[1] Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, [2] “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 

[3] Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? [4] For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ [5] But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ [6] they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. [7] You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 

[8] “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 

[9] They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ ”

Matthew 15:1-9

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years as a small boy at a Prep School in the middle of the Surrey countryside. I have many memories of the place. Most of them are incredibly happy memories. On reflection, many are also a little odd! I remember learning Ancient Greek at the age of eight. I remember studying the path of maggots through a dead rabbit we found on the playing field. I remember learning how to round up cattle and sheep. And I remember learning how to service a vintage tractor. Some of the things I learnt have come in useful, others not so much! One of the things we did before every meal definitely served a purpose; we had a hand inspection to ensure that our hands had been thoroughly scrubbed clean before we were allowed into the Dining Room. The headteachers clearly knew that small boys’ hands were often rather grubby, and perhaps should be cleaned before eating!

At the beginning of Matthew 15, Matthew recounts how some Pharisees and teachers of the law ask Jesus why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they eat. This was “the tradition of the elders,” and they are clearly affronted by Jesus tolerating his disciples failure to wash their hands. Jesus responds by asking why they fail to keep the commandment to honour their mothers and fathers by claiming that the money they would have used to support their parents is devoted to God. 

Jesus then says: 

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honour me with their lips,

But their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain;

Their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus is clear that the Pharisees’ worship is false. They say all the right things, but actually, in their hearts they do not know God. Consequently the worship that falls from their lips is worthless. The rules that they teach do not come from God but are invented by humans. 

The rule to wash hands before eating falls into this category – a rule devised by Jewish teachers, and of no consequence in a person’s relationship with God. God is not concerned about whether or not someone washes their hands before eating. This rule has become one of the yokes that the Pharisees sought to hang round the necks of Jews, a burden that Jews were expected to bear, but of no eternal significance.

The question for us today, then, is to assess how similar we are to the Pharisees. 

Do we honour God with our lips by going through all the motions – going to Church, serving on Church teams, going to Home Group etc? Meanwhile, are our hearts on earthly things – gaining promotions, getting a better car, even just the day to day burdens of ensuring we and our children are in the right place, at the right time?

Or are our hearts focused on serving God – committed to studying his word, building our prayer lives, sharing his Gospel, being compassionate to all whom we encounter?

Are we focused on the rules of Church life whilst not truly worshipping God?

Or is our worship heartfelt and genuine, the driving force of our lives, the sustenance that carries us through our days?

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