Herod Antipas is not the only Palestinian whose curiosity is piqued when he hears of Christ’s ministry (Matt. 14:1–2). Some of the religious authorities in Jerusalem also want to investigate the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Pharisees and scribes from the capital city confront our Lord in today’s passage (15:1). These men are likely official representatives of the Pharisaic and scribal movements, both of which the common folk hold in high esteem.
Our Savior has encountered little but antagonism from the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee (12:1–14, 22–32), and the Jerusalem scholars treat Him no differently. They criticize Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands according to the oral laws (15:2). As we have seen, the scribes and Pharisees carefully observed a fence many of their forefathers had built around the Mosaic law (Torah). This fence was made up of oral traditions that, if kept, ensured that the letter of the Law would not be broken. For example, consider the separation of meat and dairy still observed by Orthodox Jews today. This practice is based ultimately on an oral tradition designed to guarantee compliance with Deuteronomy 14:21. If meat and dairy are never consumed together, there is no way a young animal could ever be cooked in its mother’s milk.
Hand-washing was intended to protect the dietary laws (Lev. 11); eating without washed hands was not evil in itself. The problem was that such traditions were put above the weightier matters of the Law (Matt. 23:23). It is no surprise, then, that Jesus correctly condemns the scribes and Pharisees for insisting upon the observance of oral traditions (Matt. 15:3–9). They have been content to keep their money and property for themselves according to an oral law that allows them to will these things to the Creator after their death even if an impoverished parent needs support before then. Yet in exalting this tradition, these scholars actually violate Exodus 20:12, which orders them to honor their fathers and mothers. They hypocritically accuse Jesus’ disciples of sin for not obeying a tradition with no divine authorization while they themselves break the very Word of God for the sake of their man-made commandments.
The concern with outward acts and not the intent of God’s law manifested these particular Pharisees’ blindness to the ultimate source of impurity. Jesus therefore reminded them that the heart is the true source of corruption, not the hands, a truth to which the Torah points (Matt. 15:10–20). We manifest a legalistic heart every time we are critical of others for not observing that which we love even though they are indifferent matters as far as the Bible is concerned.
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