This week we take a look at three events from our weekly reading: Matthew chapters 14-16.
In Matthew 15:1-20 we see the Pharisees criticize the disciples for not washing their hands before they eat. Now I know your momma taught you to always do this, but there is a cultural connotation here. The Pharisees had developed a tradition of washing their hands in large jars before eating. This ceremony included saying prayers as the water ran off of each forearm. This tradition was found nowhere in the Scriptures, and there was nothing wrong with the tradition itself.
The problem here is the Pharisees were holding up a tradition as a measure of righteousness for everyone. They would monitor the hand washing stations and require everyone to follow their tradition or else face steep religious consequences. Jesus points out that they often ignored the Scriptures in favor of their own traditions and concludes by quoting Isaiah:
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” – Mt. 15:8-9.
There’s nothing wrong with traditions…just don’t treat them like the Word of God, or hold them as a measure of one’s righteousness. And certainly don’t keep them if they keep people from God.
Matthew records two events of Jesus feeding large crowds in 14:13-21 & 15:29-39. It’s important to keep in mind that these were two separate events, and the location as well as the outcomes of the miracle tell an important truth about Jesus and his mission. We’ll start with the feeding of the 5000.
If you follow the geographic indicators in Matthew, as well as the parallel stories in Mark 6 and Luke 9, we know that this feeding took place in what the Jewish people referred to as the “Land of the 12,” meaning they were faithful Jewish people like the original twelve tribes. When Jesus feeds the multitude he does it through the miracle of multiplication, taking whatever the people had, multiplying it, and using it to minister to the many. In this case, Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds 5000 men (not including the women and children he fed!) Now the miracle is amazing, but the message behind the miracle is really what’s at play here.
“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” – Mt. 14:20.
Numbers in Scripture are always significant, and often have imagery attached to them. As mentioned before, the number 12 represented the nation of Israel. Through the 12 basketfuls of leftovers Jesus is indicating that he and his teaching is more than enough for the Jews.
Chapter 15 records the feeding of the 4000. This event happens in the “Land of the 7” (see Deut. 7:1). This was a heavily Gentile area that the Pharisees and Sadducees taught the Jews to avoid altogether. A similar multiplication miracle takes place and 7 basketfuls are leftover. Jesus and his teachings are for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
Again, even though God had been telling his people the he loves the Gentiles too for centuries (just look at Jonah), this would have been a shock for many of Jesus’ Jewish followers. The Pharisees and Sadducees had promoted such a racism against the Gentiles that Jesus has to go a step further in his explanation in chapter 16.
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Mt. 16:5-12
Here’s a moral from these stories: Traditions have a tendency to divide if we let them. Even though God had told Israel for years that his ultimate goal was to save Jew and Gentile alike, the traditions of the Pharisees and Sadducees was to have nothing to do with Gentiles. Traditions also got in the way of them seeing Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus makes it clear that he and he alone is sufficient for all. Traditions are fine and can be very good and useful as long as they don’t divide the body of believers, and don’t keep others from seeing Jesus. Let’s be sure we’re pursuing Jesus and not human tradition.