When the Pharisees ask Jesus why he breaks the tradition of handwashing before meals, Jesus turns the discussion around and condemns the Pharisees as hypocrites because of their practice of corban (Matthew 15:3-6). In the parallel passage, Mark uses the term corban, which simply means a gift given to God. Although Matthew does not use the word corban (Mark 7:11), it is clear Matthew is referring to this practice.
The issue is whether the oral law overrides the written law (Blomberg, Matthew, 238). For example, the Law says do not eat unclean food, the Pharisees developed traditions which defined unclean to include food touched by unclean hands.
In this case, there is a tension between the command to honor one’s parents and the commands to honor oaths especially to oaths to God.
Exodus 21:17 (ESV) “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.
Leviticus 20:9 (ESV) For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.
Deuteronomy 27:16 (ESV) “‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
One could potentially make a vow (qorban) to the Lord to give a gift to the temple that was payable if a vow was broken or even on death (like a bequest in a will) and the avoid using the money or property for the care of their parents.
By analogy, imagine making a faith promise to support missionaries when the decide to build a new church, but they have not started that project yet so you keep the money in your bank account so you can give it at some point. But then you tell your parents you cannot pay for their retirement home because you promised to give money to the missionaries (if they ever need it). You get the spiritual benefit of making a vow to God, you get to keep your money in the bank and earn some interest and you do not have to spend money on your parents.
The gift could be given as a “trust” so that the giver could earn an income from the gift, and it was still considered a corban. Nolland says the gift was not intended to be an actual gift to God, but “a notional forfeit due God payable on failure to fulfill the vow made” (Nolland, Matthew, 617). There is therefore a benefit as a gift and as an investment, and the giver avoids using the funds to support parents.
Sometimes this is described as a loophole in the Law that the Pharisees exploited, but it is better to see this as a ranking of significance of vows. When two or more vows come into conflict, which vow takes precedence? By analogy, if I promise my wife I will take her out to dinner, and I promise a friend I will help him move at the same time, which promise am I obligated to keep? Which promise is more significant? (In this analogy, which promise will hurt me more when I break it?)
It is necessary to address keeping foolish or hasty oaths or conflicting obligations, but the way these two traditions are used makes it possible for a person to avoid doing both good things. In my analogy, I would tell my wife I have to help my friend, and tell my friend I have to keep my promise to my wife, and then go off to the movies and avoid keeping either promise. I would be a hypocrite and the sort of thing Jesus condemn here.
Jesus however sees this tradition as a breaking the Law. For the sake of their own traditions the Pharisees are breaking the command of God” (Mark has “the command of Moses”). Matthew is emphasizing the origin of the Law of Moses, it is not a law that begins with men, but with God.
Although the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the traditions of the elders, Jesus says they are making the Law void (ἀκυρόω). They are rendering the Law ineffective so that someone could not honor their parents and (potentially) not ever give their offering to the Temple. Jesus could have agreed with one side of this debate within the party of the Pharisees, as he does on the issue of divorce (Hooker, Mark, 178). He does not, since using the Law to break the Law is hypocritical and sinful.
Jesus says Isaiah 29:13 prophesied about “these hypocrites” (15:7-9). By quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus is drawing a parallel between the Pharisees and the generation of Isaiah. The worship of God in the Temple may have been performed correctly, but it was only lip-service to God because the people did not wholeheartedly keep the covenant. In a similar context, Jesus quoted Isaiah 6;8-9 in Matthew 13:13-17 to describe that generation’s response to the revelation Jesus is the Messiah.
This verse is often quoted when we do not like a particular religious ritual or practice. Although the person quoting the verse seems pious, how are they not hypocrites themselves?
Bibliography: J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Qorban Inscription from Jebel Hallet et-Turi and Mk 7:1/Mt 15:5,” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (London: G. Chapman, 1971), 96.