We don’t know when or where the confrontation occurred. The Gospel writer is only interested in evoking the atmosphere in which Jesus moves, surrounded by teachers of the law, scrupulous observers of tradition, who blindly resist the newness that the Prophet of love wants to introduce into their lives.
The Pharisees angrily observe that his disciples eat with impure hands. They can’t put up with that: «Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders?». Though they are speaking about the disciples, the attack is directed to Jesus. They’re right. It’s Jesus who is breaking that blind obedience to tradition when he creates around him a «space of freedom» where what’s decisive is love.
That group of religious teachers hasn’t understood anything about God’s Reign that Jesus is announcing to them. In their heart God doesn’t reign. The law keeps reigning: the norms, the usages, the customs laid out by tradition. For them what’s important is observing what’s been established by «the elders». They don’t think about the welfare of persons. They aren’t worried about «seeking God’s reign and God’s justice».
Their mistake is serious. That’s why Jesus answers them with harsh words: «You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions».
The doctors speak with veneration about the «tradition of the elders» and they attribute divine authority to it. But Jesus qualifies it as «human tradition». We should never confuse God’s will with what is a fruit of human endeavor.
It would also be a serious mistake today to keep the Church a prisoner of the human traditions of our ancestors, when everything is calling us to a profound conversion to Jesus Christ, our only Teacher and Lord. What should worry us isn’t conserving the past intact, but making possible the birth of a Church and some Christian communities that are capable of reproducing the Gospel faithfully and actualizing the project of God’s Reign in today’s society.
Our first responsibility isn’t repeating the past, but making it possible to welcome Jesus Christ in our days, without covering him up or obscuring him with human traditions, no matter how venerable they may seem to be to us.
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf