In Matthew 15:1–20, we have a great picture of Jesus discerning how cultural conformity has replaced obedience to the Lord. It all starts with a question about washing hands. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat?” (v. 2 ESV).
The Pharisees are asking a very practical question about generally accepted protocol. Everyone does it, why not you guys? It is a question about conforming to culture, and there is an underlying assumption that we should conform.
Jesus shifts the conversation from the practice of washing hands to the deeper issue of placing our trust in traditions. Jesus’s first response is not to address hygiene or even the possibility that this might be a sin issue, but to expose a paradigm that has replaced God’s righteousness with man’s traditions.
He does come back to the issue of washing later on in verses 19–20, so it is not that He ignores their question. But notice that His first response is to correct a paradigm by which they might understand His answer. I wonder if there are times when we too should respond to criticism not by defending our position, but by questioning the paradigm by which the criticism has come.
It is not surprising that this causes offense. The Pharisees (much like us) don’t like anyone messing with tradition. Even the disciples betray their empathy for the Pharisees on this issue as they subtly nudge Jesus saying, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (v. 12).
Here is the challenge of this passage—to do the will of God, we must be able to discern the difference between the traditions of men and obedience to God. We must see the discrepancy between the two and pay more attention to not offending God and less attention to the offense that might be taken by the people in our church.
The phrase “traditions of men” basically means the same as saying “culture.” These are things that people do that form patterns and over time take on an importance of their own. The church will always struggle with discerning the difference between the culture of men and a culture of obedience to God. But as leaders, we have the responsibility to call out the discrepancy and make sure our obedience is to God first, not tradition.
This all starts with a basic understanding that there will always be more than one way of looking at things. There will be the perspective of conformity to culture and traditions, and there will be the perspective of the Kingdom. As leaders we will do well to tune our eyes to see and ears to hear the subtle dissonance that challenges that way of Jesus.
NAB Vice President of Ministry Outreach