A famous Jewish story tells of a Rabbi Akiba who was put into prison. While in prison, the warden decided to ration the amount of water he was receiving. When Rabbi Akiba received what little water he had been given for the day, he decided to forgo drinking it and used it to wash his hands instead. He said, “to eat with unwashed hands is a sin. It is better to die of thirst than to commit a sin.” In other words, Rabbi Akiba decided that is would be better to die of thirst than to transgress the traditions of the elders. It is evident that this man’s understanding of God’s truth had been obscured by the traditions of men.
In Matthew 15, we see a group of Jews asking Jesus a question. They said, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread” (v. 2). They didn’t accuse Jesus’ disciples of transgressing the Word of God but, rather, the traditions of elders. These Jews had taken the commands of God and had made them obscure by elevating their own traditions over Scripture. Jesus responded to their question with His own question: “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” Jesus got to the heart of the issue. Christ charged them with elevating their traditions above God’s commands. He would go on to give an example of how they had violated God’s command to “Honour thy father and mother.” The Jews practiced a custom called “corban.” In order to avoid the responsibility of taking care of their parents, some Jews would dedicate all their property to God and say, “I give this all to God. Since I have dedicated everything I have to God, then I am not responsible to support you.” They violated God’s command to honor parents by creating a tradition that gave them a loophole whereby they could avoid their responsibility. Jesus told them, “ye made the commandments of God of none effect by your tradition” (v. 6). Christ got to the heart of the matter by exposing the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes. Christ revealed that their “worship” was “vain” (i.e., empty) because they taught “for doctrines the commandments of men” (v. 9). They worshipped God with their lips but their heart was far from Him.
There is nothing wrong with washing your hands for sanitation purposes. Rather, the lesson from today’s passage focuses on the danger of elevating traditions of men above Scripture. Multitudes of people in our own day worship God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him. The vainness of people’s worship is evident when the commandments of men are made to be the commandments of God. We must adhere to Scripture alone as our authority for all of faith and practice. We must set aside the traditions of men and serve God according to His commands.