Introduction. Read Matthew15 1-20 and Mark 7 1-23

There were broadly three kinds of law important to orthodox Jews:

  • Ethical laws. These consisted of laws about our relationship with God and one another. There is a summary of these laws in the Ten Commandments and even more so in Mark12v28to32. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment he replied: "The most important one is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself."

  • Ceremonial laws. These were to do with bodily purity, diet and the sacrifices in the Temple.

  • The tradition of the elders. These consisted of interpretations, elaborations, extensions and adaptations made by eminent theological scholars through the centuries. As the year passed they became as important as the ethical and cerimonial law itself.

A group of experts - scholars of the Pharisee persuasion - came from Jerusalem to assess Jesus. William Barclay observes: On this occasion it need not be thought that their questions are malicious. The Jerusalem experts soon observe that Jesus' disciples do not cleanse their hands before a meal in the traditional way. This leads to a full scale confrontation between Jesus and the critical Pharisees over all aspects of the Law.

Most of the commentaries and internet sermons I looked at to prepare for this exposition spent much time dealing with the issues as they applied in the time of Jesus. They failed to apply Christ's teaching to the present day. This is a pity because the teaching of Jesus on the Law remains relevant today. I shall try and show its relevance. Sermons need to be more than interesting; they need to change attitudes and influence behaviour.

The passage identifies five approaches to the Law:

(1) Endorsement.

Jesus confirms the abiding relevance of the ethical law as summarised in the Ten Commandments. He does so with reference to honouring parents. Jesus clearly believes this may involve providing financial assistance.

Today, many people, and that includes some Christians, think that it is the State's responsibility to care for the elderly. It isn't! It remains the children's responsibility.

(2) Extension.

For centuries experts in both the ceremonial and ethical law had interpreted, elaborated, extended and adapted it. For example, the fourth commandment states that no work should be done on the Sabbath. This led to innumerable definitions of what was and what was not, work. On one occasion the Pharisees condemned Jesus' disciples for rubbing grain out of ears of wheat with their hands on the Sabbath. In their view the disciples were guilty of harvesting, threshing and winnowing on the Sabbath.

In the Old Testament there are all sorts of regulations about what makes you unclean and then clean again after being unclean. If you were unclean you could not participate in temple worship. You were precluded from eating that part of the sacrificial animal reserved for the person or persons making the offering.

Now there were all sorts of ways of becoming ceremonial unclean from giving birth to a son to coming into contact with mildew. The way to become clean again also varied a lot. A woman who gave birth to a son was unclean for 7 days and the person touching mildew only unclean till the end of the day.

To take another example: If you touched a dead rat you will only remain unclean till evening; if a dead rat is found in a wooden bowl the bowl must be put in water until evening when it becomes clean again; if, on the other hand, a dead rat is found in a clay pot the pot must be smashed.

Now it seems likely that over the years the Old Testament scholars decided to simplify matters. Mark summarises the situation in the time of Jesus: The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the market place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. Mk7v3and4.

In Old Testament times the priests had to wash their hands and feet every time they entered the Tent of Meeting and later the Temple. The laver contained the water for this purpose. See Ex30v17to21. It seems that the Jewish scholars took this rule and applied it to everyone who sat down to a meal to guard against impurity. All the vessels used in preparing the meal could also be ritually cleansed in water.

This change seems very sensible. Unfortunately, the Jewish scholars could not leave well alone! They made the hand washing very elaborate - much more elaborate than that practiced by the priests in the Tent of Meeting. The hands were washed by letting water run from finger tips to the wrist and then from the wrist to finger tips. The hands were dried by rubbing them together. The ultra orthodox would go through this procedure both at the beginning of a meal and between courses.

There are dangers in becoming an expert in the Law - interpreting, modifying, extending and complicating it. It can make a man:

  • Presumptuous. The Pharisees were changing God's Law. If He gave it, then surely only He had the authority to change it. They even outdid God by making all sorts of regulations about the Sabbath. The Pharisees made it harder than God intended to keep the Sabbath.

  • Proud. This is a danger for any expert. If a person is recognised as an authority on any subject it is easy for them to have an inflated sense of their own importance. This was true of even the best of the Pharisees. A man like Nicodemus thought he had the right to pass judgment on Jesus.

  • Prejudiced. Scholars who hold fast to a certain opinion about the nature of Scripture, for example, may shut their ears to other views.

    Jesus was very contemptuous of the Pharisees. He calls them blind guides and observes that if a blind man leads another blind man - it is likely both will fall into a pit. The fact of the matter was that God's Law did not instruct people to cleanse their hands in a certain way before every meal.

    Philip Yancey in his book, 'What's so amazing about Grace?' lists some of the things proscribed by the Southern Baptist churches of his youth: wearing makeup and jewelry, reading the Sunday paper, playing or watching sports on Sunday, mixed bathing, short skirts for girls, long hair for boys and attending the cinema.

    I am afraid their are other areas of church life where Christians go further than God intends. I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God. However, because God inspired men to write it, I cannot assert, as many Grace Baptists do, that it is inerrant. The four gospel writers all record in Greek the statement Pilate wrote in Greek to be attached to the cross of Christ. They ALL record - in the Greek - something slightly different. We cannot tell the exact words that Pilate ordered to be written from the gospel accounts, because they do not agree! They are NOT inerrant!

    Roman Catholics can only celebrate the Lord's Supper if a priest is present. This is certainly not what the New Testament teaches. There were no priests in the early church. What is even worse, Roman Catholics believe the wine, representing Christ's blood, is so sacred only the priest can drink of it. Yet, at the first supper, Jesus offered the communal cup to his disciples and said: "Drink from it ALL of you."

    We do not do Jesus any favours by adding to what he taught - even if it is out of respect for him.

    (3) Evasion.

    Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition." Mt15v3. He said this because scholars of the Pharisee persuasion had devised a way of wriggling out of complying with an inconvenient commandment in a way that seemed highly principled. It is significant that this evasion had to do with keeping hold of your money. The Pharisees loved money!

    A person could avoid supporting their parents financially by declaring their wealth was promised to God (Corban). So, because a person's wealth would go to the Temple on their death, no part of it could be given to support aged parents. In the meantime a person retained possession of their wealth and enjoyed it at the expense of their parents.

    Jesus saw through this arrangement and roundly condems it. He accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy. Jesus said to them: "Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition."

    Today Christians ignore New Testament teaching by:

    • Failing to care for their parents. The argument is: we pay our taxes; it is the state's responsibility to look after the old and infirm.

    • Leaving a struggling church and going to worship in one that is livelier and better supported. People who do this put their own interests before those who attend the small church. Where is the love in that? Paul writes to the Corinthians: "Everything is permissible" - but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" - but not everything is constructive. 1Cor10v23and24.

    • Not meeting together for prayer. I have heard Christians argue that it is best to pray privately. They quote Jesus who advised people to retire to their bedrooms, close the windows and pray in secret. He said this because the Pharisees were parading their religious zeal and good behaviour by praying aloud in the streets. All I can say is that I have benefitted greatly from praying with others. It has been a means of grace. The early church met together for prayer especially in times of danger. See Acts4v23to31.

    • Spending too much on themselves and not enough on the Lord's work.

    (4) Endowment.

    We need to ask why all the rules on impurity, and the rules on what is clean and unclean meat, were given in the first place. Some of the laws regarding infection and mildew may have benefitted public health. But this is not true of all the regulations found in God's Law. For example, it is very difficult to understand why it was wrong to wear clothes of wool and linen woven together or necessary to attach tassels to the four corners of a cloak. See Dt22v11and12.

    It seems likely that the laws to do with circumcision, the many sacrifices, tithing, idolatry, diet, slavery and impurity were to endow distinctiveness. They made the Jews different from the surrounding peoples who worshipped idols and lived depraved lives.

    To a certain extent this remains true today. Jewish males are circumcised, the Sabbath is observed and only kosher food is eaten.

    This shows that adherents of different religions are very loath to abandon what endows distinctiveness. Peter found it difficult to abandon the old dietary customs of his people notwithstanding Jesus declared all foods, "clean". Mk7v19. When, in the early days of the church, Peter had a vision in which he was told to kill and eat all kinds of creature, he refused saying, "Surely not Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." Acts10v9to23.

    Christians, too, can rely on externals to make them different. This might be true, for instance, on how they spend Sunday. There are things I do not do on a Sunday: take a newspaper, do my weekly shop or watch my club play cricket. There are things I always do on a Sunday: attend church morning and evening, wear a suit and tie.

    We are loath to abandon our distinguishing features. This is true of Christian denominations. It is very hard to get the leaders of denominations to change their distinctive characteristics. Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Brethren, Anglicans ...... may well be proud of what makes them differentt.

    This is certainly true of the United States Amish. They are descendants of 16th century Swiss Anabaptists who immigrated to the United States to escape persecution. They have clung on to an old way of life that makes them highly distinctive. Clothing is plain and dark. Women's skirts are long. Men are inclined towards suspenders and straw hats in summer. Mature males sport beards but not moustaches. Horse drawn buggies are preferred to cars. Many Amish do not use electricity - so no TVs, computers or radios. Farming is not mechanised. Amish worship includes singing hymns in German to no musical accompaniment. Now, none of these things that the Amish consider so important are necessary for salvation. Nowhere in the New Testament are they listed as requirements of the Christian life.

    Nearer to home there are ultra-reformed Baptist churches that have a distinctive if unattractive style of worship. The Authorised Version of the Bible is central to worship; the larger it is the better; there are frequent references to the Sabbath instead of Sunday; God can only be referred to in prayer by 'Thees and Thous'; women wear hats and men sober suits; sermons are long and delivered in a characteristic monotone, women know their place.

    The tragedy is, some Christians put more store on the trappings of their brand of Christianity than they do on the clear teaching of the New Testament. A steadfast belief in Jesus should united us all.

    (5) Emendation.

    First we must note that the Jewish scholars and teachers had emended God's Law through the centuries. They added to the Law and the additions carried the same weight as the original. Really, they had no authority to change God's Law. He gave it and only He could emend it.

    Jesus asserts his authority when he chooses a law observed by, and important to, all Jews. It was the law about clean and unclean meat. Jesus taught that people are polluted by the state of their hearts; by their inner man; by their desires, priorities, principles, convictions and thoughts. It is the latter that give rise to foul, filthy and rancid behaviour. Hatred gives rise to murder; lust to sexual immorality; covetousness to theft; jealousy to slander.

    This teaching scandalised the Pharisees. I think it also made the disciples profoundly uneasy. The truth didn't set the disciples free from their traditions. Peter was not convinced by what Jesus taught on diet. He needed a vision and the voice of God to finally change his outlook. I think the disciples took on board what Jesus taught about the inner man being the source of evil without concluding that the dietary regulations were entirely unnecessary. How could they be - they were part and parcel of being Jewish! Mark's aside: In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean." (Mk7v19) owes something to being wise after the event.


    If Jesus made a surprise visit to our twenty-first century world he would express his great disappointment that the church is so disunited over non-essentials. There remain many Pharisees active in religious circles. They are an offence to Christ.