Matthew having related several remarkable works of Jesus, now returns to some of His critical teaching which would overthrow the false glosses and doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees, and establish the foundation of His church.  This instruction was occasioned by the spurious criticisms of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, who apparently had come to observe this new rabbi Who had created such a stir.  They had established a tradition of washing the hands before eating, a tradition to which they insisted others submit.  Washing before eating is a good thing to do for sanitary reasons, but to make it a religious ritual is adding men’s opinions to the Word of God, which Jesus will shortly show. 

Some Jewish writers have been quoted as arguing that the words of their wise men were of more weight than the words of the law.  One of the great heroes of their tradition was a Jew who was imprisoned and languishing for thirst, who, when a little water was provided, used it to wash his hands instead of drinking.  The great tragedy of Jewish religion at the time of Christ was that they placed more emphasis on man-created traditions than they did on the holy Scriptures.

This is always the case when something besides Scripture is accepted as a religious authority.  Charismatics and Pentecostals, along with many in other denominations with the same mindset, place much more emphasis on personal revelation than they do on the pure doctrine of the Word of God.  The Roman and Greek faiths elevate their church tradition to an equality with the Scriptures.  Yet, in reality, it is not an equality, but a superiority.  Just as many people will follow what they think is a personal revelation, even when it is directly contrary to the revealed commands of God in holy Writ, so these churches which rely on tradition, when those traditions clash with the plain teachings of Scripture, will inevitably go with tradition.  In this, they are the imitators of the scribes and Pharisees, who had invented their own traditions, and used them as an excuse for their disobedience to the laws of God.  God preserve us from being the inheritors of the spirit of these religious lost men!

The scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem had leveled an accusation against Jesus’ disciples of transgressing the tradition of the elders.  But the Lord had a much more serious charge against them: namely, that they transgressed the commandments of God by their very traditions.  This is why elevating human tradition to an equality with Scripture is so very dangerous.  Many traditions may be harmless; but ultimately, if we make tradition a ruling authority, there will come a time when it will conflict with the express commands of God in Scripture.  Unquestionably, this is why God forbids us to bind men’s religious consciences by the ideas and schemes that we dredge up out of our own imaginations.  “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).

The transgression of the scribes and Pharisees consisted in a blatant violation of the 5th commandment.  That law commands children to honor their parents.  This is emphasized and expanded upon in later laws, and also in the principles of the Proverbs.  Christ quotes not only the commandment itself, but also approvingly notes the Mosaic sanction that any child who cursed his father or mother should suffer capital punishment.  This is how seriously God takes the breach of the 5th commandment, whether we speak of the Old or New Testament eras.

But the scribes and Pharisees had invented a clever way in which this law could be circumvented, to the financial advantage of the son or daughter.  Honoring one’s parents necessarily involves caring for them when the infirmities of old age prevents them from tending to their own needs.  But the religious intelligentsia had invented a legalistic method by which this could be avoided.  If a wicked child did not want to spend his money providing food or shelter for his infirm parents, he could pronounce that money devoted to God.  By tradition of the elders, that person was free, even if his parents were left out in the cold and rain.  That, according to the scribes and Pharisees, was perfectly acceptable.  But heaven forbid a man sit down to eat without first washing his hands!

The Lord Jesus sternly corrects this error, and denounces the inventors of it as hypocrites, who cared more for their own silly and misguided traditions than for the Word of God.  He applies to them the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13, a word which well fitted the rebels both in the days of the prophet and in the days of the Messiah.  Sad to say, there has always been a generation of hypocrites who are well described by these words.  They honored God with their tongues, but their hearts had no love for His word.  The love of God is to love and obey His commandments, and they would do this only when it suited them, and when it did not conflict with the traditions they and their forebears had invented.  Their worship was vain, worthless, it was offensive to God, because their doctrines were the inventions of men, rather than the precepts of the Word of God.  Let these words of Christ stand as an eternal warning against those who would think to add their traditions and inventions to the laws of God set forth in the sacred Scriptures.

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