God does something when we read his Scriptures. J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom note in their book, Guard Us, Guide Us, that when people read or reflect upon the Scriptures, "even when they are beginners and do not as yet know the sacred text well, messages from God come through to their hearts in a way that is both startling and encouraging. Bible readers sense again and again that God is speaking significantly to them."
Yet, more often than not, we keep our Bibles upon our shelves, safely zipped inside their leather covers. We believe, but we don't read. The reasons for this Bible gap could be many: a perceived lack of time, laziness, reluctance to obey what we read, fear that we will not understand, and so on. Yet this disconnect, as scandalous as it might appear, is not all that new.
Missing the Point
Jesus' era faced a similar problem. While most people did not possess their own copies of the Scriptures, they were drilled in the sacred texts starting in their youth. Ignorance was inconceivable. God's Word—the Law and the Prophets—was God's life-sustaining gift to humanity, starting with the Jews.
God's Word made clear Yahweh's requirements for life in the community under his care. In great detail it spelled out the awfulness of sin and the blessings of fellowship with him. The Word taught men how to approach God, how to avoid disaster, how to produce wealth, how to grow in wisdom, and what was ahead beyond this earthly existence. Israel knew that humanity "does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Law and Tradition
In Jesus' day, the people gamely tried to obey the Bible to win God's favor. The scribes and Pharisees scrupulously taught the law to people looking for freedom from the Romans, adding many human safeguards so there would be no chance that someone might transgress a commandment by accident.
Unfortunately, these initially well-intended accretions grew up around the law and eventually smothered it. The tradition came to be seen as just as authoritative as the actual words of Scripture, kind of like a study Bible in which the line separating the sacred text from the human notes is erased. Walter Elwell notes in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, "The oral traditions developed in an attempt to prevent unwitting infringements of the Law of Moses, but they had become a burden and tended to obscure rather than illuminate the written code."
Jesus was not amused. A true disciple puts God's Word first, not our interpretation of it. No matter how good or insightful an article, an institution, or a book may be, it does not carry the same binding authority as God's Word.
One such tradition, not in the Old Testament, involved hand washing as a way to avoid ceremonial defilement. One day scribes and Pharisees come from Jerusalem to demand that Jesus tell them why his disciples did not follow his tradition. He quickly turns the tables on his accusers in Matthew 15:3-9:
He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or 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! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said:
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"