Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother. Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Matthew 15:1-9
These words of Jesus carry with them a stinging rebuke: “…In vain they worship Me….”.
Worthless worship? What was it that these scribes and Pharisees were and/or weren’t doing?
The answer to that question is of interest to each of us as New Testament believers – for how we go about worshiping the Lord is something which holds a dear place in our hearts.
We treasure those moments which we spend—as did Martha’s sister Mary—at the feet of our Savior. As brothers and sisters in Christ we look forward to the opportunity to build each other up, as encouraged in the familiar words: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
So again, why did Jesus say that they worshiped Him “in vain”? And the answer is that they were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Let’s consider a bit more carefully just what had happened. Over the years leading up to the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had gone astray in connection with worship. Their relationship with God had become something which centered around who they were – Abraham’s descendants – and what they thought they were doing in keeping the Law of Moses. They wouldn’t look at themselves in the mirror of the law to see their sin. For them the Law of Moses was simply something which they needed to keep and try to live by. And in their quest to keep those laws, they set up hundreds of other laws which in their minds helped to define just what they needed to do.
But now we hear from Jesus that their man-made laws, their “traditions,” became more important that God’s Word itself!
Tradition—Good or Bad?
First we note how these scribes and Pharisees found fault with the disciples because “they transgressed the tradition of the elders.” It wasn’t cleanliness they were after either, but it was toeing the line according to a traditional elder-approved hand-washing ceremony!
Jesus also pointed out the way in which the Pharisees’ man-made traditions were, in fact, setting aside the Word of God. The Fourth Commandment makes clear that we are to “honor our father and mother.” But according to the Pharisees’ “commandments of men,” a person could release himself from financial responsibility to his parents. All that had to be done was declare that any money which could have been used for the parents’ benefit was “a gift to God” – and as a result, it was untouchable for parental care. Thus they had made “the commandment of God of no effect by [their] tradition.”
There are many traditions also today in connection with worship of God. Our worship service liturgies, our special services – even the calendar we follow for the church year — is full of tradition.
Is the lesson to be learned here that all tradition is in and of itself bad and needing to be done away with? Not at all! But when we see what happened regarding the “commandments of men” and man-made traditions among the scribes and Pharisees, we do well to be on guard. All too easily customs and traditions, worthwhile as they may be, can take over the place that belongs to God’s Word itself.
Our prayer is that the Lord would ever keep us from “worthless worship” built upon the “commandments of men” – for our relationship with Him is not based on who we are or what we can do.
Rather, all true worship is alone because of, through, and for the sake of our Lord and Savior. Jesus said on another occasion, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23f).