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Just Say "No"

by Aaron

“The Top Tens” website came out with a list of the best decades to live in since 1900. Can you guess which one topped the list? The 1980s. When I think about that decade, things like acid wash jeans, cassette mixtapes, and Nintendo come to mind. I also think about the great movies of that time, like Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, and Beverly Hills Cop. There was the tragic shuttle explosion in 1986 and the powerful “Tear Down This Wall” speech by President Reagan a year later. However, one of the things I remember most, probably because of my age at the time, was Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs. She traveled the country, flooded the airwaves, and partnered with countless celebrities to repeat one simple word — NO!


“Just Say No” would have been an appropriate slogan for the Pharisees in the first century, but for an entirely different reason. These men were strict Jews who thought very highly of themselves and were constantly finding fault in others. They considered just about everything to be a sin. Therefore, they engaged in their own kind of “Just Say No” campaign.


The Pharisees were obsessed with keeping the “traditions of the elders” (a set of oral instructions that had been compiled over the generations). These traditions were very cumbersome, going beyond the Word of God and adding to the Word of God. Yet the Pharisees believed these traditions were a requirement that had to be observed by all the Jews. To them, violating a tradition was equivalent to violating the law itself. This was especially evident when it came to the Sabbath.


Though the old law prohibited working on the Sabbath, it did not go into much detail about the work itself. However, traditions were developed over time that attempted to list exactly what could and could not be done. This resulted in 39 different categories of “forbidden labor.” For instance, you could not take a bath because water might spill on the floor and wash it. You could not swat a fly because killing it would be slaughtering. You could not drag a chair across the dirt because it might make a rut, which would be plowing. Washing, slaughtering, and plowing were all categories of forbidden labor.


You could not climb a tree because a leaf might accidently fall off and make one guilty of reaping. You could not wear false teeth because if they were to fall out and be picked back up, the person would be guilty of carrying a burden. A woman could not even look at her reflection because she might see a gray hair and try to pluck it out, which would be working. Other forbidden labor included tying or untying a knot, washing or drying clothes, lighting or extinguishing a fire, and separating good fruit from spoiled fruit.


If a hen laid an egg on the Sabbath, you could not eat it because the hen had worked. If reaching for food when the Sabbath began, the food had to be dropped on the floor. Cold water could be poured into warm water, but not warm water into cold water. And something lifted up in a private place could only be put down in a public place (and vice versa).


Interestingly, many of their traditions had convenient “loopholes.” For instance, you could not take the saddle off a donkey. However, you could unloose the saddle and let it fall to the ground on its own. You could not carry clothes out of a burning house. However, you could put on several layers of clothes and wear them out of the house. You could not travel more than 3,000 feet from home. However, if you placed food at that precise point before the Sabbath, you could travel another 3,000 feet because the food was considered an extension of the home.


When it came to medical treatment, their tradition said that only lifesaving measures could be taken. You could prevent death, but not do anything to improve health. This is why Jesus caused such a stir for healing on the Sabbath.


Obviously, these traditions were way over the top. They bound where God had not bound, put an enormous burden on the Jewish people, and changed the focus of the Sabbath from a day of “rest” to a day of “restrictions.” Therefore, Jesus was very antagonistic toward what He called “the traditions of men” (Mark 7:8).


Instances of Opposition


Below are three instances in the gospel accounts where Pharisees (and other Jewish leaders) tried to bind their traditions on Jesus and His associates.


  • In Matthew 12, some Pharisees accused the disciples of violating the law for eating grain on the Sabbath. The charge would have included reaping (for picking the grain), threshing (for rubbing the grain), and winnowing (for blowing off the chaff).


  • In John 5, some Pharisees accused a man Jesus healed of violating the law for taking up his bed on the Sabbath. The charge would have included carrying a burden (for holding the mat).


  • In John 9, some Pharisees accused Jesus of violating the law for using saliva to make mud on the Sabbath. The charge would have included kneading (for making clay out of spit and dirt) and rendering nonvital treatment to someone. Their tradition only allowed treatments to prevent death, not to improve health.


Perhaps the most well-known clash Jesus had with the Jewish leaders over tradition involved handwashing as is recorded in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. In that text, the disciples were accused of eating with defiled hands because they did not wash first. (This was not a matter of hygiene but of ritual. It was a ceremonial rinsing for the purpose of removing any possible contamination, like having contact with a Gentile). The Jewish leaders took this very seriously. Some rabbis taught that a certain demon could enter the body through unwashed hands while others said the act of washing assured eternal life. One imprisoned rabbi would use the little water he was given to wash his hands rather than drinking it because he thought it was better to perish than to transgress the tradition. He nearly died of thirst.


The ceremonial rinsing had very rigid requirements. It was to be done before every meal and between each of the courses. The water had to be kept in special stone jars that could not be used for any other purpose. First, the hands had to be held with fingertips pointing upwards so the water could run down to the wrist. After each hand was cleansed with the fist of the other, the procedure was repeated but with the fingertips pointing downwards. Then and only then was the person considered clean.


Jesus used this confrontation to expose the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and accused them of teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. This shows just how strongly Jesus felt about binding where God has not bound.


Application for Today


The Pharisees thought they were just being “conservative,” but they were really being extreme. In their zeal to do right, they became obsessed with manmade traditions and found fault in anyone who did not adhere to them. They became the “Just Say No” crowd of the first century.


Sadly, some Christians fall into that same trap today. In their desire to do right, they fail to distinguish between truth and tradition, which inevitably leads them to oppose many things that are not wrong. For instance, some oppose displaying the cross on church buildings or pendants, using modern translations of the Bible, singing contemporary hymns in worship, wearing casual attire at services, celebrating religious holidays, and designating a minister’s area of work (youth, family, worship, etc). None of those things are a violation of truth, they just go against long-held traditions.


May God help us to keep manmade traditions in their proper place. They are not equivalent to God’s Word and should not be viewed as such. Nor should we impose them on others. We do not want to be the “Just Say No” crowd of the 21st century!

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