Wednesday of Oculi
A delegation of Pharisees traveled from headquarters in Jerusalem. They came out into the back-country of Galilee, found Jesus, and accused him, “Why are your disciples disregarding the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat” (Mt 15:2). Now it’s probably not a bad idea to wash your hands before dinner, and most of us do. But the Pharisees weren’t concerned with being sanitary. They didn’t know or care about germs. You know why they were so careful to wash their hands before eating? Just in case they had accidentally touched a Gentile during the day. They regarded the Gentiles, that is, all those who were not Jews, as unclean sinners. They believed that any contact with a Gentile, even accidentally brushing up against their clothing in the marketplace, would make one unclean.
Where did the Pharisees get these ideas? From their traditions. In place of the Ten Commandments that God had given them through Moses, they had invented 613 commandments of their own. But Jesus didn’t seem to care about these extra rules. He talked with Gentiles and sinners, even ate with them. He touched lepers and dead people, healing them and raising them to life. When the Pharisees cornered Jesus and accused him of not following the tradition, he turned the tables on them, asking, “Why do you disregard the commandments of God, for the sake of your tradition?” (Mt 15:3). For example, the Fourth Commandment, to honor your father and mother, means that God wants you to take care of your parents when they grow old. But the Pharisees taught, “If you make a sizable donation to the church, you can be exempted from your obligation to your parents.” “Hey mom, I gave all the money for your retirement to the church, but don’t worry, I’ll be getting a big tax write-off.”
Jesus was angry with the Pharisees, “You hypocrites! For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Mt 15:6–7a). Every church has tradition; it’s unavoidable. We have a tradition of hosting a Spaghetti Creole dinner here once a year. It’s great. People love it. It’s a good tradition. But what happens when a tradition is in conflict with the Word of God? Our church has a constitution and bylaws. We have procedures and policies that we follow, and we should, but all of these are subject to the Scriptures. When we ask, “What is synod policy?” we ought first to ask, “What does the Bible say?” Bylaws can be added or altered, but the Word of God stands unchangeable forever.
Now back to the Pharisees: They thought that touching a Gentile would make them unclean. Getting too close to a sinner would be contaminating. But Jesus said, “Touching a Gentile is not what makes you unclean. The problem is not those sinners out there. The problem starts in your own heart. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. This is what defiles a person” (Mt 15:19–20a). Notice how Jesus puts sexual immorality and slander in the same sentence. In other words, God doesn’t make distinctions among sinners. We are all equally unclean, equally in need of the forgiveness. And that is exactly what Jesus came to earth to give.
He says to you, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3). Avoiding all contact with Gentiles and sinners won’t make you clean. Careful observance of a thousand man-made traditions won’t wash away sin. Church constitutions and synodical policies won’t give you a new heart. Jesus has already made you clean. How? By his Word. This is what brings us together. We gather around the words and promises of Christ. We build upon the foundation of the apostles the prophets, which is Jesus and his Word. And wherever that Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, you may be certain that there is the Christian church on earth. The church is not full of perfect people. No, it is full of sinners of every kind – Gentiles, ex-murderers, adulterers, and gossipers – sinners to whom Jesus says, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” Amen.