Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew

Notes on Matthew 15 1-9

The Present Word and Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 17, is Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus’ endorsement of the distinction between the commandments of God and the traditions of “men.” Here are my [hasty*] notes on that text:

Background and Context

We are still in Matthew, in the midst of a long narrative section that features a number of distinct conflicts with Pharisees and scribes, along with several other narrative episodes (e.g., Peter has just taken a few steps on water in Mt 14:22-33, and the whole group will be taking an ancient-style road trip to Tyre and Sidon a few verses from now in Mt 15:21-28, where Jesus still won’t get a break from healing people, but that’s another whole story).

There’s more reader response stuff context, too – see below.

Closer Reading

The literary structure of this little passage is tight and precise. The set-up in verse one has the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem ask Jesus about his disciples (not him, notice) literally “deviating” or “veering off” from the tradition (literally, something handed over or given – a word that incorporates the verb used for “give”), and they use the example of hand-washing. Clean hands. Holiness. (Maybe this tradition stems from treating one’s food as a priestly sacrifice to God, and all of life as a priestly offering of service to God.)

Jesus uses the same rhetorical structure and the same vocabulary in the next verse. Then he gives a longer example. First he cites scripture. (Scripture is part of the tradition, by the way. Check Exodus 20:12 & Deuteronomy 5:16 for what we think of as the 5th commandment. Exodus 21:17 is “whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.” We think of this as speech, normally, but there might be other ways to curse someone, like, by harming them. Leviticus 24:15-16, incidentally, puts the act of blaspheming God (the Father) into the same frame, with the same penalty.) Then he presents what [he says] the Pharisees say. The crushing irony is that the “gift” (literally) in this example, that’s been given to the heavenly father presumably because it honors God, actually dishonors God, and in a way “blasphemes the name,” because it becomes a cause of allowing parents to go unsupported. So, really, “whoever” does this heinous thing is maybe incurring a double death penalty according to God’s tradition. (And maybe we shouldn’t forget, either, that God “gave” us this Torah, eh?)

Then Jesus ties up the Torah lesson with a lesson from the prophets (Isaiah 29:13; but it’s worth taking a look at Isaiah 28, about “precepts” and “instruction” and whose teaching to listen to and whose covenant to keep and whose to break, maybe, while we’re at it).

Worshipping God by keeping God’s commandments means we keep God’s commandments, not commandments we came up with ourselves. In particular, here, God’s commandments that direct us to honor God by honoring, which is to say actually taking care of the needs of, other human beings – in this case, and specifically, our parents.

More Reader Response Stuff

This passage is at the core of a brilliant, brilliant essay by John Howard Yoder on the relationship of Scripture to Christian tradition, and the discernment of authentic Christian tradition. I read it as part of an anthology on Christian ethics I used for a class once, and now I never read this text without thinking of it. The essay IS online, too: a chapter, “The Authority of Tradition,” in Yoder’s book The Priestly Kingdom. The point, as I recall it now after the passage of time, was that it should be a red flag to us when we think we need to qualify the gospel.

But my desire to commend this essay of Yoder’s is qualified, deeply ironically, by all that I know that we know about John Howard Yoder’s own practice of qualifying the gospel when it came to his women students.

Being an L Christian myself, in the LGBT sense, I’m frequently reminded that where we decide to discern a “tradition of men” vs. a “commandment of God” is not an abstract question. It determines very real, practical, human consequences, like who we will read the Bible with in our churches, who we will honor and excuse, who we will consign to a life of dishonor and self-recrimination, whose feelings we will treat tenderly, whose actions we will speak of harshly, which of our children we will embrace and which ones we will feel commanded by God to give the “tough love” to. I just ran into a long online seminar on why it’s utterly, totally wrong and unbiblical to excuse “gay Christianity” yesterday when I was looking for the source of a quote about grace being intolerable to our reasonable, rational minds.

I don’t have an answer to this question, really – how do we know we’re honoring God with our lips when our hearts are far from God, how do we tell when we’re veering off the tradition given to us by God, and merging on to the way mapped out by what seems good to us? (We know about that way, right, from Judges 25:21 and Proverbs 14:12 & 16:25?) I know that we people have been awfully good for an awfully long time dressing up our selfishness and coldness in Biblical finery. I know I am at least as good as the next person at doing that.

And I know that I am grateful beyond words for the real, practical, human church that has made a place for me all these years and read the Bible with me and let me sing in the choir and teach Sunday school and make salads for pot lucks and generally live. That feels like grace to me.

Still, maybe we are all wrong, and we are on the modernist-postmodernist path to perdition. Everyone has something that keeps them up at 2 a.m., and that thought is mine, or one of them.

But then I think of “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) and of the one hermeneutical principle I think is good enough to try to hold fast (“God does not hate me”), and I remember

Image crucifixion
… what God’s tough love looks like

[*] hasty, although probably not hasty enough, because I’ve almost reached the maximum point of behindness in the by-now-familiar pendulum-like swing of “behindness” and “on top of things” that seems to be the rhythm of teaching, at least with me. Finals/final grading week is now: the last batch of papers, the last ungraded short assignments, the tests, tracking down and tying up all the loose ends. Life doesn’t stop for teaching, so there are other things on the surface of the desk, too, like bills and dishes (not literally on the desk) and the minutes of the last Session meeting that keep pinging for attention every so often. With all that pressure I somehow felt required to use several hours of my precious time yesterday afternoon watching the final episodes of Babylon Berlin on Netflix.

Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew

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