Modern Golden Calves: Our Traditions

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in…

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath. You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?…

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others…

– excerpts from Matthew 23

The Pharisees are the embodiment of hypocrisy in the New Testament. They are the embodiment of “do as I say and not as I do.” It is easy to tear them down for their theatrical demonstrations of faith and their political machinations, but there is one flaw upon which we seldom focus. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day are the archetypical traditionalists – set in their ways and immovable from them. To violate the tradition of the Pharisees was as grievous a sin as violating the Levitical Code.

Take the example of Matthew 12:1-14 where the Pharisees try to prove Jesus and His disciples violate the Sabbath because they have the audacity to glean for food (as given in Leviticus 23:22) and because Jesus dares to heal on the Sabbath. They so want to avoid violating the spirit of the Sabbath that they go out of their way to define exactly what constitutes work and what actions would violate the Sabbath rest. In a sense, they build a hedge around the law.

We do the same thing today. We want preachers to define for us “how short is too short” in regards to modesty. We want preachers to tell us how to dress for worship. We want them to tell us how much we should be giving, what movies  and television programs to avoid, what music to condemn, etc. As the Pharisees do not trust the judgment of the people to adhere to God’s law, we do not trust ourselves. We want those we trust with spiritual leadership to build a hedge around the Bible.

Furthermore, we have traditions in worship (many of which are derived from Catholic practices). I’ve seen few discussions more heated than those centered around auditorium seating, times of worship, number of services on Sunday, the order of worship – details that, by and large, are not covered in the New Testament texts. Our traditions give us comfort and security, but they do not define what it is to be scriptural.

The problem comes with binding these traditions upon others. As Paul illustrates in Romans 14, people are going to have different cultures, different opinions, different values, different perspectives. Yet we are quick to judge based on appearances. We want to convert others to God’s word as well as to our own traditional values and beliefs. We are quick to label a congregations a liberal or unsound when we see their worship structure differs from that to which we are accustomed.

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

– Mark 7:3-7

Those Pharisees of the New Testament are portrayed as trusting in their own teachings as much as God. Their traditions unintentionally supplant God’s word in their hearts, and they consequently make an idol of those traditions. We we hold up our ways, our traditions, our personal values as being as binding as the teachings of Christ and His apostles, we are guilty of the same. Whether they are the teachings of Homer Hailey, Max Lucado, C. S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, our local preacher, or “the way we’ve always done it,” the traditions of man still come from man – unbinding and uninspired by the Spirit.

We cannot let our traditions become a golden calf in our hearts and our congregations. Our hope is in nothing more than Jesus and His word; not the times of worship, not the length of a pair of shorts, not the media we consume, not the arrangements of seats or pews in an auditorium. These are distractions that supplant God in our lives. We do not need a hedge around God’s law. His word is all we need (II Peter 1:3).

Pharisees and Tradition

And he said unto them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.'”

And he said unto them, “Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).

This is one of Jesus’ well-known interactions with the Pharisees. It seems, in fact, to be one of the most defining moments for each.

The Pharisees do not come because they want to learn from Jesus – they want to trap Him and find something with which to condemn Him before the people. They think that they have found what they need – His disciples, with His approval, do not eat with washed hands (cf. Mark 7:1-5). This violated the traditions of the elders!

The tradition, most likely, began innocently enough. The Jews were familiar with the book of Leviticus and the various regulations regarding cleanliness. Ritual defilement could occur from contact with anyone from a woman in her menstrual cycle to an unclean animal or a dead body. With so many potential contagions around it was best to always thoroughly wash before every meal so that any defilements would be washed away before eating.

But then the good idea became a mandate, and if you did not wash, accusations would fly. Jesus would have none of this. The issue was not really the washing of hands before eating – that was the surface matter. The real problems involved the attitudes of the Pharisees and the emphasis on the physical in terms of defilement. Jesus would go on to show that what people really need to worry about are the things that come out of a man– evil and sinful thoughts turned into attitudes and actions (cf. Mark 7:14-23). Foods and their influences are passed out of the system – not so with sin!

But Jesus’ real concern is with the enshrining of tradition. Traditions, however innocently they may begin, take on lives of their own, and begin to re-direct the mind away from what God deems important to what men deem important. How else can the Pharisees be explained? How else can a group of people become so misdirected and misguided as to believe that God would not have children provide for their parents (cf. Mark 7:10-13), or that God would find it sinful to heal on the Sabbath (cf. Mark 3:3-6, John 9:15-16)? That can only be when their minds have been so thoroughly turned away from God because of what they deem important!

It is fashionable to demonize and condemn the Pharisees, and this tendency is understandable. Nevertheless, it is good for us to consider the Pharisee in all of us.  It should be established that Pharisaism is not limited to a particular part of an ideological spectrum. Exclusive focus on smaller commands to the neglect of greater commands is no more or less justified than exclusive focus on greater commands to the neglect of smaller ones (Matthew 23:23). he inner Pharisee may try to bind where God has not bound; he may just as easily loose where God has not loosed. Sadly, those who condemn the Pharisee in others are often blind to the Pharisee in themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5).

We would do well to stop for a moment and consider what the Pharisees are thinking. The Pharisees are trying to follow the Law exactly. They come up to times when there may be commandments at variance with each other – to do good for people versus keeping the Sabbath, dedicating things to God versus taking care of parents. God did make the commands regarding cleanliness and avoiding ritual defilement.

But the Pharisees did go terribly wrong. They focused on the externals to the neglect of the internal. They chose easily measurable rules over love and compassion. They missed the fact that God desired them to do all things well with the right attitude in mind, not one to the exclusion of the other, as is manifest in the life of Jesus Christ!

There are times when we come up against some of the same challenges, and we would do well to remember what Jesus told the Pharisees. Binding traditions and rules hinders us from finding God’s guidelines according to God’s attitude. And when we see the Pharisee in others, we should first make sure that we have expelled the Pharisee in ourselves. Let us not bind tradition, whether adding to or taking away from God’s Word, and seek to do God’s will and reflecting His truth!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Man and the Sabbath

And [Jesus] said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees and other religious authorities involved the Sabbath. In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to sanctify the seventh day as a day of rest – the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). Israelites, their servants, their animals, and sojourners in their midst were to do no labor on that day.

For many years the people profaned the Sabbath and considered it to be just another day of the week (cf. Nehemiah 13:15-22, Amos 8:5). For the most part after the exile, however, the Jews religiously observed the Sabbath day. They would go no more than three-quarters of a mile to go to a synagogue to read from the Law and pray (any further than three-quarters of a mile would be considered work).

It would not take long before all kinds of traditions grew up around the Sabbath. The intentions of the traditions were good: they would be a hedge around the Sabbath to completely make sure that no one violated it. One could not do anything that remotely looked like it involved labor or effort. Even spitting on the ground was forbidden – the spittle would likely disturb the earth, thus plowing it, thus representing an expenditure of effort!

As is evident, the traditions, despite the intentions behind them, became utterly burdensome. One could easily live in fear on the Sabbath day, worried that in some way, somehow, he has violated the Sabbath. By building up that hedge around the Sabbath, the religious authorities drained the life out of the command!

Jesus did not come to break the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17). Therefore, Jesus does not intend to break the Sabbath, and as far as we can tell from what has been revealed, He never really breaks the Sabbath. He does, however, break the traditions of the Pharisees and other religious authorities regarding the Sabbath, and for that He was condemned by them as a sinner (cf. John 9:16). In the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious authorities, Jesus did not keep the Sabbath– He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), and He even allowed His disciples to pluck heads of grain and to eat them on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-26)!

The latter example was quite difficult for the Pharisees: after all, plucking grain heads and crushing them with your hand to get the grain out is certainly work. In response, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of how David and his men are the bread of the Presence even though they were not priests (Mark 2:25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-7). In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that necessity can, in times of distress, lead to a little “wiggle room” in the Law. That “wiggle room” is not there on account of a disobedient or rebellious spirit but on the basis of what Jesus indicates in verse 27: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Son of Man, that is, Jesus, is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The disciples, therefore, are not doing wrong. The Pharisees and their traditions may be offended, but God is not!

This circumstance is quite instructive for us as believers in God today. The parallel to the Jewish Sabbath in the new covenant would be the assemblies of the saints (although it must be stressed that the assemblies of Christians are never explicitly identified with the Sabbath and that the Bible gives us no impression that Sunday is the new Sabbath). As God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, so God commands Christians to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25). God has specified the types of activities that take place in those assemblies: the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a collection for the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8-9), praying (1 Corinthians 14:14-17), singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), Bible study (Acts 2:42), and preaching (Acts 20:7, 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

These things are well and good, but it is also very easy for traditions to be created around these commands. If man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, then man was not made for the assembly, but the assembly for man. The assembly is designed to lead to the encouragement and edification of the believers (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:24). Yes, this encouragement and edification must be accomplished according to what is written in the Scriptures (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), but it also means that we must take care so that we do not drain the life out of the assembly like the Pharisees and religious authorities drained the life out of the Sabbath. God established these things for men for their benefit!

The line between truth and tradition is easily blurred. We must never defend tradition as if it is truth. We must never be as casual with truth as we can be with tradition. In the end, we must keep a proper perspective on these matters. Let us assemble with fellow believers to encourage and edify them, and not allow traditions regarding those assemblies to drain the life out of them!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weightier Matters

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Human beings have a tendency to maintain a narrow focus on various matters in life. It is easy for people to allow a select few criteria be their guide in the world: they decide to see everything through a certain set of lenses.

The Pharisees and scribes were not much different. The New Testament reveals that they were quite focused on preserving the Law of Moses and the traditions developed around that Law down to the last detail. Their hyper-vigilance about the Law led them to overemphasize the more “minor” actions while neglecting the more “significant” ones. By focusing on the “minor” actions and accomplishing them perfectly, they felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that led to a false sense of security and satisfaction, as if being vigilant in doing nothing on the Sabbath, washing of hands, and tithing down to the level of spices would be sufficient to obtain God’s commendation!

Jesus condemns this myopia. Even if they are more quantifiable and “objective,” performing these minor acts of obedience are not sufficient to obtain God’s commendation. Believers must not neglect the “weightier” matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.

The scribes and Pharisees were certainly guilty of that. The Pharisees especially considered themselves morally superior to their fellow men, as the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12 and the attitudes of the Pharisees in John 9 make evident. They deemed themselves “righteous” and everyone else to be “sinners,” despite the fact that they had sinned also and were certainly not maintaining God’s sense of faith, justice, or mercy. Their condemnation was just.

Nevertheless, this passage also exposes a major fault line within the thought of many religious people. Many take the idea of the “weightier matters of the law” and run with it, coming to the conclusion that since we are under “grace,” we need to get the “big things” right, and can allow the “little things” to slide. Others protest the very idea of “weightier matters,” stressing the need to do all things as God has charged us.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere more in the middle. Jesus tells us that there are some matters that are “weightier” than others. This means that some attitudes/actions have more significance than others. In the examples given, this is rather evident: justice, faith, and mercy are of greater significance than tithing spices. “Tithing spices” is of benefit to God and His Temple, while accomplishing justice, mercy, and faith is of benefit to God, His Temple, and all men. Furthermore, faith, justice, and mercy deal with every aspect of a person: his mind, his attitude, and his actions. One cannot easily have faith or show justice and mercy while internally despising God or his fellow man. While tithing should flow from a heart full of faith, one could tithe without the proper attitudes.

Therefore, there are some matters of greater significance than others. But that does not mean that we can just let matters of less significance slide and be pleasing to God. Notice that Jesus does not condemn the scribes or Pharisees for tithing the spices – in fact, He says that they should have done so! The problem was not that the scribes and Pharisees were tithing spices – the problem was that they were tithing spices while neglecting faith, justice, and mercy. It would be a gross perversion of this text to insinuate that if they had engaged in the “weightier matters” of the Law but had not tithed the spices that Jesus would have justified them. There is no basis for such a claim!

This should not be an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and” one. The scribes and Pharisees should have accomplished both the “weightier matters of the law” and the tithing of spices. If we are serving God as we ought to serve Him, the latter flows from the former: because we are dedicated to love, humility, faith, and service, the “weightier matters” of the new covenant (cf. Romans 1:16-17, Romans 6:16-21, Romans 13:8-11, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:1-11, Hebrews 11:1, 6, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 Peter 5:6-7), we will make sure to accomplish God’s will both in simple, quantifiable, and objective matters along with more substantive and difficult matters. We will assemble to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25), give as we have prospered, both to the church and to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10, 6:10), and other such things, while also loving our neighbor as ourselves and seeking his welfare (Romans 13:8-10, Philippians 2:1-4), and offering ourselves to God’s purposes as living and holy sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and the like.

Jesus’ message to the scribes and Pharisees represents a necessary warning against spiritual myopia, focusing on accomplishing certain elements of God’s purpose to the neglect of others. We cannot be justified in taking care of matters of detail and less significance while neglecting the weightier matters of God’s purposes; likewise, we cannot be justified in thinking that if we accomplish the weightier matters of God’s will that we can slide on the matters of less significance. If God has commanded it, there is value in accomplishing it! Let us seek to accomplish the whole will of God, and not neglect any aspect of it!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Where Did the Pharisees Go Wrong?

Twice, in Matthew 9 & 12, Jesus specifically instructs the scribes and Pharisees to understand what it means to understand God’s desire for mercy over sacrifice. In this lesson, we are going to look at the Pharisees and see where we can identify ourselves with them – both good points and trouble areas.

In Matthew 9:9-13, Matthew quotes Hosea in telling the Pharisees to seek mercy more than their acts in context of them criticizing His eating with sinners. Again, in Matthew 12:1-7, Jesus references this passages, reproving the Pharisees for not learning what they should have.

What Happened to the Pharisees?

We think of Pharisee as a hypocrite, but this was not the intention. The roots go back to the second century BC, resisting the Hellenizing of Judaism. They were “the pious ones.” They wished to restore the old ways, and they resisted modernization of Jehovah-worship.

They deplored hypocrisy and pride and emphasized love and humility. They emphasized bringing all areas of life into subjection of God’s law, and they respected God’s word entirely. These individuals were sincere and well intentioned. Can we honestly say we wouldn’t agree with these ideals?

However, oral tradition and commentary (Mishnah and Talmud) eventually became every bit as important as the law itself. For example, carrying tools of one’s trade on the Sabbath became as wrong as doing labor. They forgot the line between the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God, defending traditions as God’s word – a mistake we can also be guilty of.

In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks of the scribes and the Pharisees. He praises their teachings, but he condemns their works. He accuses them of being what they fear most – hypocrites.  He also reproves their reliance on tradition and interpretations that hedged and possibly circumvented the law. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus accuses them of being overly focused on works while neglecting the essence of the law.

What happened to the Pharisees? They became so obsessed with doctrinal purity that they became their own standard of righteousness. They were a law unto themselves.

Conclusion

We want to subject ourselves to God’s law and respect that law. We want to promote humility and respect love as the fulfillment of God’s law. However, we must be careful of becoming like Pharisees in that we build a hedge around God’s word. We should not want others to tell us where to draw the line, becoming mindless followers of legalism rather than studying to develop a personal faith.

Worshiping and living scripturally is essential. While we respect God’s word and we speak where God has spoken, remaining silent where He is silent, we cannot let our sincerity lead us to become unmerciful, self-righteous, and unloving.

lesson by Tim Smelser