Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 23 2013 - Matthew 15:1-28 – The tradition of the elders

The Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus why his disciples did not observe the tradition of the elders; they did not ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. In reply, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy. He shows that they have developed traditions which undermine the commands of God and excuse people from their obligations towards family, obligations that God has laid down in his word; "Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:6).

We all have our traditions. We have ways of reading the Word of God which have been handed down to us, ways of reading which we have learnt or absorbed from others. This is not a bad thing, it is inevitable. Indeed, those who treasure Scripture most will be those whose traditions are most highly developed – they are our "theology", our way of reading the Bible. We do not read the Bible alone; we read it from within the community that has read it down the centuries and is reading it with us today. We read and hear it with the eyes and ears of our community of faith – how many will tell you that "the eye of a needle" was a very small gate in the walls of Jerusalem?

This is both a blessing and a danger. It is a blessing inasmuch as we learn from and with those who have gone before us. We are the heirs of their collective wisdom, and for this we give thanks to God. But it is a danger inasmuch as it is all too easy to blunt the edge of the Word of God through the myriad of explanations and qualifications that are passed down to us. The voice of God may become muffled, sometimes even silenced, by the overlay of our traditions.

We need to seek continually to hear the word of God afresh. We need to be like the Bereans who listened to the preaching of Paul; to value those who have helped us to understand the Word of God, but also to be always searching and studying the Scriptures to check that what they have taught us is faithful to the word – that it acts as a hearing aid rather than ear protectors.

Sadly, the re-examination of our traditions can often be viewed as threatening by those who cherish them most. To question how our party has interpreted the Word of God on a particular matter may be seen by the party faithful as the questioning of God himself. It is desperately sad when such party-spirit prevents people from allowing God to speak for himself – he must always speak through his self-appointed spokesmen.

The need to hear afresh what God is saying is never more necessary than when we come to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus says difficult things which continually challenge our settled lives. He will not allow us to become comfortable in our traditions; he demands that we examine the character of our hearts and the way we act towards and speak with one another. He calls us to be a pilgrim people, a transformed, transforming and transformative community. We need always to listen afresh to the words of Jesus and seek the help of his Spirit to hear his voice and go on following him.

Open my ears, Lord, to hear what you are saying to me from your Word. Let me feed on the crumbs that fall from the master’s table and dare even to sit at the table and feast with you. Keep me from a critical spirit that easily dismisses the views of others. Help me rather to continually re-examine my own heart that it may be cleansed by your Spirit and that it may be the source of words and actions that reflect the beauty and grace of your own life within me. Keep me following you closely in the fellowship of your disciples.

Peter Misselbrook