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d the man blind from birth. He had proven his Lordship over the Sabbath by doing the Father’s works on the Sabbath. He showed that God’s plan for the Sabbath meant especially to sustain and restore His creation.

Combining miraculous healings of chronic conditions and irrefutable logic from the Pharisees’ own play book, Jesus trounced the Pharisees convincingly on the issue of the Sabbath. By dismantling the Pharisees’ Sabbath, the most ritually cultivated of all their myriad legalistic entanglements, he scored a complete victory for the New Covenant.

Issue of ritual cleansing
Jesus went head-to-head with the Pharisees on other aspects of law vs. grace, too. One notable situation is recorded in detail in Matthew 15:1-28 and Mark 7:1-30. This time, the issue of ritual cleansing provided the basis of the contention.

The incident started with a confrontation in Galilee. A deputation of the "bigs," Pharisee leaders and scribes from Jerusalem, had come north to scrutinize the teaching and behavior of this upstart teacher and healer (Mt. 15:1).

They quickly found the fault they sought: Jesus and his disciples ate without washing. Alfred Edersheim, in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, suggests they found the alleged transgression at the feeding of the five thousand (Mt. 14:13-21) which he calculated was just the day before. If so, then this cavil would follow the same pattern as the Sabbath healings: Jesus does an astounding work, clearly showing the role of the Father’s Holy Spirit, and the Pharisees see naught but the infraction of their picayune scruples.

The Pharisees overlooked the miraculous provision of food. They did notice, however, that Jesus and his disciples ate without first going through the washing ritual. Now this isn’t the minor scene we have at home when our children come to the table with dirty hands. The washing the Pharisees found wanting constituted the ritual washing that "cleansed" a person of ritual uncleanness. This the Pharisees would do, say, after coming from the marketplace (Mark 7:3) where Gentiles also might sell their produce and meat. Not that the marketplace might be dirty; what really mattered to the Pharisees was the ritualized washing which symbolically cleansed them from any defilement they might have picked up by associating, be it ever so casually, with a Gentile or anything unclean. To summarize a long and casuistic dialectic: the Pharisees’ ritualized cleansings represented their approach to avoiding guilt by association. (Edersheim gives a detailed account with Talmudic references if you want a complete background to this issue.)

The Pharisees’ allegation, "Why do your disciples not wash?" means "Why do you ignore God’s laws concerning ritualized cleansing?" At issue was: (1) Did contact with the Gentiles in the marketplace constitute ritual defilement? and (2) Could defilement come from any external contact? This deputation of the wise and learned scribes failed miserably to consider the consequences of their question. Perhaps they had not yet enough experience with the Lord to know that his acumen would transpose their pedantic cavils into pertinent questions about the nature of God and religion. So Jesus, for the moment, avoided dealing with the accusation against the disciples by countercharging the Pharisees with a much higher level of defilement: transgressing the Word of God for the sake of their traditions.

Christ’s devastating counter
Jesus raised the issue of "corban," a transliteration of a Hebrew word which means "gift," but carries the connotation of a vow. Once a person designated something corban, it became the property of God and could not be restored to secular use, although it was retained by the owner until the time of his death. In this instance, the corban refers to a Pharisaic practice of dedicating to the temple assets which might have gone to support one’s elderly parents. This way they got "credit" for making a big contribution to the Temple treasury (Mt. 6:2) but continued their use of the resource (as a building for their business, for example). Once he had designated money or property corban, a Pharisee could not help his parents with it even if they became desperately poor, although using it himself. Thus, Jesus accused them of violating the fifth commandment for the sake of their tradition.

Why did the Lord use the corban practice for his countercharge?

What is the connection between the corban and the ritual laws of cleansing? Wouldn’t we have expected the Lord to find some inconsistency in the Pharisees’ rules concerning cleansing? Why the jump to an apparently unrelated issue? For one thing, there was a connection, although it may have been obvious only to the Pharisees. Edersheim has an attractive suggestion about this; for our purposes we only need say that the entire account reflects an accurate accounting and detailed knowledge of the Pharisees’ system both by our Lord and the gospel writers.

Also, the salient point of priority shines through regardless of the connection between honoring one’s parents and ritual cleansing. The Pharisees’ behavior exemplified the Lord’s summary of Pharisaism: straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. Jesus told them straight out that they voided the word of God (the fifth commandment) for the sake of their own tradition, the corban offering. Their accusation of the disciples indeed exemplified straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

What good did it do to eat with washed hands but think with an unwashed mind? What good did it do to keep one’s own rules, if one thereby voided the true message of God? It was as if those who practiced this had said to their parents, "Go, be warmed and filled. Sorry but I gave your support money to the Temple treasury."

This gospel narrative continues with a lesson for the disciples and an ironic contrast. Jesus’ quote of Isaiah 29:13 adds a prophetic dimension to the entire episode. In Mark, the quotation from Isaiah comes before he raises the counterexample of corban, where Matthew has it afterward. Likely he repeated the quotation, giving it twice for emphasis.

A lesson on uncleanness
The Pharisees’ fear of ritual defilement resulted in many of their prohibitions. They made rules to declare certain items unclean and certain behaviors unacceptable. They extended the prohibitions to avoid even coming close to something unclean. So, if they had visited the marketplace, they would wash in case they had inadvertently come close enough to non-kosher food that might have, by chance, alighted on them. Even worse, they might have even brushed against a Gentile in the crowd who was ritually defiled.

Leaving aside for now the issue of straining out gnats, let’s look at the underlying principle of the Pharisees’ scruples. They deeply believed that defilement came from external sources. They believed certain articles, foods, animals, etc., could be clean or unclean. A clean animal improperly slaughtered became unclean, but nothing could make an unclean animal clean. If something was unclean, for any reason, then contact with that item rendered a person unclean. The Pharisees’ notion of holiness revolved around carefully defining that which could render them unclean, making rules that excluded contact or even the possibility of proximity with these items, and then following the rules scrupulously. (Virtually all Gentiles would be in a continual state of ritual defilement through touching a dead body, eating unclean food, contact with bodily issues, etc., without ever having ritually cleansed themselves according to Pharisaic law. ed.)

Then comes Jesus and teaches "There is nothing outside a man which by going into a man can defile him." Mark adds parenthetically, "thus declaring all foods clean." This teaching would stun the Pharisees as much as "It is lawful to heal on the Sabbath." He wasn’t just declaring certain items clean that had been in the unclean category. He was dismantling an entire system of reckoning good and evil. Nothing outside a man can defile him.

Although we will save a full examination of this topic -- the locus of sin -- for a future article, we will note now the Lord’s elucidation of the matter. Defilement, taught the Lord Jesus, came from within; out of the heart of man came evil thoughts. Evil thinking begets all manner of vices, and these defile a man. Matthew’s list has six entries, while Mark’s has twelve. In both, "evil thinking" stands out as a heading, with the resultant actions of sin following. Things going in -- e.g., food -- pass right through the system; they have nothing to do with our thinking and attitudes.

The distinction between righteousness based on ritual cleansing versus righteousness based on faith could not be sharper. The gospels draw our attention to this with the immediate next event: Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.

The Gentile woman
The meeting occurred in the far reaches of Galilee, hard against the Tyrean border. A non-Israelite woman, hearing of the Lord’s presence despite his intention to remain hidden (Mk. 7:24), besought him to heal her daughter. Matthew records her four pleadings before the Lord Jesus yielded to her importunity.

Of course, the Lord had no intention of ignoring her needs. He was demonstrating to his disciples, and to all who would read this account afterward, the difference between the righteousness of faith and the deceit of legalism. He had just dispatched the high and mighty Jerusalem contingent, the learned leaders of Israel. They came to him not with importunity to find healing, but with the wisdom of the flesh and eyes blind to the work of God. Then came a Gentile woman, a beggar, one who identified herself as a lowly dog merely asking for table scraps.

This precious woman knew that the promises belonged to Israel, but wasn’t there a morsel for her? No arguing or faultfinding or ostentation from her, merely the humility of consistent pleading to the one whom she knew had the power of God. The Pharisees didn’t plead for healing because they thought they were well. They didn’t plead for Jesus’ power because they blinded themselves to it, seeing only ritual infraction.

Could there be a greater contrast in players of the gospel drama than between the Jerusalem Pharisees and the Syrophoenician woman? No, for so Jesus needed to show the vast gulf that separates faith and legalism as far as the east is from the west. The high and mighty got nothing but condemnation from the Lord. To the lowly Gentile woman Jesus spoke the words we would all love to hear: "Great is your faith."

Isaiah’s prophecy
Jesus’ quote from Isaiah 29 hits right on the Pharisees’ problem: They honored God with their lips, but their heart was far from Him. They worshiped therefore in vain, because they taught as doctrine the precepts of men. They claimed all manner of piety and devotion, but in reality they devoted themselves only to the false god of self. Moreover, their theogomy was so grotesquely legalistic that it could pass for pagan myth. For instance, they had an anthropomorphic legend of God Almighty Himself going through a ritual cleansing after going down to Egypt to release His people. They had another teaching that God wore phylacteries that contained verses that spoke of His exaltation of Israel. Grace was so far from the Pharisees’ hearts they could have no heart for Him.

A good Bible study principle is to examine the contexts of quotations to see if we can find other material relevant to the text which contains the quotation. In this case, we have ample reward, as we find the whole drama laid out before us, with perhaps a dozen or so details from Isaiah 29:9-24 falling into place in the gospel records. Perhaps most cogent is v. 17:

"In a very short time will not Lebanon be turned into a fertile field, and the fertile field a forest? In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind will see, once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord."

Lebanon -- Tyre & Sidon
The reference to Lebanon, of course, predicts exactly the location where Jesus found humble faith -- in the region of Tyre and Sidon, in a Syrophoenician woman. Isaiah states that Lebanon would become a fertile field, corresponding to the woman’s faith, her fruit of the spirit. Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees continued in the agricultural analogy, "Every plant which My Heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted" (Mt. 15:13 NKJV). They had not faith, bore no fruit, and thus were weeds soon to be rooted up. Further, Jesus called them "blind guides," echoing the wording of Isaiah 29:9 and 18. The Pharisees, who thought they knew all, were blind; the woman, who acknowledged her limited status, received sight.

The mission of the Pharisees’ deputation from Jerusalem aptly fulfils Isaiah’s description of faultfinders in v. 23; contrast that passage with "the meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel" (Isa. 29:19). It was the Gentile woman, pleading for mercy from the Son of David, who placed herself among spiritual Israel. She obtained fresh joy in the Lord.

Isaiah’s prophecy attests to the Lord Jesus’ intentional use of the encounter with the lowly Syrophoenician woman as a deliberate contrast to the self-righteous Pharisees. The lesson came first to the disciples and now to us. Those who would seek to create a God on their own, replete with a set of rules, contravene the truth of the Gospel of grace. They will fall condemned in their reputed wisdom. Those who seek the God of Israel with pleadings for His mercy find the blessings of grace. Have we ears to hear?

David Levin

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