How many of you watch lawyer shows on TV? A few years back, I used to love lawyer shows. I couldn’t get enough of things like Law and Order. I wanted to be like those guys. Arguing the full force of the law to make sure, to see to it that justice was upheld. From time to time, I would watch lawyer movies--the kind where all of the residents of a poor mining community have all contracted the same disease because the company was negligent, and the giant wealthy insurance company was refusing to pay, claiming that they all had something like preexisting conditions, or something like that. But you know that in those kinds of stories, the giant wealthy insurance company is the bad guy because they’re using the force of the law in order to keep from doing their part to help the poor mining community. And in all of these movies you get to a point about two thirds of the way through the movie where it looks grim. It looks like it’s an open and shut case for the bad guys. The only thing that keeps you watching is the fact that you know it’s a movie about justice, and that the good guys have to win. And of course they do.
The reason these kind of stories are compelling is that they highlight the fact that the law is designed to uphold justice and to promote good, but that there are people who use the law, in a way, to undo good—to keep justice from being done.
There is another story that illustrates all of this from another angle. Most of you are probably familiar with the story of Les Misérables. In that story the criminal Jean Valjean is changed by an encounter with a kind priest, Monsignor Bienvenu. The story goes that Valjean repents of his sin. His life is completely changed, so that as the story progresses we find that Valjean is an active doer of good—so much so that by popular acclaim, he’s made the mayor of his town. Then, as the story goes, Inspector Javert comes to town. We find out that he had been a guard at the prison where Valjean was held. He was certain that the mayor was still the criminal that he knew previously. And he made it his goal to prove it. Javert keeps on hounding Valjean through the story. At the very end, Javert is personally confronted with the fact that Valjean really has changed, and his world falls apart. Javert was concerned with the law outwardly. But the story seems to point out that there is something behind the law that is very important.
In our reading, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees. They say to Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” The Pharisees were concerned with purity rituals. This is not without foundation in the bible. The whole book of Leviticus is concerned with the holiness of God’s people. They were supposed to distinguish themselves as holy, separated from the common. Separating the clean from the unclean. This washing was one of those traditions that built up around this use of the Law.
But Jesus points out how empty the Pharisees’ charge is here. He says, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus goes on,
“God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
So Jesus is shedding light on the Pharisees’ approach to the Law—their approach to their traditions. They’re doing these things without giving a single thought to the point behind them. The Pharisees are paying very close attention to the traditions of their elders. Perhaps even with intent to follow every command of God. But Jesus shows them that their traditions are empty and even turn the point of God’s law on its head. Jesus can’t get any clearer when exclaims, “You hypocrites!”
The Pharisees have taken the priestly practice of hand washing, interpreted it to represent ceremonial cleanness, and then they’ve applied the command to all of Israel. The other tradition in the text is that public formal religious vows tended to have greater weight in the eyes of the Pharisees and religious leaders than biblical responsibilities like honoring and caring for parents.
They may intend to follow the Law of God, but the actions they hold up as most important are purely outward actions. The new, living, God-oriented heart that the Law demands is nowhere to be found in the Pharisees’ understanding of their tradition.
In the next paragraph of our reading, Jesus explains that whole interaction with the phrase, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” The disciples still don’t understand. They come back to Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” Jesus answers with two points: (1) Every plant that God doesn’t plant will be rooted up, and (2) the Pharisees are blind guides. They’re leading the people to follow all of these outward traditions—these traditions of men—but they’re blind themselves. The Pharisees know the law, but they don’t know the law. They don’t know what it’s getting at. They don’t know the heart behind it.
Apparently the disciples don’t either. They say, “Explain the parable to us.” Jesus then explains, that if you eat without washing your hands, you might get a little dust in your stomach, but it will come back out again. But he says what really defiles a person is having a heart that hates, so that it breaks the command against murder. What defiles a person is having a heart that is always looking around so that it breaks the commands against adultery and sexual immorality. A heart that is envious of others, thieving, lying, slandering—all of these things come from the heart and they are what defile a person.
Jesus condemns his contemporaries by quoting Isaiah. Having this kind of heart—a heart that worships outwardly, but that is defiled on the inside—was not a new problem in Jesus’s day. It’s a problem that goes back to Isaiah, even back to Adam. And it’s not a problem that went away, either. We are tempted in all of the same ways. Especially us. We Evangelicals are very zealous about the Word of God. We need to be careful because we can be so zealous about good doctrine—which is so important, we must keep at it!—we can be so zealous, though, that we miss the fact that the word calls us to repent. It calls us to live a life that is constantly oriented toward the cross, and powered by the Spirit. It calls us to make sure that we have new hearts.
Matthew makes it his point to show us who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of Israel, the Davidic King, the blessing that was promised to Abraham. Jesus is our savior. And through Jesus, this new world is dawning in which the people of God are going to be characterized by this new kind of heart, this God-oriented, neighbor-loving kind of heart.
Let us realize that the Law of God is important. It’s important because it points us to Jesus. He is the one who gives us new hearts by the will of the father and by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is the guide who isn’t blind. He takes the Law and interprets it for us so that it isn’t outward anymore, it’s a reality that characterizes the desire of our hearts. So trust Jesus. He died for you because you haven’t kept the law, and then he gives you a new heart that is God-oriented and neighbor-loving.
Date: 7 November 2011
Text: Matthew 15:1-20
Title: Laws, Traditions, and New Hearts
Location: Broadus Chapel, SBTS
Event: Foundations of Worship Class