Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? (Matthew 15:1-3)
In the Name + of Jesus. Amen. The Pharisees had given this tradition of the elders regarding hand washing equal authority with the commandment of God, describing hand washing in fine detail, how much water was used, how many hand rinsings were necessary, and so on. In short, Jesus answers the way He does because nothing, not even time-honored tradition, is to be regarded as equal to God's Word.
Instead of interpreting the spirit of the Law correctly — that the commandment points to the One who's coming to fulfill the Law in perfect obedience to the Father, the same One who's now standing before them — the Pharisees interpreted the command as pointing to the moral obligation they owed God, right down to how they ought to wash their hands in obedience to the Fourth Commandment.
But, by interpreting the Law in such a way that it pointed people to more legal obligations, they completely missed the spirit of the command. The same Spirit who led Moses to Sinai is the Spirit who inspired Paul to proclaim that, "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith...to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” (Galatians 3:24)
It is Jesus, not t he tradition of the elders, nor any human tradition which is elevated to the level of God's Word, who fulfills the commandment. On the other hand, any tradition that agrees with Scripture, which points solely to Jesus' teaching and work, such as Holy Baptism, the Lord's Supper, the preaching of the Gospel (all instituted by Jesus), and so on, is a godly tradition and one we ought to delight in, and gladly hear, learn, and put into practice.
Restrain, O Lord, the human pride That seeks to thrust Your truth aside Or with some man-made thoughts or things Would dim the words Your Spirit sings. (LSB 585:5)
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