He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ (Mark 7:6-7)
Recall that Jewish tradition taught that the oral Torah was given to Moses from God. It was the means by which one knew how to obey the written Torah when faced with any particular circumstance. Concerning the context of the above scripture, the particular circumstance is the removal of uncleanliness from having been in the marketplace (where one might touch an unclean thing). In such a case, the oral Torah said that a person was to wash their hands in a very specific manner (much like a surgeon does today) before they reclined to eat. This proper hand washing is precisely what Jesus and his disciples had failed to do. In short, Jesus and the disciples broke the rules! When Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees about this, He quotes the prophet Isaiah and says that their “rules” had become mere teachings of hypocritical men. Why? Because there was a disconnect; the application of the oral Torah, Jesus says, had become divorced from God’s heart.
This is not the only time we find Jesus breaking the rules. In Matthew 12:1-8 (see also Luke 6:1-5, Mark 2:23-28), Jesus and his disciples are found picking heads of grain on the Sabbath – a violation of the oral Torah. In Matthew 12:9-14 (see also Luke 6:6-11, Mark 3:1-6) Jesus heals a man’s hand on the Sabbath – another violation of the oral Torah. When we recall that the Pharisees held the oral Torah and the written Torah to be equally binding, we can better understand why both Matthew and Luke tell us that the Pharisees’ response to these violations was to begin to plot Jesus’ death.
I encounter a deacon once who had his own version of an oral Torah; his rule was concerning the wearing of a baseball cap inside a church building (in this case it was actually inside the fellowship hall during a youth ministry event). Judging by his response to a student who chose to wear a cap inside the building this was very much a life and death situation as far as the deacon was concerned….
Without knowing the boy’s name, without any knowledge of his emotional state, his spiritual maturity or even if the boy knew Jesus at all, this deacon proceeded to verbally assault the boy for having the audacity to wear a cap inside the building. This incident took place over ten years ago. The boy never did become an active participant in our youth ministry. The last report I received concerning this boy was that he was in jail, still far from faith in Jesus.
I am certain that if Jesus had been physically present that day He would have allowed the boy to break the deacon’s oral torah hat rule. But then again, how can I be so sure? I am, after all, presuming to speak on behalf of Jesus. Where does my certainty come from…is it verifiable? Can I really know, with certainty, when Jesus would decide to break the rules?
Consider the time when the disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew chapter twelve). In response to his accusers Jesus says in verse seven: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” The disciples were hungry. The religious rules said that picking the grain they needed for food was a violation of the Sabbath. But the merciful thing to do was to allow the disciples to eat. So they picked the grain. They broke the rules.
And consider the time when Jesus healed a man’s shriveled hand; another episode that occurs on the Sabbath (Luke chapter six). The oral Torah contained “rules” about healing on the Sabbath. Specifically, one could heal a person in order to save a life or to stabilize a critical condition. However, one could not heal a person simply to relieve him of his suffering or to improve his general well being. Yet this is precisely what Jesus does, as having a shriveled hand is not a life-threatening or critical condition; it could have easily been left to deal with on the following day. When Jesus is questioned about His decision to heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath, He responds with a question of his own…“I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9).
Do you see it? If in order to do good to someone you have to break the rules, then break the rules! If in order to extend mercy to someone you have to break the rules, then break the rules! But here’s the thing…you break the rules not because the rules themselves are bad, but because doing good and extending mercy are of even greater importance! Jesus wasn’t against following the rules per se – He was against following the rules to the neglect of compassion.
In fact, if you think about it Rabbi Jesus does exactly the same thing that the scribes and earlier rabbi’s did who developed the Oral Torah. Jesus effectively institutes His own oral Torah; healing on the Sabbath takes precedent over refraining from work. This is an important realization to make because by making it becomes evident that Jesus was not opposed to the oral law itself or even the methods by which it was derived. He obviously saw the need to articulate what were acceptable and unacceptable actions regarding the written Torah. He probably wouldn’t even mind the deacon’s hat rule, although He would prefer that the deacon was so governed by compassion that he would know when to allow his hat rule to be broken.
What a different aura our church communities would have if they enforced their rules with a greater concern for what was merciful, good, and compassionate and less concern for what was orthodox. Think of it this way: what if, instead of being known as rule enforcers, Christians were known as rule benders, or maybe even rule breakers?
Ah yes…I know what you are thinking. “Of course you can suggest that we break the rules, Dan, because the rules you are talking about are really just the rules about the rules. I mean, Jesus didn’t actually allow the written commandments to be broken, just the oral Torah’s interpretation of how to obey them.”
Well, that sounds like a good point. But in the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend…not so fast.”