“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father or his mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Matthew 15:3-9)
Why is Jesus being challenged?This statement by Jesus follows some "scribes and Pharisees" coming to Jesus to ask him:
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matt. 15:2)Following this challenging and offensive question, Jesus made the above statement. Notice that Jesus turns the tables by illustrating the hypocrisy of their doctrines:
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?"The word "tradition" is being translated from the Greek word, παράδοσις (paradosis). This word can mean, according to Thayer's lexicon, "giving over" and "giving up" - "the act of giving up or surrender." It also means, "the body of precepts, especially ritual, which in the opinion of the later Jews were orally delivered by Moses and orally transmitted in unbroken succession to subsequent generations."
Thus, "tradition" is an odd translation in this context. Jesus is speaking of them doing certain rituals or activities at the expense of other guidelines handed down from the Prophets. In particular, as shown later, Jesus is speaking of Temple priests conducting ceremonial offerings.
Jesus is illustrating that they have inserted a way in which a person can opt-out of following God's guidance. To honor someone is to render respect to that person. Yet the teachers of institutional temple law had created compromises with God's statement, to create an "either or" scenario between God and honoring one's parents.
What is 'a gift devoted to God'?The term, "a gift devoted to God" means an offering. Temple priests - and Jesus - maintained the ancient custom of making offerings to the Supreme Being. But Jesus saw a contradiction in their teachings regarding this.
Jesus is criticizing a particular teaching of the Temple institution. This is that they would allow someone to not honor their mother or father if they are making offerings to God. This means a Temple priest who was making official offerings to God was exempt from honoring his mother and father.
It should be clear that Jesus is not criticizing making offerings to God here. Jesus also recommended making offerings to the Supreme Being:
“See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:4)
“Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)So Jesus in no way was denying the importance of making offerings to the Supreme Being, which is something he practiced as well - mistranslated as "giving thanks."
But Jesus is speaking of using this as a means to escape from honoring one's father or mother.
In other words, it is not as if making offerings to God would exempt us from other practical recommendations, such as honoring one's parents. The mother and father of one's body can still be honored even if someone is serving the Supreme Being.
Jesus himself illustrated this. Even as he was being tortured on the cross, he instructed one of his students to take care of his mother:
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, "Woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:26-27)So we see that Jesus knew he was going to leave his physical body, and even in the pain of his body's torture - the ultimate service and sacrifice to the Supreme Being - he was still honoring his mother.
By adding this contingency to the Supreme Being's guidance, the Pharisees were essentially suggesting that their ritualistic services to God made them exempt from following other guidelines.
What does 'their hearts are far from Me' mean?Here is the full text of the verse Jesus is quoting and paraphrasing from in Isaiah:
The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of Me is based on merely human rules they have been taught." (Isaiah 29:13)This clarifies that the Supreme Being is not impressed by a person doing ceremonial rites or rituals by rote - without any dedication or consciousness of the Supreme Being - or following rules for materialistic purposes such as impressing others or rising within the ranks of some hierarchy.
Rather, the Supreme Being is pleased when we are caring about Him.
If a person doesn't care about someone, then one could say their hearts are far from them. They don't care, in other words.
This illustrates that the Supreme Being is most interested in our love. He wants us to love Him. And care about Him. Why? Because He knows this and only this will make us happy.
The bottom line is that caring for the Supreme Being stands above all. And caring for God means doing what is pleasing to Him.
Through Isaiah, the Supreme Being clearly communicates that simply following the ritualistic rules and regulations invented by men does not necessarily please Him. This is applicable today. By accepting professional sectarian teachers elected by councils of men, we abandon the prospects for a personal relationship with God.
By listening to those who have invented speculative interpretations and teachings with the intent to gain followers, we offend the Supreme Being who simply wants our love.
As we see with Isaiah's communications - just as we saw with Moses and other messengers of God - God's teachings often come through His messengers, whom He empowers personally. These representatives are humbly devoted to the Supreme Being, and have been empowered by Him to represent Him.
God spoke through Isaiah because Isaiah was lovingly and humbly devoted to the Supreme Being. Same with Moses. And Jesus is also in this same role as God's representative.
God's instructions coming through His empowered representatives may be directed towards a particular culture at a particular time and place. Therefore, it may be that an instruction given by God to one group or person may not apply to another - or it may, depending upon the instruction.
We have to understand that the Supreme Being is a Person. He is not a thunderous cloud, a burning bush or a loud voice. He may utilize these, but ultimately He is a Person, with a will and a personality. This is why Jesus emphasized doing God's will: Because only a person can have a will.
Now since the Supreme Being is a person, and He is, in fact, the Supreme Person, we have to accept that He is in charge. Nothing is out of His control, in other words. The reason He allows institutional teachers to hijack His past instructions and turn them into empty, ritualistic ceremonies is that He gives us all the freedom to choose to come back to Him or not.
Love, after all, requires freedom. And though it hurts Him to see us abusing His guidance, He is allowing us our freedom of choice.
What does Jesus mean by, 'rules taught by men'Jesus is speaking of rules that have been issued - in this case - by the Temple institution and its officials.
This can also be applied generally to the various rules and rituals that have been created through the various sectarian institutions. These institutions have effectively created rules taught by men.
Why do people join these institutions?
Those who join an organized sectarian institution may do so for different reasons - for some, a mixture of reasons. Yes, some may join to learn more about God. Others may have other reasons, sometimes mixed with wanting to get closer to God.
Some may join to feel they are saved. They may want to escape responsibility for their past behavior. Others may want to feel saved so they can continue to live in a self-centered manner without guilt.
Others may join a sectarian institution to be accepted by others. Perhaps their friends or family are members. In this way they seek the love of these other members. Just as some seek fame in an attempt to receive love, some will join a sect to be appreciated and loved by others.
We all need love. When we reject the love that the Supreme Being offers us, we tend to seek that love elsewhere.
Still others may join a sectarian institution as a means to gain authority. They are exercising a desire to be respected and honored. This is also related to the desire to be loved, but has a different result.
The result is climbing the hierarchy of an institution in order to gain a position of authority.
Such persons may become deacons or go to a seminary in order to climb the ranks of their particular institution. They may engage in political activities to become appointed by the councils in order to gain a position of reverend, iman, rabbi, guru, priest, bishop, cardinal, even pope.
The insincere seeker of authority may trick people into thinking they are spiritually advanced through the use of robes and ritualistic activities.
Jesus was aiming his criticism in Matthew 15:3-8 to those of the latter group. They were using rituals and their political authority in the Temple and feeling they were exempt from following other guidelines of the Prophets.
This is one of the issues with the process of appointing institutional teachers. They are elected through a political process that allows those who seek authority a pathway to gain leadership positions in sectarian institutions.
Meanwhile, Jesus, Isaiah, Moses, and all of God's representatives have had a different purpose. They didn't seek authority. They were given authority by God. They were devoted to teaching us to come to know, love and serve the Supreme Being. This is why Jesus said the most important guideline (also taught by Moses) is:
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. (Matthew 22:37-38)