Jesus critiques the Pharisees’ loopholes.

Mark 7.6-13 • Matthew 15.3-9 • Luke 11.37-41.

So I mentioned when Jesus was accused of not washing his hands, we’re not talking about the kind of washing we do before we leave the bathroom. This was a ritual thing: Stick your arms in a barrel of water, lift them as if to pray (but prayer is optional), then go on your way… with wet hands. It was a Pharisee custom, loosely based on the ritual washing in temple. Had little to do with actual washing; it was barely hygienic. Not commanded in the scriptures either, so Jesus didn’t bother with it. His students likewise.

And when Jesus was challenged about it, he responded by challenging the Pharisees right back.

Mark 7.6-8 KWL
6 Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, “Just as Isaiah prophesied about you hypocrites—
like he wrote, ‘This people revere me with lip-service. Their hearts keep far away from me.
7 They worship me meaninglessly, teaching human decrees as if they’re my teachings’ Is 29.13
8 —you dismiss God’s command and cling to human tradition,
washing pots and cups, and doing many similar such things.
Matthew 15.7-9 KWL
7 “Hypocrites. Just as Isaiah prophesied about you, saying,
8 ‘These people revere me with lip-service. Their hearts keep far from me.
9 They worship me meaninglessly, teaching human decrees as if they’re my teachings.’ ” Is 29.13

Matthew has Jesus say this right after his criticism about Pharisee custom, and that last line of Mark 7.8 is actually from the Textus Receptus, not the oldest copies of Mark. That’s why you’ll find it in bible footnotes and the KJV. It’s a little redundant… and probably got added by some monk who was sick of having to do the dishes every night.

Jesus is briefer in the other gospels, but he has much the same objection: Exactly like Christianists, too many Pharisees had replaced God’s commands with their customs and loopholes.

Our culture tends to presume Pharisees were legalists, so that’s what “pharisee” means to a lot of people: Someone who’s so fixated on the rules, they don’t bother with grace. And yeah, sometimes Pharisees got that way, particularly when it came to Sabbath. But sometimes the early Christians also got so hung up on rules, we forgot grace. ’Cause all humans make that mistake.

But read your bible again: Other than their spin on honoring the Sabbath day, Jesus’s critiques of the Pharisees were regularly, consistently about their loopholes. About how they claimed to follow the Law, but their elders’ rulings permitted them to bend and break it all the time. They only pretended to follow God. That’s why Jesus kept calling ’em hypocrites: Their religion was fake. The outward trappings of Yahwism with none of the real commitment—and a seriously damaged relationship with the LORD.

’Cause if they really knew the LORD, they’d’ve quickly recognized his Son. Jn 8.19 Not tried to get him killed.

So in the rest of the following article: If you happen to see a whole lot of parallels between the Hebrews of Isaiah’s day, the Pharisees of Jesus’s, and the Christians of ours, y’ought not be surprised. Times change, but people still sin, and hypocrites still try to fake true religion.


To justify their traditions, some Pharisees taught God gave two Laws to Moses. There’s the Torah, the written Law in the bible; now that God had saved Israel and made his kingdom out of them, these were the 613 commands they were expected to follow. But they claimed there was also the “oral Law,” which explained how to interpret the written Law, passed down from scribe to scribe for 1,300 years, and only the Pharisees had it and followed it. By the end of the first century these teachings were collected in the Mishna. Judaism still uses it—and its commentary, the Gemara, which together make up the Talmud—to interpret the Law. (Just like we Christians use the New Testament.)

So Jesus gave an example of how the Law, and their “oral Law,” worked against one another.

Mark 7.9-13 KWL
9 Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, “You totally reject God’s command so you can keep your tradition.
10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Ex 20.12/vs>
And ‘Have one who curses father or mother die, die.’ Ex 21.17
11 And you say, ‘When a person tells father or mother Qorbán,’ ” (i.e. “a gift which would benefit you by me”)
12 “you forgive him from doing anything more for father or mother.
13 You nullify God’s word in favor of your tradition which you pass down.
And you do many similar such things.”
Matthew 15.3-6 KWL
3 In reply Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, “For what reason do you violate God’s Law for your tradition?
4 For God said, ‘Honor father and mother,’ Ex 20.12 and ‘Have one who curses father or mother die, die.’ Ex 21.17
5 You say, ‘Whoever tells father or mother, “A gift which would benefit you by me,”
6 they needn’t honor their father nor mother.’
You nullify God’s word in favor of your tradition.”

Qorbán is no longer in the Mishna. Probably because of Jesus. Once you get enough Christians pointing out, “Hey yeah, Qorbán totally breaks the Law”—and they’re clearly not wrong—it gets embarrassing, so you stop teaching that.

Honor your parents. It’s in the Ten Commandments, y’know. Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16 Dishonoring them actually merited the death penalty. Ex 21.17, Lv 20.9 Most Christians have no idea there’s a “curse father or mother and die” command, or just presume it’s one of those commands which no longer count ’cause Jesus nullified the Law. Which is wholly inconsistent with how Jesus here objects to nullifying the Law. It’s still valid: Those who curse their parents do merit death. But don’t forget grace… nor that in our culture it’s a felony to execute your kids. (Once they’re born, anyway.)

In Jesus’s day there were no verse numbers in the bible. Nor in the Mishna. The way you cited specific things was to quote the first word, or first couple words, in the passage. This Pharisee ruling began with the Hebrew word קָרְבָּן/qorbán, “gift-offering.” The word itself can refer to ritual sacrifices, money, food, animals, grain, valuables—anything you’ve decided to give to God. The Law gives instructions on how to give all sorts of qorbaním to the LORD.

The qorbán teaching likely began, “A gift which would benefit you by me…” because that’s how Mark and Matthew explained it in Greek. (δῶρον ἐὰν ἐξ ἐμοῦ ὠφεληθῇς/dóron o eán ex emú ofelithís). It’s not a whole sentence, but translators keep trying to turn it into one. Like the ESV:

Mark 7.11 ESV
“But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)—”
Matthew 7.11 ESV
“But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” ’ ”

Words have to be added to make sense of it. But it’s a sentence fragment; Jesus only quoted the beginning phrase of the qorbán ruling.

Pharisees taught you didn‘t actually have to go to temple to offer your qorbán. You could offer anything, anywhere, to God, right now. Point to your goat, declare, “This is qorbán,” and now that’s God’s goat. It’s his, not yours. When you next went to temple, you could take the goat with you and formally present it, but in the meanwhile it’s God’s.

Depending on how long it was gonna be before you went to temple, you might be violating the Law in a whole other way. Moses stated our promises and vows to God need to be followed through without delay. Because you know how people are: We promise stuff and forget, or never follow through. But God wants us to take our promises to him dead serious. Make ’em priorities.

Deuteronomy 23.21-23 KWL
21 “When you vow a vow to your LORD God, don’t procrastinate in performing it.
22 For your LORD God requires, requires it of you—or it becomes your sin.
23 When you refuse to vow, it doesn’t become your sin.
24 Whatever comes forth from your lips, keep and do
as you voluntarily vowed to your LORD God, which you spoke with your mouth.”

So when preachers claim Pharisees might promise their entire estates to God, but in the meanwhile live in ’em till they died: No. They couldn’t get away with that.

Still, there were a lot of things Pharisees could get away with. And not. There’s a whole section of Mishna called נֶדֶרִים/Nedarím, “Vows.” It deals with the many ways Pharisees might ensnare themselves by promising stuff to God and others. Christians assume qorbán was solely a trick Pharisees used to not care for parents, but in some cases there were Pharisees who really wanted to take care of parents… and couldn’t, ’cause in a moment of zeal they gave everything to God, and now it was a sin to break that vow. Bible says so.

This is why Jesus advised against swearing anything. Mt 5.33-37 Just do as you say you will. Don‘t entangle yourself further than by your own honesty.

But of course there are always people who wanna be entangled… because it gets them out of things, or helps ’em evade responsibilities. Those, “Aw gee, I really wish I could, but I gotta…” which work out in our favor. Sometimes Pharisees used their customs to do this, and this is where Jesus calls ’em on it.

“That belongs to God now. Sorry.”

People can, and do, give stuff to God at any time. Much like Pharisees did with qorbán. We don’t need to perform any special ritual, nor wait for the next church service. We can declare, “This belongs to God now,” and offer our stuff to him. Could be time, possessions, money, stuff we need to be rid of, or stuff we wanna only use for God’s purposes. Christians do it all the time: “My home belongs to God,” or “My car belongs to God” or “My tablet belongs to God.” All their stuff belongs to God.

Or so they say. Sometimes not. Sometimes it’s dead religion—it’s what we say when we first move into a house, or buy a car, or buy an expensive toy, and wanna sound really devout. “I’m only gonna use this for God’s purposes.” Then we don’t really. Various things happen at home with no thought given to it being “God’s” house. We’ll still drive like pagans, and cuss out other drivers like pagans. We’ll get into nasty Twitter arguments on “God’s” tablet. Our vows didn’t really mean anything to us. They totally mean something to God though, and because his Old Testament command is still fully valid, every time we break those vows, it’s sin.

If your tablet belongs to God now, it should mean you‘re only gonna use it as if you’ve told God, “Hey, can I borrow your tablet for a bit?”—and treat it like we’d treat someone else’s borrowed tablet. (And not look up dirty porn on it.) And when he says, “Give that tablet to someone who lacks a tablet,” we do it. Without hesitation. ’Cause it’s his, right?

Here’s the problem. When stingy Christians give stuff to God, they don’t think in terms of “It’s God’s; be generous like God is generous.” More like “It’s God’s, and I’m God’s steward over this, and I need to keep it safe, so nobody touch this.”

Except them.

Why are they the exception? Well they’re not; this whole “it belongs to God now” deal is utter rubbish. It never stopped being theirs. Any form of “good Christian stewardship” which isn’t generous and giving like Christ himself, is hypocrisy.

Same with the Pharisees. Any form of qorbán which turns a gift-offering into something nobody but they can touch, is hypocrisy.

Eventually the Pharisees recognized Jesus is right, because we find these rulings in Nedarim 9.1:

R. Eliezer said, “Loose people for the sake of a father and mother’s honor.” The wise bind.

R. Zadok said, “Before loosing for him for the sake of his father and mother’s honor, loose for him for the sake of the place’s honor. If so, nothing is a vow.”

The wise praise R. Eliezer for his word where, regarding his father and mother, it loosed them for the sake of his father and mother’s honor.

“The wise bind” indicates Pharisees used to bind people to their oaths in such instances—but Rabbi Eliezer rightly ruled honoring one’s parents takes precedence over rash vows. How much was Eliezer’s ruling influenced by Jesus’s teaching? We have no idea. But right is right.

Hypocrites still teach as the Pharisees did: “Your word is your bond.” Never, ever break it; not even if people suffer. No I’m not saying all vows are irrelevant, and relationships should shatter every obligation. Neither are right. Jesus’s instruction, “Don’t vow at all,” is. We’re not to obligate ourselves when we can help it. We have no idea what the future will be! Stating definite plans over something which we have limited to no control, is stupid. Jm 4.13-17 Making definite plans with no thought for our loved ones, without ever submitting anything to one another, isn’t proper Christian behavior. We need to do what we say we’re gonna do—and be truthful without having to obligate ourselves with oaths.

And of course when our religious customs hurt other people and violate God, they need to be done away with. Customs and traditions and heritage are fine when they facilitate our relationships with God and one another. But let’s never cling to them so tightly we lose all sense of proportion. Our honor and pride are never more important than our neighbors and parents and God.

And Luke.

The version of this story in Luke is much shorter, and doesn’t bring up qorbán any. But it does bring up stinginess, ’cause it comes right after Jesus’s teaching on stinginess. Lk 11.34-36 So it’s related.

Luke 11.37-41 KWL
37 During the speech, a Pharisee requested Jesus dine with him. Jesus entered his house and reclined.
38 Seeing this, the Pharisee wondered why Jesus didn’t first wash before the meal.
39 The Master told the Pharisee, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and plate.
Within you, you’re full of scams and evil.
40 Listen, stupids. Didn’t the Maker of the outside make the inside?
41 Give what you have to charity, and look: Everything of yours is clean.”

After which Jesus gets into his “Woe to you Pharisees” tirade, in which he ranted on a few other loopholes and hypocrisies Pharisees committed. Which we’ll get to.

Jesus went off on his host because, same as the Isaiah prophecy he quoted in the other gospels, he was dealing with much the same stuff. Pharisees presumed their customs made ’em holy, same as Christians figure the sinner’s prayer did for us. Do these little minor things, and it makes up for all the big fat sins we commit the rest of the time. Dipping your hands made up for stinginess. Reading our bibles makes up for not obeying anything Jesus said in them.

We gotta follow Jesus, not custom. Period.

Christ Almighty!