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Life of Christ (2007-2009)


Matthew 15

Lesson audio

Tradition, in our local congregation, has a bad reputation. Preaching against tradition is a rather safe thing to do; it attacks nothing in particular and makes people feel that they are modern, cool and with it. Fossils are never trendy, we think.

But I submit that tradition has its advocates, and is not to be lightly ignored:

  • The orthodox Jew begins his prayers with, “Our God, and the God of our Fathers.” His prayer is grounded in tradition, and thus not easily moved – but also grounded in him personally, and therefore is as alive as he is.
  • Tradition is the vote of those not walking the planet at the moment. We often choose to forget that the church is composed of all God’s children. So unless you’d like to eject St. Peter and St. Paul from the church on the pedantic grounds that they are dead, their words must be considered. So it is with many other saints awaiting the resurrection.
  • As such, tradition is often the solution to a problem – which means that if you throw out the tradition, you will have to find a new way to solve the problem. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Tradition, therefore, has its value. It is given to us to keep us on track. Therefore when it is misused the sin is all the greater. But often enough in our time when tradition is attacked as being legalism (think of the old hymns) we should make an effort to discern between traditions favorable and unfavorable. That distinction, we shall see, is not always seen by every eye.

Tradition of “How”

Mat 15:1-20 NIV

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!" (3) Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (4) For God said, 'Honor your father and mother'[1] and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.'[2] (5) But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' (6) he is not to 'honor his father[3]' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (7) You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: (8) " 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (9) They worship me in vain;

their teachings are but rules taught by men.'[4]" (10) Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. (11) What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' " (12) Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" (13) He replied, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. (14) Leave them; they are blind guides.[5] If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit." (15) Peter said, "Explain the parable to us." (16) "Are you still so dull?" Jesus asked them. (17) "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? (18) But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' (19) For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (20) These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.' "

Traditions here at Eastside

If you were to ask the staff or eldership of Eastside what our traditions might be, they would proudly tell you that we have no traditions. They subscribe to the view that tradition equals legalism. Indeed, our senior minister has often told us that his father (also a preacher) was very legalistic. Breaking away from his father’s way of doing things (his family tradition, if you will) is, in his view, a rejection of legalism.[1] But is it really true that we have no traditions?

·         Like many evangelical churches, we do not use wine in communion. We use grape juice. This is a tradition which dates back to the late 19th century; before then, no church would have used anything but wine. (Which, to be fair, traveled better and stored longer in the days before bacteria were understood.)

·         We also have “Adult Bible Fellowships” – which bear a strong resemblance to what used to be called Sunday School classes. For the last fifteen years I have been told that these will disappear soon, as “life groups” (meeting in individual homes) will supplant them. Life groups have the advantage that they are so small that they depend upon lessons prepared by others; thus control of doctrine and practice becomes easier. But, alas, the ABF shows no signs of dying out; we keep forming new ones, in fact.

So perhaps our commitment to anti-tradition is not as strong as we thought! So then, how do we distinguish the good, the bad and the ugly?


We may take note of the fact that these particular Pharisees came from Jerusalem. They therefore had a great deal of prestige and authority – and with that greater responsibility. They come in judgment; those who come in judgment had best have clean hands. They don’t.

It’s not hard to see why. Christ gives them one particular example. Suppose you were a young, wealthy Pharisee who had elderly parents. In those days, parents were supposed to be a burden on their children; but often enough the child would decide that this was financially inconvenient. The trick used was to formally dedicate (to God) whatever resources which should be used to help mom and dad. The actual transfer, of course, would happen when the young man grew old and died. By then, matters could be reversed. It must have set a lovely example.

But see in the Old Testament that the commandment is so strong that the one who dishonors his father and mother is to be put to death![2] So this is not trivial. But it was traditional.

I submit two characteristics for tradition gone bad:

1. It sounds very pious and godly. (The old hymns, the old ways.)

2. But it subverts the commandment of God.

The reply

Jesus, you may note, doesn’t seem to mind offending the Pharisees. Indeed, worse than that, He begins by answering their thoughts and intentions, not the question they pose.

Christ doesn’t just answer them; he warns the crowd against them. It is a very public stand. But consider: doesn’t a leader have the obligation to those who follow – an obligation to warn them of danger, especially danger so grave?


Walk away from this with two lessons which might not be obvious.

·         What you understand depends on how you listen. The Pharisees heard the same words that the crowd and the disciples did. They were listening for a chance to trap Jesus; they wanted to best him at argument. If you listen for loopholes, you will surely hear them – and miss the main point.

·         Tradition is, in most instances, good. But it is not necessarily the best thing to do. Examine the tradition; do not blindly oppose it.

Tradition of “Who”

Mat 15:21-28 NIV Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. (22) A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." (23) Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." (24) He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." (25) The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. (26) He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." (27) "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." (28) Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.


It should be noted that Christ has withdrawn to this region to seek time alone with his disciples. The region is part of the ancient land of Israel, as allocated by Moses, but at this time is in the hands of the Gentiles. Christ in his ministry never left the bounds of the ancient land as defined by Moses. This woman would be considered a Gentile, and therefore no conversation should take place.

The woman

If she is to break down the tradition of the Jews not even speaking to the Gentiles, it will take a heavy hammer. Note how she swings it:

·         First, she calls him “Lord.” She acknowledges his right of rule; in effect, she acknowledges him as God. But she also calls him Son of David – proclaiming him to be man as well, and by right descent king of Israel, and therefore by right ruler of the land on which she lives.

·         She asks for mercy – for herself. She does not plead her daughter’s pitiful condition as if it deserved the mercy of God. She begs mercy for herself solely on the ground that God is merciful.

There’s a lesson in here: great faith springs from great humility.


Jesus’ behavior here may seem rather strange. But remember that the Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would come to Israel first. If God is to keep his promises, the Messiah must minister to the house of Israel alone. A child of Abraham has standing before the Messiah; others do not.

So it is a new thing that our Lord would minister to a Gentile. Indeed, Christ so proclaims it. Look at it in the literal translation:

Mat 15:28 LITV Then answering, Jesus said to her, O woman, great is your faith; let it be to you as you desire. And her daughter was healed from that hour.

The phrasing, “let it be” is an echo of Genesis (“let there be light.”) It is the opening of a new creation: the church of both Jews and Gentiles.

The disciples

What are we to learn of this? There is the obvious lesson: some of our traditions prevent certain people from approaching Christ. (You have to wear a suit and tie, right?) The disciples here might have sympathized with the woman at first, but they wound up being definitely annoyed by the woman. Their solution was simple and direct: get rid of her.

But she teaches them a lesson: better a dog at the table of the Lord than proud of being self-reliant.

Tradition of “Why”

Mat 15:29-39 LITV And moving from there, Jesus came beside the Sea of Galilee. And going up into the mountain, He sat there. (30) And great crowds came to Him, having with them lame ones, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others. And they flung them down at the feet of Jesus. And He healed them; (31) so that the crowds marveled, seeing dumb ones speaking, maimed ones sound, lame ones walking, and blind ones seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. (32) But having called His disciples near, Jesus said, I am filled with pity on the crowd, because they already have remained with Me three days and have nothing they may eat. And I do not desire to send them away fasting, that they may not faint in the way. (33) And His disciples said to Him, From where in a deserted place will come to us so many loaves as to satisfy so great a crowd? (34) And Jesus said to them, How many loaves do you have? And they said, Seven, and a few small fish. (35) And He ordered the crowds to recline on the ground. (36) And taking the seven loaves and the fish, giving thanks, He broke and gave to His disciples, and the disciples to the crowd. (37) And all ate and were satisfied. And they took up the left over pieces, seven lunch baskets full. (38) And the ones eating were four thousand men, apart from women and children. (39) And sending away the crowds He went into the boat and came to the borders of Magdala.

Mat 16:5-12 LITV And His disciples coming to the other side, they forgot to take loaves. (6) And Jesus said to them, Watch and take heed from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (7) And they reasoned among themselves, saying, Because we did not take loaves. (8) And knowing, Jesus said to them, Why do you reason among yourselves because you took no loaves, little-faiths? (9) Do you not perceive nor recall the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many hand baskets you took up? (10) Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many lunch baskets you took up? (11) How do you not perceive that it was not about loaves that I said to you to take heed from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees? (12) Then they knew that He did not say to take heed from the leaven of bread, but from the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The tradition of thought

Has it ever occurred to you that we have a tradition of thought? I submit that we do:

·         Like the disciples in this instance, we prefer to take the most literal view of the Scripture possible. For example, our interpretation of Revelation, when compared with the other main methods, is highly literal. It is a point of pride that we reject allegory completely (except when Christ tells us specifically how to interpret.) This is viewed as avoiding the errors of the past – of which, of course, we are thoroughly ignorant.

·         We place our limits on God when we refuse to conceive that he could have a better solution.[3]

·        We also permit ourselves to be taught what can and cannot be touched from the pulpit. We tell ourselves that there’s no sense in preaching against adultery; no one would listen anyway. Only polite topics can find their way to the pulpit (or the teacher’s podium, perhaps).

Men of little faith

The reason for this? We are convinced that “nothing can be done.” But see this example: first the healing, then the bread – the power of God is unabated by our refusals. He is the Creator of new possibilities as well.

Questions from Christ

To make this clear we must see the parallel account in Mark for a couple of verses:

Mar 8:17-18 NIV Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? (18) Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?

I would point out for questions for us today:

1.    Don’t you understand? Is the Scripture really so complicated that you cannot see what He’s trying to tell you? Open the eyes of your hearts!

2.    Are your hearts hardened? Has the weariness of day to day living convinced you that nothing is possible; all that can be done is to go to church to be uplifted – and then return to the grind of daily impossibility?

3.    Do you have eyes to see? Not just eyes – eyes to see, He’s looking for those who will look at Him with “forever eyes.” It is easy to see that nothing can be done; to see the Creator’s own possibilities means to see with eyes open for what is not done – yet.

4.    Don’t you remember? Have you forgotten the power, wisdom and mercy shown by our Lord? Consider his ways; consider his deeds; then commit yourself to his cause.

[1] There is no doubt some deep and profound psychology of father and son here. I leave this as an exercise for the student.

[2] Exodus 21:17 and further examples.

[3] OK, so you want an example. Look at our Imagine campaign; the staff thought up the answer and no alterations have been permitted to date. God’s will had better fit our building plan.

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