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 (NIV)
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!”

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).

 


Matthew 15:1–9 (NIV)
1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “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 their father or mother is to be put to death.’  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or 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 merely human rules.’ ”

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 College Dean

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