Pharisees really didn’t like Jesus very much. I suppose that’s an understatement. In reality, they actually seemed to hate him. I don’t know that the Bible literally says that, but it does say they wanted him dead. That, in itself, goes a long way toward hate.
It’s pretty obvious from the Scriptural narratives that they took every opportunity to show him up. For his part, Jesus was pretty good at turning the tables and giving them the kind of grief they deserved. On one occasion, they verbally attacked Jesus saying his disciples didn’t wash their hands prior to eating.
As we were growing up, my Mom and Dad were sticklers for making us wash up before we sat down at the dinner table. I still like to eat with clean hands. It’s just a good, healthy habit to practice. But I don’t think I would get on someone’s case for skipping a handwashing. I certainly wouldn’t jump all over a guy if I thought his friends were guilty of it. Those Pharisees were incorrigible.
“Because it was Jesus”
To be fair, they were living in a much different culture than we do. The Jewish dietary laws required the kind of cleanliness that the Pharisaical types were demanding of Jesus’ disciples. However, because it was Jesus, they were overly strident about it.
Jesus, as usual, was ready for them. He turned things around in a hurry by pointing out their own hypocrisy of picking and choosing what rules and regulations they followed. He capped off his tirade against them by calling the gathering crowd over to him and telling them, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)
The Pharisees’ initial complaint was that Jesus’ disciples were “defiling the tradition.” Handwashing was merely the practice they chose to highlight. It could have been almost anything. They were all about protecting the traditions. It sounds painfully similar to today’s church.
Modern Day Pharisees
Too many of us are so worried about our traditions, rules, and style of doing things, we forget about following Jesus. In that vein, we’ve become modern-day Pharisees. Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that they were guilty of breaking God’s law in order to follow their traditions. They used their traditions as an excuse to avoid doing what the Lord would have them do. They were good at eschewing an attitude of compassion in favor of following any minor rule that proved to be more convenient for them.
We have the same problem today. We have set up little traditions that make us feel good. When we are successful at following our traditions, we feel satisfied. We become so satisfied, in fact, that we ignore the very things we are called to do.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in the social activities of the church that we disregard the Biblical mandates to feed the hungry, look after widows and orphans, and make disciples. Maybe it’s time to begin defiling tradition.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]