Jesus’s main critique of the Pharisees was that they were substituting God’s law with man-made traditions. The Pharisees were scapegoating laws in the old testament by reinterpreting certain verses. These reinterpretations would later end up in the Talmud. For example, they interpreted Deut 24:1 to allow for “any cause” divorce or adding “hate you enemies” to love your neighbor in Lev 19:18. Jesus of course corrected them in Matt chapter 5:31-32 & 5:43-48, as well as Matt 19 & Luke 10:25-37.
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus replied to the Sanhedrin council, that they were hypocrites, after criticizing his disciples for not doing ritual handwashing before eating. He says, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’”[Isa 29:13] In verse 8 he says they ignored God’s law and substituted it with their own tradition. In verses 9-13 he gives a specific example of them using the Law to put tradition over love for one’s parents. This ritual of handwashing called “Netilat Yadayim” is not in the Torah but is from the Talmud, so Jesus is calling it man-made because it didn’t come from God to Moses. Furthermore, his deeper point was that people were missing the point of the Torah and putting rituals over loving each other, the Torah is a guide on how to love God and each other, not a means to divide people and oppress them. They were following the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. In Mark 7:18-21 Jesus gives a specific example about kosher food laws.
Mark 7:18 (NLT) “’Don’t you understand either?’ he asked. ‘Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? 19 Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.’ (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.) 20 And then he added, ‘It is what comes from inside that defiles you. 21 For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.'”
Jesus makes it clear that on judgment day people are going to be judged on what is in their hearts, not what they ate. Ritual purity laws (circumcision, kosher food laws, sabbath observance) were to set Israel apart from gentiles, and are based on contact with unclean things and states of health. However, moral purity laws (sexual sin, murder, stealing) on the other hand were about people’s behavior and these were actually in effect before Moses, going back to Genesis.
Here’s an example of man-made traditions outside of the Sanhedrin Council. The Essenes, a sect of Jews that separated themselves from mainstream Judaism, had a rule that said a person couldn’t walk more than a certain distance on the Sabbath, even though that is nowhere in scripture. Since Deut 23:12-13 says they were supposed to go a certain distance away from the community to use the bathroom, people were holding their bowels all day on the Sabbath because they were afraid of breaking the step counter rule. There is no step counter in the bible for the sabbath, that is just another man-made tradition. They also had other restrictive rules regarding sex within marriage and how they ate and interacted with one another, in other words, they had a very ascetic lifestyle.
Jesus’s message to the Pharisees was that altering God’s word to focus on man-made traditions was incorrect. He gives an illustration in Matthew 11:16-19. Matthew 11:16 “To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends, 17 ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.”
They called John the Baptist demon-possessed for not participating in cultural activities and called Jesus a heathen for interacting with sinners. That means the religious leaders weren’t interested in healing and saving sinners, they were only interested in being “better than” sinners so they could put them down and abuse them by twisting God’s law. Jesus however, called them out on their hypocrisy multiple times (Matthew ch.6 and 23). He showed that God wasn’t interested in people’s ability to follow traditions but rather people’s love for him and others, which would lead people to trust God for their deliverance from sin nature. He wanted people free from sin not judged and condemned for it, by other sinful people. Only God can condemn a person, but he shows mercy to repentant people. How could people repent if they don’t even know they can because their leaders won’t teach them God’s love or show them mercy? This is what the gospel is about, showing people that they don’t have to take condemnation on judgment day, Jesus came to take it himself so that we can be free from sin and live holy.
I leave you with this parable. Image God puts a great treasure behind an electric fence and says don’t touch the fence. We can assume because God put it up that he is the source of the power, and therefore that fence has infinite electrical power to kill us. In addition, humans erect another fence around God’s top to prevent people from going near God’s fence. The human fence says it is electrical but since it doesn’t have God’s power, it is a false flag. When rebels test the human barrier they will see that it is powerless, and tell everyone else and others will cross the boundary. People will mistakenly assume that since the human barrier is powerless, then God’s barrier is also powerless, and when they test that fence they will get shocked. If we remove the human barrier (traditions of men) and only focus on the real one (God’s word), then the rebels will be made an example of and prove to everyone that this barrier is legitimate because it has power and is not to be tested. However, if we make up rules and say they are from God when they are not, then when people test them they will expose the lies and get the wrong impression about God’s authority. Believers have a responsibility to ONLY teach what is actually written and is from God’s word, without adding new rules or altering the ones given in order to control people.
without adding new rules or altering the ones given in order to control people.
About the Essenes and their strict lifestyle