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.
How this tradition got started, and the justification for it, is somewhat unclear and open to debate. But here is what the Pharisees are getting at. Jesus presents himself as a godly man and a rabbi – a teacher of God’s Law. How then can a true teacher of God show disregard for accepted traditions passed down by the elders of Israel? Setting aside tradition was not a prized trait for a rabbi.
Jesus’ Response 6-13
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
”‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
I’m sure that went over well! Remember, Jesus is not talking to critics of religion. These are the men whose whole lives are centered around obedience to God. To them Jesus says, You show no respect for the commands of God.
Doesn’t Jesus know that these traditions were developed for the express purpose of obeying the commands of Scripture? The Jews, and especially those who belonged to such religious sects as the Pharisees, were not content as we so easily are to excuse our slackness in obeying God’s Word by saying, God knows my heart. They would quote to us, To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22). They developed these ceremonial laws to assure that they were obedient to the command to be holy. They were trying to be good. Here comes Jesus throwing the very Scriptures that they honor in their faces. What do you mean we let go of God’s commands?
He gives a case. 9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”