Updated: Mar 9
By Luke Lancaster
Most Protestants think that because Jesus condemned the traditions of the elders in Matthew 15 and Mark 7, that He was condemning all traditions. If that is the case, then the Sacred Tradition which Catholics hold to has been condemned by Jesus! Let's analyze the context to see if this truly is what occurs.
The passage starts off with the Pharisees getting upset at Jesus and the disciples since they were not following their tradition to wash their hands before meals (Matt. 15:1-2). This practice of theirs was a ritual purity rite that God never commanded to do, but rather was simply a gesture of piety. Similar to how we Catholics bless ourselves with holy water before we enter into a Church, so the Pharisees also had an external gesture of holiness.
Jesus responded to the critique of the Pharisees by pointing out how the Pharisees would create these rituals, outward holiness actions, yet they did not keep the commandments of God. The problem was not so much washing their hands, which was not a necessity. Rather, it was that they had these little traditions which they made a big deal about keeping, but yet disregarded the major doctrines of God.
The Pharisees focused on external defilement over internal defilement. Eating with unwashed hands is an unimportant, outward action. Jesus said, "Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on" (Matt. 15:17)? Rather, they should have focused on the internal defilement: "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander [aka the Ten Commandments]. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (Matt. 15:18-20).
The internal defilement of breaking the commandments of God is what the Pharisees should have been focused on. Yet instead, they were making a big deal out of Jesus and His followers eating with unwashed hands! Jesus thought this was pointless!
To connect this to Catholicism, such a wrongful focus is not something that comes from Sacred Tradition, but from the sinfulness of the heart. Sacred Tradition emphasizes heartfelt love and repentance far more than exterior actions of holiness. Consider the fact that confessing one's sins to a priest (an external action) only results in forgiveness if the person has a heartfelt sorrow for sin (an internal action)!
Back to the Pharisees: Besides this external handwashing tradition, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees have a group of other traditions that actually contradict the commandments of God. For example, if their parents needed financial assistance, they should have obeyed the inward commandment of God to honor their parents, but instead, they would say that their money had been dedicated to the Temple. Jesus attacked this,
"For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’...But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.’ So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites" (Matt. 15:4-7)!
What a nice loophole, just claim your money belongs to God if your parents need help!
So, the Pharisees not only had an overemphasis on external tradition over the internal doctrines of God, but they created traditions to get out of those internal doctrines of God! This was wrong of the Pharisees, and they needed to repent. So, Jesus called them "hypocrites."
As we have seen, Jesus was not condemning all traditions, rather He condemned just the bad ones. The Pharisees had other traditions which Jesus acknowledged as legitimate. For example, in Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus said, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice." The idea of authority being connected with "Moses's seat" had no basis in the Old Testament. It was a tradition that Jesus accepted.
Similarly, Jesus used wine in His Last Supper Passover meal according to Matthew 26:27. Using wine in the Passover has no biblical precedent (see Exodus 12), but was simply a Jewish tradition. St. Paul calls this the "cup of blessing" (1 Cor. 10:16), which is a term from Jewish tradition.
Catholics hold to Sacred Tradition, which is totally different than the problematic Pharisees. Sacred Tradition does not contradict the written Word of God, for it is simply the oral Word of God. It came from the same source - God! If individual Catholics act legalistically about this Tradition, that is their sin and does not come from Tradition. Sacred Tradition does not emphasize exterior holiness over the interior.
We see St. Paul commanding the Thessalonians to "hold fast to the traditions I handed on to you, whether by word of mouth [Sacred Tradition] or by letter [Sacred Scripture]" (2 Thess 2:15). Neither of those two vehicles of teachings would contradict one another. For instance, maybe St. Paul told the Thessalonians in person that they should baptize their babies. That was not written down by Paul but would have been a Tradition. For immediately after St. Paul, Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) said that "The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants" (Commentaries on Romans 5:9).
So, as we have seen, Matthew 15/Mark 7 does not contradict Catholic teaching. Jesus did not like that the Pharisees emphasized washing with clean hands more than having a clean soul. He also condemned traditions that contradicted the Word of God. However, He followed those traditions which did not contradict the Word of God, such as observing Moses's seat or drinking wine for Passover. Sacred Tradition is not something which Jesus attacked, but rather was something that was good. It was the verbal passing on of His teachings. That is what we need to remember.