Jesus Teaches about Justice
Read: Matthew 15.1-9; Mark 7.1-13
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.
Matthew 15.8-9 (NRSV)
The gospels tell the story of Jesus. Those who study the gospels have identified different types of data. There are teachings and saying (Matthew 5—7); healing, exorcism and other miracles (Luke 8.22-56); and pronouncements about the future (Mark 13). This lesson centers on Matthew 15.1-20 and the commentators call this a “conflict narrative.” It begins with Jesus confronting the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 1-9) and ends with Jesus teaching his disciples (vv. 12-20). The conflict concerns a practice that seems right (it is what the people have always done) but may not be true (is the practice just?).
The Pharisees and scribes attacked Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands. They were breaking the tradition of the elders. Washing was a ritual to ensure purity. Jesus responded on two levels. First, he questioned their honesty. They claimed to be defending the law but Jesus suggested that they manipulated the law when it suited them (they denied financial support for their parents by dedicating the money to the temple). They talked about obedience to the tradition but they acted out of self-interest. Second, Jesus challenged the truth of their tradition. They cared about ritual purity so they were focused on external washing. But, purity is internal. It comes from the intent of the heart. Jesus was not saying that hand washing was unnecessary; he was saying what people eat did not defile them. Food goes into the stomach and then out of the body. The things that make people unclean—murder, adultery, theft, slander, etc.—come from inside of them (Matthew 15.11, 19).
In the middle verses (Matthew 15.10-11) Jesus addressed the crowd. They were not opponents or followers; they were listening to both sides but undecided. As we read this passage, we must confess where we stand. Is our faith only on our lips or is it also in our hearts and hands? Are we talking about what is right or doing what is just?
Reverend Steven B. Lawrence