Jesus was eating with His disciples once, and the Pharisees and scribes came up to Him and asked, “Why are your disciples breaking the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash before they eat.” Overlooking the reality that washing one’s hands before eating isn’t a bad idea from a health standpoint, the issue here is authority.
The Judaism of Jesus’ day did many things correctly in the eyes of God, for they had the Bible and followed it in many ways. But they had one large error that blinded their priests. Over the years, authoritative Rabbis had written their interpretations of the Bible. These interpretations became known as the “Mishnah.” In itself the Mishnah, or the traditions of the Rabbis, was like a commentary on the Bible. But the Jewish leaders of the day considered the traditions of the Rabbis equal in their authority to the teachings of the Bible. Why? Because authoritative teachers, interpreting the Bible, were assumed to have been correct in their applications; therefore, to disobey the Rabbis teachings was to disobey the Bible.
So when they saw the disciples not washing in the way described in the Mishnah, they objected. Of course, Jesus wasn’t bound by the Mishnah. He wrote the Bible and knew what it said. The disciples weren’t sinning.
Jesus, knowing that the issue was bigger than hand washing, went for the heart of the matter by asking the Priests this question: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” He then went on to give an illustration regarding the use of money. The Rabbis taught that money given to the Temple could substitute for money given in charity. Jesus pointed out that they were teaching people to neglect one’s impoverished parents provided they were giving to the Temple. They had set aside the word of God in favor of the traditions of men.
By the time of Jesus, the Mishnah was large and complicated, containing many details and many traditions and many practices. In order to be a good Jew, one needed not only follow the Bible, but follow it as interpreted by the Rabbis in the Mishnah. This was nearly impossible since the common man had enough trouble getting through life, without having to be a brilliant detailed scholar of the laws of Rabbis. To make up for this, the Pharisees were there to pastor them by explaining the Mishnah and answering their questions. Of course, the average Pharisee couldn’t be the expert on everything, so “scribes” and “lawyers” were also appointed to parse the Mishnah and the Bible for the people. For example, if a man wanted to carry a load of sticks to his friend on a Saturday so that their families could use the sticks for a bonfire, is that allowed? A scribe would be consulted, ask how far the friend was, the weight of the sticks, the use of the sticks, and then make a judgement. (Sometimes those judgements were very creative. They might say things like, “on Friday, go and set up a bench half way between your friend’s house and your own. Then, on Saturday, stop and rest. Then carry the sticks the rest of the way and enjoy the bonfire with your friend. This way, you are not working, since the law allows so many stick to be carried so far etc...By resting you are avoiding actual work.”)
When Jesus taught, He didn’t refer to the Mishnah, nor great Rabbis for His interpretations. He pointed directly to the Bible. This bothered the priests for they were insulted, thinking that Jesus was neglecting the holy teachings of the Priests. But Jesus made it clear in His question to the Pharisees, that the traditions of human teachers are to be subservient to the Bible: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
Of course the response of the Pharisees would be that the traditions were in the Bible, as such and such great Rabbi has shown. Jesus’ question explodes all that and puts the burden of obedience on understanding the scriptures themselves, and not referring to the interpretation of a Rabbi. As He said in the conversation:
“For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, "What you would have gained from me is given to God," he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” –Matthew 15
Note that Jesus quotes the Bible and expects that to be binding. He also expects them to ignore the teachings of the Mishnah when it contradicts the Bible.
There were two streams of authority for the Jews then: the Bible and the Mishnah. Although great Rabbis commenting on the Bible can be helpful, the authority of the Bible over the Mishnah is clear –as is the responsibility of the worshiper to understand and choose the Bible over the Mishnah. This error of holding traditions as authoritative nullified the scripture, and clouded the way of God. Jesus started a “back to the Bible” movement.
THIS IS exactly why I am not a Catholic. The Catholics have the Bible and that is good. I Learned to respect the Bible through the Catholic Church. But they also elevate the traditions of popes to equality with Scripture in their authority. They believe the worshiper is not responsible to understand and choose the Bible over Roman tradition, rather the worshiper must trust the church to interpret the Bible for him. In other words, he must trust the authority of the men of Rome over the plain teaching of the Bible.
In the book of Acts, chapter two, we see the church born, and apostles teaching from house to house. What did they teach? We don’t have to wonder, the “gospel” in its fulness, is encoded in the words of Scripture, so that we can know. Does anyone really think the concept of “pope” in any language was part of what they taught? Did they teach the sinlessness of Mary and her assumption? Did they teach the practice of praying the rosary? Did they teach that baby baptism removes the stain of original sin? Did they teach that elders were priests who had the authority to change bread into body and wine into blood? Did they teach that elders were priests who could not marry? Did they teach that attendance at Mass was mandatory? Did they teach that there would be a pantheon of saints, canonized by a pope, who could intercede in prayer from heaven? Did they say, “Hey, when I get to heaven, just ask me, and I’ll ask Jesus for you?” Of course not, they taught none of these things. These are the teachings of the popes. The popes who claimed for themselves infallibility when they speak ex cathedra. Did they teach that popes were single substitutes for Christ (Vicar) on earth? Did they teach a succession of popes? The Bible and the historical record show that the answer to all these questions is no. The Bible explains the gospel. The book of Romans, for example, exhaustively explains the Gospel and has none of these Papal teachings in them. We know the Gospel. We are responsible to discern the Word and avoid changing it or submitting it to the whims of men, even if they are popes.
Again, great Christian teachers are important throughout the ages. However, obeying their teachings and traditions should never be made authoritative, especially when it contradicts plain teachings of the Bible. Yes, the hard question of “what does the Bible really say?” remains. The question is: who gets to answer it? I hate to bring Luther into this at this point (I’m saving him for when I discuss history, which is next), but he was correct when he said he would be corrected by the Scriptures and reasoning from there, but not by the authoritative proclamations of popes. He was right. Jesus said the same to us in the hand-washing text. It is not the authority of Rabbis that matters here, but the authority of the Bible.
There are two streams of authority within the RCC –the Bible and the Teachings of Popes (the traditions of the church). This is a great sin that the RCC should repent of. They have the truth, but they also have many lies. I believe the Bible, because it comes from the Apostles. Only they are authoritative in bringing words from God.
I will continue to wash my hands before I eat (most of the time), but I will feel no guilt eating a burger on Fridays during Lent. Why? Because I follow Jesus and the Bible, not popes:
(1 Timothy 4:1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer. 6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.)
I’ll be back, Lord willing, with part IV very soon. Thanks for listening.
[my dear Catholic apologists who have been commenting. Feel free to continue. But forgive me if I put no stock in your arguments that say, “If you just learned Catholic doctrine correctly” or “If Saint Ignatius says so.” All I hear is you quoting your Mishnah. I have no desire to parse your popes. I don’t trust them like you do. I know you disagree strongly. So do I. Nothing personal. In fact, I believe that salvation by faith alone happens in the Catholic church also. I have brothers and sister there. For decades I have not discussed much about the reasons I am not a Catholic. There is no gentle way I know of to disagree strongly --some are better at it than I am, to be sure. But I am trying. Peace.]