Freed, or in fear? (Matthew 15:1-9)

There is a king who frees us from superstitious rituals and enslaving fears.

“Can we shower yet, or do we just keep washing our hands?” We need humour this year. We fear an unhealthy person infecting our community, and fear can keep us from community.

Only in the last 130 years have we seen germs, but people back in Bible times knew it was healthy to wash. Washing was already a symbol of ritual cleansing in the first books of the Bible (Torah).

Ritual washing became a point of contention between Jesus and the leaders of his culture:

Matthew 15:1-2
1 Then Pharisees and Bible scholars from Jerusalem approached Jesus saying, 2 “Why is it that your followers contravene the cultural values of our elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”

In the post-exilic world where God’s nation was scattered among the nations, some Jews (especially Pharisees) were acutely aware of spiritual powers. The Torah told them that certain foods defiled God’s people. They saw Greco-Romans offering the meat to their gods as they slaughtered it, so they feared the spirits behind those gods would contaminate them if they ate it. And if evil spirits were hanging around the meat stalls at the market, heaven knows what else was contaminated. The elders of Israel advised the people to cleanse themselves before eating, so as not to take any defilement into their bodies.

Now, Jesus knew about evil spirits: he dealt with them when they reacted to his presence. He also knew about superstition: he saw the Jerusalem leaders using fear as a tool to bring people under their power, to make them comply with their rules.

Superstitions are still with us. Before Europeans landed in Australia, the first nations lived with fear of spirits and fear of curses. So did their neighbours in the Torres Straits, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific islands. Today, many of their descendants want to honour their cultural heritage, but struggle to disentangle culture from superstition.

Whites have superstitions too. When my sons were growing up, they learned to throw boomerangs. We had two, the real deal from a community in New South Wales. A guest preacher was horrified. He said the symbols on the boomerangs could represent spirit beings, spirits I had invited into my home. I tried to assure him that an object only has the power we assign to it, but he held to his beliefs. Given his superstitions, he would have had no chance of befriending Aboriginal people unless they renounced their culture.

Today there are whole ministries based around fear: superstitions we’ve inherited, fear of generational curses, fear of Eastern religions, fear of animistic cultures, fear of spirits, fear of strangers who are different to us.

Jesus rejected the superstitions of the Jerusalem leaders. He knew they were using fear to portray him as a danger to his community. He knew their goal was to get him to recognize their authority, to comply with the rules they had handed down. That’s why Jesus didn’t engage with the issue of their superstitions. He bypassed them as irrelevant, going straight over their heads.

Without needing to explain that he was the God appointed leader (the Christ), Jesus exposed their desire for power, the way they used fear to subjugate people. Unpacking what’s going on behind Jesus’ response (15:3-9), it would be something like this:

“You see yourselves as the authorities who hand down orders from above, and you charge me with non-compliance? You are not in charge of God’s people, and I don’t recognize your rules. It is God who appoints leaders (as he did with Moses), and it is God who hands down the laws from above (as he did at Sinai).

As God’s representative, I charge you with non-compliance with God’s commands. You don’t even follow the foundational covenant laws that established us as a nation under God’s kingship: the Ten Commandments! You overrule the laws of our heavenly sovereign because you set yourselves up as the authority, because you want to make the rules. You want to subject God’s people to yourselves!

You’re just play-actors in your own soap opera, so hungry for the leading role that you don’t want to know who God has appointed to lead his people to freedom.

Isaiah was right when he said you only mouth God’s name to get power for yourselves. The honour you give to our Law-giver is an empty void — a vacuum to suck people into following you and your rules.”

Jesus’ authority is the power that frees us from fears and superstitious rituals. Knowing God has given him the kingship, we don’t live in fear of other powers. Confidence in his kingship displaces every superstition that seeks to ensnare us, every fear.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, has the power to separate us from the love of God that is found in King Jesus our ruler (Romans 8:38-39).

The text

Matthew 15:1-9 (original translation, compare NIV)
1 Then Pharisees and Bible scholars from Jerusalem approached Jesus saying, 2 “Why is it that your followers contravene the cultural values of our elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”

3 In reply he said, “Why is it that you contravene the command of God with your cultural values? 4 For God said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’ [Ex 20:12] and ‘Put to death the one who reviles father or mother.’ [Ex 21:17] 5 But you say if someone tells their father or their mother, ‘The help you would have received from me, I’m giving as an offering,’ 6 they need not honour their parent. And so you overturn God’s decree with your cultural values. 7 You play actors! Isaiah was right about you when he said, 8 ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me. 9 They perform my rituals meaninglessly, teaching instructions that are human commands.’” [Isa 29:13]

Update 2022-04-20: Original translation added (replacing NIV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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