Summary: Jesus is not interested in rules which people can point to as the outward manifestation of some arbitrary rule-driven form of righteousness. He is interested in the heart.
There are many traditions in the world. One of those traditions is to have a liturgical calendar and today, May 27 happens to be the Day of Pentecost. It is the day of the birth of the church, fifty days after the Passover. And that was the day according to Jewish tradition that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. The Jewish tradition grew up saying that God spoke to Moses orally too and there is a whole tradition around the teachings that they began to develop in the Talmud. So you have the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, which is all part of the oral history or traditions of hundreds of years before that.
The Jews had the law to “keep the Sabbath Day. To remember to keep the Sabbath Day holy.” So how do you keep it and obey the Law? They had a few cubits they could walk. They defined a burden they could carry. There were specific guidelines to set a gate around the Law so that they do not break it.
So what the Jews are talking to Jesus about here are the traditions that grew up around Scriptures, not the Scriptures themselves. When they are talking to Jesus about hand-washing, they are talking about the gate they built around the law so that they do not break it.
In the church we have traditions too and some of them are contrary to the teachings of the Bible.
• In the Pentecostal tradition, people speak in tongues in the church when Paul clearly gave instructions in I Cor.12-14 that in a public setting one rather speak five words that others may be blessed than speak ten thousand words in a tongue. Love should govern how we exercise our gifts.
• The Episcopal churches have services that are the same every week. They have to say particular words and they read all of them from a book. They think they are being heard by God as they repeat the prayers from the book. When actually Jesus said, do not repeat prayers, over and over.
• The Catholic churches have a similar tradition of reading the prayers over and over again. You go for a confession, and the priest says that you can say so many “Hail Marys,” or so many, “Our Fathers,” and you should be fine. You go through the rosary like the Buddhists, to remind you on what you are going to pray. And you recite the prayers over and over and over, without any meaning at all! That’s exactly what Jesus said not to do, yet it has become a tradition within the church.
• The Marthoma churches have a tradition of speaking in languages where nobody in the congregation understands. How is it a blessing to the people that are there?
So these traditions are built this way which are clearly contrary to the teaching of Scriptures. We get into a rut and we think that is religion, that is Christianity and then we begin to look down our nose on anybody that does not follow our traditions.
Matthew 28:19-20 instructs us to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded us and one of His commandments is to love one another. But in the churches we are incapable of loving each other because we think, “you are from a tradition that does this thing and my tradition does not do that…Oh, so you are not a believer, you are not a real, faithful, Christian. I cannot really hang out with you because your tradition is different.”