Summary: The condition of your heart is what determines your status with God, not the rituals and traditions you follow.
Have you ever asked someone a question and found you had touched a raw nerve? The other person swells up with emotion and then unleashes a tirade. “I’ve had enough of people asking me…” “You want to know my opinion? I’ll be glad to give you my opinion!” “Oh, you want to bring that up, do you?” The religious leaders in our passage touched such a nerve of Jesus.
The subject that raises the ire of Jesus, at first glance, seems rather minor. It certainly doesn’t seem to rate Jesus’ outburst. Indeed, I would think mothers would be disconcerted by Jesus’ response. The religious leaders ask, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” Seems like a pretty good tradition – wash your hands before you eat and keep your dishes clean. There are some passages in the Bible that parents would prefer their children not to be exposed to at their age. This should be high on mothers’ lists! Here we have Jesus condemning folks for washing their hands before meals! “Hey, Mom, did you see that? Jesus says I don’t have to wash my hands anymore!”
We will break the passage into three sections: 1-5 presents the issue; 6-13 records Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ traditions; and 14-23 cover the “heart” of the lesson.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
Before moms shout “Amen,” understand what the religious leaders mean by washing. They are not thinking about scrubbing hands with soap; they mean a ceremonial washing in which just enough water is poured onto the hands to get them wet. It goes without saying that dirty hands need washing, but their concern has to do with ceremonially unclean hands. What are ceremonially unclean hands? They are hands that carry out common activities. It’s not germs they are worried about; it’s becoming impure.
This is not a universal ritual among the Jews. As the Pharisees and teachers of the law note, it is a tradition that was derived from the practice of respected Jewish leaders over the years. In Jesus’ day, the tradition was growing in popularity. Remember Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John where he turns water into wine? The water was poured into large jars used for ceremonial washings.