25 October 2019Matthew 15:1-9
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ (vs.1-2)
Psalm: Psalm 90
The Pharisees are often referred to in negative ways in the Gospels and in Christian sermons. As a group, Pharisees had great knowledge of the Jewish law as laid down in the books of the Torah, as well as other scripture. They were master interpreters of the law and the storytelling traditions of the Jewish people. The apostle Paul notes that he was a Pharisee. There are some indications that Jesus’ teachings are in line with many Pharisee rabbis of the first century. For example, Jesus and his followers believed in the resurrection of the dead, a belief shared by the Pharisees, but not by all Jewish groups (for example, the Saducees did not believe in the resurrection). Another example is Jesus’ commandment to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, which is very similar to that of the first-century rabbi Hillel. According to Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees, the latter often seem disappointed or critical that Jesus does not rigorously keep every ritual law. In this case of today’s passage, they are upset that Jesus does not require his disciples to engage in ritual washing before they eat.
Since any of us may think of our parents telling us to wash our hands before dinner when we read today's passage, the text may strike us as odd or even irrelevant to modern living. We know that hand washing is important for avoiding illness and the spread of disease. It might help us to know that the law of ritual hand washing in Jesus’ time applied only to the Temple priests and was not a widespread practice generally expected of the broader Jewish population. More importantly, a focus on the content of the Pharisee’s criticism distracts us from the central question posed in the first part of this story.
Which is more important for the followers of Jesus: obeying the law or doing what is moral? While we may believe that the legal and the moral should be one and the same, most adults can give examples of when legality and (one’s beliefs about) morality are in direct conflict. For example, the law says that we should not drive faster than the speed limit on the motorway. Yet, many of us would think nothing of speeding to hospital if it meant the difference between life and death for a loved one. The text in Matthew 15 provides an opportunity for Jesus to argue that an ethical lifestyle, characterised by responsibility for the care of others, is more important than following every law or societal tradition.
Jesus chooses a controversial example in the conflict between the command to honour one’s mother and father and the dedication of wealth to the Temple, which was part of the Jewish legal tradition. Jesus may have been familiar with cases where a young man, in a moment of anger at his parents, swore to dedicate his earnings to God instead of using them to care for his parents in their old age. When the flash of anger was gone and the man was again on good terms with his parents, the Jewish courts often held him to his oath to give his money to the Temple. Jesus points out the conundrum. The law forces him to give his money to the religious authorities, which means that he cannot live by the moral command of scripture to “honour” his mother and father. In this case, honouring them would mean caring for their needs.
Our current global circumstances give us daily of examples of the conflicts between our laws and our moral sensibilities. Since I’ve lived as a student and immigrant in more than one country, stories about mistreatment of migrants often pique my conscience. We might think of the regular news reports about the Windrush Scandal, EU citizens being denied the right to remain after years of residence in the UK, refugees and migrants separated from their children at the U.S. border, or the prohibition on boats rescuing refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The rule of law is very important for democratic societies. At the same time, when there is conflict between the law and a humane response to the needs of people, Jesus expresses of preference for tending to the needs of people.
- Can you think of moments in your own experiences when your sense of what was right to do conflicted with what society deemed legal?
- In what ways does faith give us direction when we are facing with conflicting views of what is right?