mute swans and cygnetsThey [the Pharisees] asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” [Matthew 15:1b-3 (NLT)]

When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples ignored tradition and didn’t wash their hands before eating, theirs was not a sanitation or health question. Rather than dirt, they were concerned about defilement. More interested in washing their hands than purifying their hearts, they believed hands could become ritually unclean even by touching someone as “unclean” as a Gentile or tax collector. Eating with unwashed hands meant that the sinner’s impurity was passed to the food which would defile the person eating it. Some Pharisees even considered eating with unwashed hands as sinful as sex with a prostitute. Although Salmonella and E. coli can be passed along on someone’s hands to their food, someone’s sins certainly can’t.

Jesus responded to their question with one of His own when He asked the Pharisees why they violated God’s commandments. After all, breaking a man-made tradition is hardly the same as breaking one of God’s direct commands. The Pharisees had a tradition called korban (meaning “a gift” or “offering”).  When a korban vow was made, the Pharisee transferred all of his assets to the temple but retained the use of them until his death (sort of a “life estate”). Those assets could not be transferred or used to benefit anyone else. As a result, while the Pharisee could live quite comfortably, he could not help the poor, disadvantaged or even his parents. The commandment they were neglecting was the fifth one—that of honoring one’s father and mother. A wealthy Pharisee’s parents could be in dire financial straits and yet he could self-righteously ignore their pleas for help. As so often happened with the Pharisees, they supplanted God’s command of honoring parents with a law that gave them prestige and honored only them!

Willing to neglect their family responsibilities in the name of religion, the Pharisees had misplaced priorities. I thought of them when one of our pastors proposed we ask ourselves what things we value the most, in what order we put them, and how we allot our resources to them. He then shared his experience of being called into a council meeting at another church several years ago. When questioned about the amount of time he gave the church, his response was that he lost one family when he put the church first and he was not about to lose his new one the same way. Family would always come before the church. Note—he didn’t say God but “the church” and there can be a big difference between the two.

In effect, the Pharisees put the church or religion before both God and family. If we look at those Ten Commandments, the first four have to do with our relationship with God; the rest have to do with our relationship to other people and parents are at the top of that list. It would seem that, after God, our next priority should be family; after all, once done with creation, God created the family unit (and not the church).

While we probably won’t pledge our entire estate to the church while watching our parents lose their homes or beg on the street, I wonder if, as our pastor once did, we occasionally misplace our priorities. Do we allow our church responsibilities to overshadow our family ones? There are lots of worthy causes and, sometimes, we’re torn as to where to put our resources. While we’re never too busy for God, God work and church work aren’t always the same; there is a fine line between the two. Although I don’t pretend to know where it is, I think the Holy Spirit will let us know when we’ve crossed it. The Pharisees turned a deaf ear to the needs of their families; we must never do the same.

If God cared only about religious activities, then the Pharisees would have been heroes of the faith. [Francis Chan]

But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers. [1 Timothy 5:8 (NLT)]

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