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Jesus Teaches About Justice
Summer Quarter: Justice in the New Testament
Unit 1: God Is Just and Merciful
Sunday School lesson for the week of June 17, 2018
By Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell
: To affirm through actions how we can live in the spirit of the Law.
Matthew 15:1-9 (CEB)
: Mark 7:1-13
“Then Pharisees and legal experts came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why are your disciples breaking the elders’ rules handed down to us? They don’t ritually purify their hands by washing before they eat.’ Jesus replied, ‘Why do you break the command of God by keeping the rules handed down to you? For God said, Honor your father and your mother, and the person who speaks against father or mother will certainly be put to death. But you say, ‘If you tell your father or mother, “Everything I’m expected to contribute to you I’m giving to God as a gift,” then you don’t have to honor your father.’ So you do away with God’s Law for the sake of the rules that have been handed down to you. Hypocrites! Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you, This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human rules.”
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. (Matthew 15:8)
The text in context
This week’s Adult Bible Studies Summer 2018 Series’
lesson begins with the examination of the preceding chapter, Matthew 14. In the text, we read several stories about Jesus’ ministry. The lesson’s writer contextualizes this chapter with the account of John the Baptist who was beheaded by King Herod because of a family dispute as well as the political animus. Upon Jesus hearing this news of John’s demise, we read that he departs by boat to be alone (verse 13). John is Jesus’ cousin and a co-worker in God’s kingdom; we can only imagine Jesus was grieved and disturbed about his cousin’s fate and needed time alone to pray and commune with his heavenly Father. The text shows Jesus’ humanness and his need for personal and spiritual retreat. Likewise, it is vital teaching for us that surely if he needed time alone, we as followers of Jesus Christ need the same, especially during times of grief and difficult situations. However, the crowd of followers met Jesus, so he continued to teach and preach to those gathered. At this point, the writer characterizes Jesus’ teaching as “unusual” to the people and refers to the Matthew 7:29 and Luke 4:32 texts as an example: “He was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.” Moreover, the writer reminds us that in the first century, the people followed “itinerant prophets and teachers to learn or be inspired by them,” using the story of Jesus feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:21) to make this point about the following and the miracles he performed. Teachings also included other miracles Jesus performed such as walking on water (22-33) and healing various people, all reflective of his ministry growth in “size, influence, and importance.”
Rules from the Elders
Jesus was becoming very well-known and was well-received throughout the areas. Consequently, the Pharisees, the “legal experts, scribes” continued to perceive Jesus as a threat to their beliefs and rituals, and therefore the theme continues throughout this week’s lesson with their effort to stop him. The writer conveys that these religious authorities were “vested” in Jerusalem and this is why Matthew emphasized they were “from Jerusalem,” implying they were the establishment. The lesson’s author says Jesus was perhaps a direct threat because he mingled with the wrong people and was admired by many who were not most welcomed within the Jewish faith community, suggesting he was too “cavalier” in his acceptance of those who were not part of the franchise’s pedigree. Similarly, in Matthew 12, Jesus was questioned/accused by the Pharisees over the Sabbath Law and here we see their question is to the Torah and the “elders’ rules.” For foundation, the writer provides us with the following Jewish Ritual Law:
“Jewish ritual law includes what is called Halakhah. Jewish lawyers and scribes, and others who interpreted Jewish law derived Halakhah from three primary places. This law is part of the tradition of first-century Judaism. Its three foundations are (1) Torah, (2) rabbinic law, and (3) long-standing Jewish conventions.” Consequently, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples breaking the elders’ rules handed down to us? They don’t ritually purify their hands by washing before they eat,” they assuredly referred to Halakhah law.”
Furthermore, the lesson’s author says the Pharisees, the legal experts, were fixated on ensuring their interpretation of these laws were adhered to in acts of holiness in ritual practice, daily routines, and as the Jewish faith commitment. I can also imagine some were fixated because of their biases and wanting to maintain exclusivity into their religious establishment. However, these laws were the center of their religious faith and for Jesus to teach contrarily to this legalist perspective, made him an increased danger to their way of life and a violator of their ritual practice, and so they continued to plot against him throughout the Gospel of Matthew.
Breaking the Commands by Keeping Rules
The writer provides us with a scholarly historical consideration as it relates to Matthew’s final composition as possibly being formed orally from sources 40 – 50 years after Jesus’ death, suggesting all these conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders could not have occurred during his time. The consideration is that they may have occurred when Matthew wrote for the community of faith. Also, the writer uses verse 22, about the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, who was a Gentile and not a Jew, to make the point that we cannot always tell who is “fighting and about what exactly or when.” With that said, let’s examine Jesus’ response.
He engages the Pharisees and the Legal experts by telling them they have broken the laws they accuse his disciples of breaking (see Mark 7:1-13 for a parallel account). Jesus skillfully counters their question to the Jewish law to the Torah and the elders’ rules. To this point, the writer likens Jesus’ response to a courtroom lawyer because he counters by using a historical argument. He argues that they “broke God’s command by concentrating on human rules, citing Hebrew scriptures by way of his indictment against the Pharisees and legal experts” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). Deuteronomy 5:16, paraphrasing, says to honor your parents as the Lord your God requires, for longevity. Jesus uses the Deuteronomy text to show them that they were breakers of this law. However, the writer conveys that some used the idea of corban
to sidetrack their responsibility of caring for their parents (Mark 7:11-13) and states, “Children could label their resources as corban
, suggesting that those resources belonged to God were therefore not available for personal interests.” Furthermore, explaining that the word “honor” is different from the way taught in lessons such as children’s sermons, which often teach to follow your parents’ orders, but instead, it means for the adult children to take care of their elderly parents.
The writer also expresses that Jesus was clearly emphasizing that the use of corban
was a violation of the Ten Commandments and Moses’ Law; this is a strong counter to their accusation towards him. However, he did not end with this historical fact. He addressed their accusation of his disciples’ neglect of the hand washing before eating and denounced their alternative facts by using the historical text that states that this law applies to only the Aaronic priesthood, which reads “any descendant of Aaron…” (see Leviticus 22:4-7). The writer reminds us that the Pharisees were not all bad people and to not put them all in one box. Some were trying to maintain their ritual practices to promote holiness and in their daily lives incorporated their Judaism roots for religious purity. However, this caused them to impose the ritual practices on all Jewish people, but failing like so many religious organizations when rituals are forced, regardless of how good the intentions may be.
Jesus’ response was to use their own Torah and religious laws against them, and in doing so he is straightforward in calling them out as hypocrites. The word hypocrite fits their behavior precisely as the writer tells us the word comes from a Greek drama where “two masks are worn by actors on stage – one represents comedy; the other, tragedy; hence, the origin of our ‘two-faced.’” Jesus’ rebuke also incorporates the support of another historical figure, the Jewish prophet Isaiah. He expertly uses Isaiah as a support in his argument in justly answering the Pharisees and legal experts. Jesus always had a counter for their legalistic perspectives.
In closing, the lesson teaches us about “tradition” and “new thinking” and that our actions are to provide for humanity and not honor misconstrued laws so that we may live in the spirit of the law.
- Where do we see traditionalism and new thinking in the church?
- Do we embrace those changes that move us into new and out-of-the-box thinking in our ministries, worship, technology, and so forth? If so, in what way?
- How do we maintain sacredness and living within the spirit of the law while engaging in new ideas/innovations and keeping the good parts of our church’s DNA?
Abba, we are thankful for the opportunity to serve in ministry and to live fully in the spiritual intention of the law. May we not be legalistic but live in love, care, and concern for humanity while we maintain sacredness. Amen.
Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell serves as the Associate Director for Connectional Ministries. Contact her at email@example.com.
The “Adult Bible Studies, Series Summer 2018, Justice in the New Testament” is used for the content of this lesson.