares about your heart. He doesn’t care if you’re clean, but if you’re truthful and sincere.
The law will condemn you, but Jesus won’t. He wants your heart, not your good works, so can you give your heart to him? He traded his perfect life for your imperfect life by dying on the cross in your place.
He loves you just as you are, dirty hands and all.
- What are some religious traditions we get caught up with today?
- What is the purpose of the law? It’s very important to know the answer.
- In what areas of your life are you giving God lip service? How can you give him your heart?