“Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” You can almost hear the sneer in this question to Jesus in the passage for today! And, frankly, it’s a good question. You see, as a Church, we Orthodox place a great deal of confidence in the consistent witness of the Faithful through the centuries. And we get that honest, as my grandmother use to say. We inherited that attitude from the Jewish world that shaped the Christian faith. The witness of the lives of the Saints matters to us because we insist that the Holy Spirit preserves His wisdom in the lives of the Faithful as much as in written form.
But what happens when there is a slavish adherence to behaviors that have lost their connection to the wisdom under the Scriptures? What happens to the Faith when what we think is faithful obedience creates just the opposite of what the Faith was intended to produce? Well, there is a big problem!
Look at our Lesson today in Matthew 14:35-36;15:1-11:
At that time, when the men of Gennesaret recognized Jesus, they sent round to all that region and brought to him all that were sick, and besought him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment; and as many touched it were made well.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.’ So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ ” And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
Jesus answers the meticulous religious of His day by redirecting their piety toward deeper truths rather than the sad reduction of the Faith that had come to be all too normal in the Lord’s day (and maybe our day as well).
The Lord is going about healing and preaching. His disciples are helping Him with the throng of hurting people all pressing in just to touch the hem of His garment, and they are being healed. Their suffering is being relieved. They are being given hope where only despair existed before. And what do the religious folks focus on? “Hey, Jesus, we didn’t see Your disciples wash their hands before dinner!” Are you serious? Did you just see that man who was dying get up and go back to his family so that they could have their father back with them so that they wouldn’t starve in the streets?
Of course, Jesus isn’t saying it doesn’t matter about washing hands before we eat. He’s saying He is amazed that this is what the leader who was supposed to be bringing hope and ministry to hurting people are dismissing these mighty signs of God’s mercy and focusing on washing hands! You see, this focus reveals the hearts of these leaders. They don’t see the people they were supposed to serve. They were obsessed with the “rule book” instead of the healing relationships that the Faith was supposed to produce! And that’s so easy to do when our rituals are emptied of the deep beauty and meaning behind them. The rituals become ends in themselves, and when that happens, we see people neglected and love replaced with rule-keeping.
This doesn’t mean the rules are meaningless. Not at all. In fact, we have to work hard (the real point of the rules and rituals in the first place) to hold the “Why” behind the wisdom. We have to remains wedded to our love for God and others so that the rituals and rules of our wise and beautiful faith keep producing humble hearts that remain soft and tender toward those who are suffering.
Today, are you proud of how well you “keep the rules” of Orthodoxy? Be careful. You may just be slipping into a place where the “rules” become more valuable to you that the reason why the rules were given to us in the first place. Being Orthodox on Purpose is more than just being good rule keepers. It means always holding to the WHY behind the wisdom!