When the tail wags the dog



According to Wiktionary,”When the tail wags the dog” is  “an idiom expressing the occasion when a minor or secondary part of something controls the whole.”

Or, (to put it as a question on the lips of Jesus), do you “nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition”?

That’s from Matthew 15. Matthew records three confrontations between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees  (plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath in Matthew 12:1-8; healing on the Sabbath in Matthew 12:9-14; and eating with unwashed hands in Matthew 15: 1-9).

It all might seem very petty, very “tail-wagging,” but that’s only because we don’t share those particular traditions. Jesus said that there’s a real danger that these superficial issues can damage our grasp of both the Word and the worship of God. Here’s some of the context: You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

‘“These people honour me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.”

The word Matthew uses is paradosis which just means “giving over” or “handing down.” It refers to teaching that is handed down either orally or in written form. Along with the Hebrew Bible, the Jews had a stock of unwritten rules from respected rabbis over the years given as guidance for behaviour in everyday situations.

This often became considered as important as the written word itself. Paul described his own (pre-Christian) perspective in this way: “ I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers…” (Galatians 1:14)

In the confrontations that Matthew records, there’s something of a stand-off between what the Bible said and what the Rabbis had said. Which had the greater authority?

Jesus always claimed the superiority of the written word, but that wasn’t all he said. He went far deeper than that, to the rationale of why the conflict existed in the first place.

 ‘“These people honour me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.”

That is to say: this isn’t a game or a religious show. This is life itself. When Jesus was speaking with the Samaritan woman  (in John 4) he refused to be sidestepped into matters of religion and tradition: what mattered  was her response to the living God right here, right now. It wasn’t a matter of figuring something out with her head, but of drawing near with her heart.

And so it was with these dinky little points about whether you’ve washed your fingers in the prescribed manner. Stop being so nit-picking. The whole law is wrapped up in “Love God and love your neighbour,” so why complicate things?

The precise issue in Matthew 15 concerned the matter of money which had been promised for God’s use (ie for temple maintenance); according to the traditions, this could not then be given to sustain needy parents.In a society without pensions and benefits, the elderly could literally starve to death if their offspring refused to support them, so this wasn’t a thing of little account. Jesus upheld the written command, “Honour your father and your mother,” but-as I say- he went deeper, to the heart of why someone might refuse to care for their parent.



Lack of love.

So was Jesus just tossing away all the cherished smallprint and appendices gathered over time? Look down to Matthew 23:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23) That is to say: by all means be picky about the details! There is nothing wrong with being exact or careful. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, right?

But just don’t neglect the big issues of “justice, mercy and faithfulness.”  And don’t use the little bitsy stuff to muddy the waters and cloud the issue.

And it’s no different for us. We may not have the same traditions,but we have our own ways of sidestepping God’s call into heart-relationship and friendship-walk and community service.

The “customs and practices” of any denomination may inhibit its members from living out Christ’s robust call to “justice, mercy and faithfulness”  or to showing love to the broken, ostracised, and destitute in one’s own community.

Try moving the pews to put in a soup kitchen.

As I say, each and every denomination has its own challenges in this regard. As soon as you point the finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you. We are not here to condemn or criticise others but to look to Jesus and to hear his word for us.

So what should I do here and now, to honour my “mother” or “father” in my town?

Lord, how can I worship you with my heart (and not just my lips) in my day-to-day life? Help me not to get so overwhelmed with sidelines that I never discover the main line. Keep me simple.Keep me fresh. Keep me close to you and to where the need is.


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