Jesus’s attitude towards theological tradition

One place in the gospels where the question of theological tradition comes up in a vivid way is the controversy about hand-washing (Matt. 15:1-9). The Pharisees complain that Jesus’s disciples do not ritually wash their hands before eating. Apparently they did not do this because Jesus Himself did not do it (Luke 11:38). Why then did they not follow the “tradition of the elders”? Jesus responds by objecting that their preferred traditions actually run contrary to God’s commandments. They say that a person can consecrate money to God which would otherwise have been used to care for his parents. Jesus objects that this implies disobedience to the commandments to honor and not to curse mother and father. And He ends the discussion by attacking the very notion of ritual purity which was so important to the Pharisees’ religious life (Matt. 15:10-20).

What does this episode teach us about Jesus’s attitudes towards theological tradition? I think a few conclusions can be safely drawn from the way that Jesus argues.

First, Jesus did not consider it His obligation to obey traditions (such as ritual hand-washing before a meal) if they were not founded in a divine commandment. This applies even in the case of officially sanctioned or approved “traditions of the elders.” Otherwise He would have washed His hands and taught His disciples to do the same. This implies that He did not think that the “elders” had any final or irreversible authority to interpret the Law and its significance for God’s people. They could be legitimately contradicted where they did not manage to communicate a commandment from God.

Second, Jesus considered that all human traditions must be subordinated and compared to divine commandments. The divine commandment alone is intrinsically binding. The human tradition is only binding to the extent that it communicates the divine commandment. Otherwise it is just a tradition. This is clearly the presupposition of Jesus’s behavior and words. Otherwise the Pharisees could have responded that He and His disciples are in fact obligated to wash their hands before eating, even though there is no divine commandment to do so, simply because to do so is a “tradition of the elders.” And the Pharisees likewise could have argued that their teaching about consecrating money to God is not objectionable because not every human tradition must be subordinated and compared to a divine commandment.

Third, Jesus presupposes that the divine word is always distinct and separable from the human word. God does not speak by means of human traditions. Human traditions are at best attempts to relate and bear witness to divine words. And they are not obligatory where they fail to do so. This is implied by Jesus’s idea that human words must be compared and subordinated to divine words. You can only compare things that are distinct and separable. You could not compare the divine word and the human word if the two in fact “blended” into one. Otherwise the Pharisees could have responded that obedience to the “tradition of the elders” is precisely obedience to God’s word insofar as God speaks by the elders as much as in the written Torah. The Pharisees likewise could have argued that their teaching about consecrating money to God cannot be a contradiction of the divine commandments because (once more) God speaks as much through the written Torah as through the “traditions of the elders.” Jesus’s argument does not address these possibilities or even consider them. He does not consider the notion that the divine word and the human word can be “blended” together in this sense. This must be because He does not accept that principle at all. God’s word is always one thing and the human word another.

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