“In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Isaiah 29:13)
Throughout the Gospels, we come across the phrase “traditions of men” several times, This refers to the Oral Law which was the rabbis’ interpretations concerning how to live as a good Jew. It expanded upon the Law given by God on Mount Sinai but came from the mind of man not the mouth of God.
These ‘commandments of men’ were recorded in a book called The Mishna. It contains 63 tractates (groups of writings) broken into 6 Orders covering 525 chapters and 4200 detailed laws. They cover subjects as diverse as business ethics, the Sabbath, agricultural laws, marital issues, festivals… in fact almost every subject under the sun.
Life became restrictive and burdensome for the Jews, having to remember and act upon so many regulations. Each day consisted of carrying heavy burdens not laid down by God but added to by man. Was life really meant to be as difficult as that? Actually, no. The Old Testament itself painted a different picture; one of compassion.
“A bruised reed He will not break. And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.” (Isaiah 42:3)
He forgives all my sins, and heals all my diseases. He redeems me from death, and crowns me with love and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s! The Lord gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly… The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. (Psalm 103:1-5, 8)
Into this scene walks Jesus. Unlike the rabbis and Pharisees who wanted to lay heavy burdens on people, Jesus said;
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The people were to learn that Jesus’ mission was not one of condemnation but of mercy. We see Jesus healing on the Sabbath and in doing so, breaking one of the 4200 ‘laws’.
He allowed his disciples to eat from the cornfields on the Sabbath which was again forbidden by the ‘teachings of men’. When questioned about it, Jesus proclaimed the radical, yet liberating, statement:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
What a breath of fresh air this must have been to so many people who had trudged their way wearily through life, broken in spirit by the weight of ‘the traditions of men’. The hymn writer William Cowper once said:
“Man may dismiss compassion from his heart, but God never will”.
Thank God for compassion, thank God for mercy, thank God for freedom.
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Struthers Memorial Church is a registered Scottish Charity No. SC 006960 | Struthers Memorial Church is a company limited by guarantee incorporated in Scotland Company No SC335480 | Registered Office: 33 West Stewart Street, Greenock, PA15 1SH.