Clean Hands and Dirty Hearts

How many times does a child hear, “Wash your hands”? And in our virus sensitive society, it’s not only the children who hear that. In Matthew 15:1–20 Jesus was criticized for a failure to wash hands, but not for hygienic reasons. He was accused of breaking tradition.

Don’t worry too much about unclean hands. Jesus was criticized for allowing his disciples to break the tradition of the elders. Handwashing was serious business for the Pharisees. Mothers want children to wash their hands because the house stays cleaner. We’ve discovered germs, and hand washing keeps us healthier. For the Pharisees, unwashed hands meant that the food one touched became ceremonially unclean, and thus the person(s) eating it also became unclean. (These Pharisees came from Jerusalem, perhaps doing some sort of investigation of Jesus.) Further, the washing became an act of righteousness, a means of justification. They specified just how the hands were to be washed, with water poured over them. The accusation against Jesus was not just that he or his disciples neglected a ceremonial washing or two, but was something far more serious. He, as a teacher and leader, was allowing, or even encouraging his disciples to ignore the tradition of the elders. The traditions of the elders had arisen as a fence to protect the people from breaking God’s law. The fence soon became a burden, and the emphasis shifted from obeying and glorifying God, to keeping human tradition. Someone told me of living near a synagogue that inherited those tradition. The commandment to keep the Sabbath was expanded to exclude all carrying, even of a child. Fathers would walk to worship with children who could walk. But their wives had to remain at home, sometimes for years, caring for children too young to walk on their own. A human addition to God’s command had superseded the command to worship. Closer to home, even in reformed circles, even in our own denomination, I’ve see those who may have started out with a well-meaning effort to oppose humanistic egalitarianism end up taking the position that all women are subordinate to men and even that women are ontologically inferior to men. Beware of adding to God’s law. It is a short step from requiring that which God does not require to ignoring and denying what he does require, as John Murray reminds us. It can be easy to set up human rules as standards of godliness. Jesus points out that the source of contamination in God’s eyes is something far more important than unwashed hands. What goes into your mouth is simply consumed, verse 10.

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Fear and Faith

As you read of the miracle in Matthew 14:22–36, Jesus walking on the water to his disciples, and then Peter trying to join him in that, you may be asking “Why?” Why does Jesus do things this way? What purpose does Matthew have in recording this incident? Matthew is telling you something about fear and about faith. But above all, he is pointing you to the One in whom you can trust.

Trust the Savior. Jesus comes to calm your fear. Without Jesus the disciples were frightened. After feeding the 5,000+ Jesus sent the disciples away by boat and he went up the mountain to pray.The disciples, buffeted by the stormy waves and the contrary wind, seem to have forgotten that their Lord had previously calmed the storm by rebuking it, Matthew 8:23–27. Had they forgotten the feeding of the 5,000? Did they remember that their Lord was praying, doubtless including intercessions for them? Do you remember that he is busy praying for you? When Jesus comes to them during the fourth watch (3–6 a.m.), they are even more frightened, thinking that they are seeing a ghost walking on the water. Their terror prevented them from recognize the Savior for who he really is. What fears do you face? Do you find yourself wondering if you are really a child of God, if your Savior really cares about you? Recognize that concentrating on the fears can make your faith in the Savior more difficult. Watch your focus. The Lord does not forget his disciples, laboring against the wind and waves. Not the dark of night, not the stormy weather, not even the expanse of troubled water between him and them, deters him as he walks to them. Your Lord is now in glory, but that assurance is still yours, Romans 8:38,39.

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No Need to Go Away

Each of the Gospel writers, inspired by the Spirit, tell the account of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in a slightly different way. Matthew 14:13–21 points you to the Savior who welcomes you. He does not make you go away.

Look to the Savior to meet your needs. Your Savior is compassionate. The setting is the questions raised by Herod about Jesus and his miracles, verses 1 and 2. Perhaps Jesus is avoiding an early confrontation as he and his disciples leave by boat, heading for a place to be alone in the wilderness. And he is grieving the death of John the Baptist, not only the cousin of Jesus, but the forerunner, the one whose death anticipates what will happen to the Savior himself. Despite Jesus’ evident desire for privacy, the crowds follow. The wilderness setting and the provision of miraculous food recall the gift of manna to Israel. “Well before the proclamation of the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai, the significance of the sabbath was made evident. At the root of the people’s work was their rest in God, which resulted from Christ’s atonement. Thus they were to eat the manna not just as food to satisfy their hunger, but as God’s favor in the form of food. Thus the manna was a revelation of what Jesus Christ is for us, namely, manna from heaven, the restoration of our whole life in God’s favor.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 1, pages 287,288) God’s provision for your needs is a call to live trusting in the Redeemer he has sent. Jesus sees the needy crowd and has compassion. “So strongly was Christ moved by this feeling of compassion, that though, in common with his disciples, he was fatigued and almost worn out by uninterrupted toil, he did not spare himself. He had endeavored to obtain some relaxation, and that on his own account as well as for the sake of his disciples; but when urgent duty calls him to additional labor, he willingly lays aside that private consideration, and devotes himself to teaching the multitudes. Although he has now laid aside those feelings which belonged to him as a mortal man, yet there is no reason to doubt that he looks down from heaven on poor sheep that have no shepherd, provided they ask relief of their wants.” (John Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels) The compassion is evident not only in the healings, but also in satisfying their hunger.

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