1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to Him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of His disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Understanding the Text
In the past weeks, we have learned of Jesus’ power to do miraculous works and people’s response to His display of power: The feeding of the five thousand (6.30-44); Jesus walking on water (6.45-52); and the healing of the sick in Gennesaret (6.53-56). The concluding verse of chapter 6 reads, “And wherever He went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might touch even the fringe of His cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (6.56). The Pharisees in today’s lesson ignore compelling evidence of Jesus’ power to do good, and focus instead on the failure of His disciples to observe their traditions. They ignore the presence of God’s power, and focus on trivial concerns. Jewish law, while quite detailed, leaves room for interpretation in many situations. The Pharisees, out of a desire to obey God, established rules to clarify the law in those situations. Their findings became known as the tradition(s) of the elders.
When the report of Jesus’ miracles spread abroad, Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem made their way north to Gennesaret to confront Jesus. They charged that the Lord’s disciples neglected to keep the “traditions” of the elders, because they did not ceremonially wash their hands (to purify themselves from Gentile contamination) before they ate. But Christ focused on them, asking why they “transgressed the commandment of God” by their “tradition” (Matthew 15.3).
Jesus’ followers (all Jews) didn’t adhere to the same purity practices. “Some” disciples did not wash their hands in particular ways prior to eating. This alone means little, as the wider Jewish population at that time didn’t exhibit strict consistency in such matters. In short, different Jews followed proper practices. Even more, they confront Jesus as their Teacher. Even though no Old Testament texts call for anyone to wash hands before eating, by Jesus’ day, certain practices had arisen among some Jews. Why don’t all of Jesus’ followers abide by these more recent customs? What kind of teacher leads His pupils to violate revered elders’ teachings, that is, the legal interpretations affirmed by at least these scribes and Pharisees?
In no way does Jesus deny the validity of either the Mosaic Law in general or its individual commandments; He rejects how certain interpretations – and certain practices – may have deviated from or obscured the intent of laws meant to safeguard purity. To be clear, Jesus does not dismiss the issue of defilement as insignificant. He does not declare the Mosaic Law unimportant. He disagrees with these scribes and Pharisees’ interpretations of certain laws.
In Temple times there were elaborate rules in connection with ritual impurity. If a person had been rendered impure through having come into contact, say, with a dead rodent, he contaminated sacred food such as the tithe given to the priests, which must then not be eaten. The way in which contamination of this kind could be removed was through immersion in a ritual bath.
Philosophers and Sages
The sages imposed in certain circumstances the minor form of contamination known as “hand contamination” in which only the hands, not the whole body, was contaminated and for this to be removed total immersion was not required, only the ritual washing of the hands. What is a sage? A sage, in classical philosophy, is someone who has attained the wisdom a philosopher seeks. The philosopher (meaning “lover of wisdom”) does not have the wisdom sought; while the sage, on the other hand, does not love or seek wisdom, for wisdom is already possessed. The sage is one who lives “according to an ideal which transcends the everyday.” Since there was a good deal of priests’ tithe in ancient Palestine which could easily come into contact with the hands, the sages eventually ordained the hands of every Jew, not only the hands of a priest, must be washed ritually before meals.
Nothing to Do with Hygiene
It has to be appreciated that this ritual washing of the hands has nothing to do with physical cleanliness. On hygienic grounds, the hands are obviously to be clean of dirt before food is eaten. Even when the hands are physically clean they are still required to be ritually washed. The original reason for washing the hands no longer applies, since there is no sacred food to be eaten; the ritual was continued on the grounds that the ideal of holiness demands a special, ritualistic washing of the hands. The act of washing the hands in this sense is seen as the introduction of the holiness ideal into the mundane life of the Jew. This ritual washing is only required before a meal at which bread is eaten. Bread (challah), is symbolic of physical sustenance; also known as the staff of life. Additionally, consider that the water Jesus turned into wine in John was the water that was to be used for the ceremonial washing at the wedding.
When we wash our hands today, we run water, get it to the desired temperature, soap and rub the hands together; then place them under or in water to wash and rinse. In Jewish tradition, the hands cannot touch the water used for cleansing. In the event that the hands were very dirty, this practice would be done; however, the hands were still not considered clean. After washing, they would need to be washed again in the Jewish purity tradition.
The Jewish purity tradition of handwashing is as follows:
You will need:
- a large empty bowl
- a pitcher of hot water
- a cup
- a towel
For hand purification, the cup is filled with the hot water from the pitcher. The water is then poured over the hands one at a time (back and forth) with the hands not touching. Once the cup is empty, the hands are then dried with the towel.
For purification before the meal, the cup is filled with the hot water from the pitcher. The water is first poured twice over the right hand, then twice over the left hand with care being taken that the unwashed hands do not touch the water used for the washing. The hands are then dried with the towel before partaking of the meal. A benediction is recited over the washing of the hands: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.”
Commandment vs. Tradition
“Commandment,” in the present context, has to do with divine revelation. It is further designated as “the word of God.” “Commandment” is the equivalent of law (Luke 23.56). These terms represent an obligation imposed by God, to which human beings are amenable. Violation thereof constitutes “sin” (1 John 3.4).
“Tradition,” a Greek word, signifies “instruction that has been handed down over time.” The expression may be used in a good sense, equivalent to divine commandment. In other contexts, it can denote hurtful, human traditions that are condemned.
Ritual uncleanness is not what really matters, Jesus explains. According to v. 14-15, “Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.” He explains to the disciples exactly what He means. However, they don’t appear to have gotten the point even though they were practicing it. According to v. 21-23, “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.”
What comes between human beings and God is not ritual impurity, but moral impurity; and that impurity is in the heart. What was in the heart of the scribes and Pharisees was a devotion to the traditions of men that had become confused with the commandments of God.