Summary: Jesus reveals the danger associated with traditions when they vie for a place among the sacred. In revealing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He clarified the lifestyle of dependence expected of His disciples.
Mark 7:1-23 (17-23)
Why would some people buy a cat and tie it to the bedpost to show their reverence to God?
Many years ago, a very poor holy man lived in a remote part of China. Every day before his time of meditation, in order to show his devotion, he put a dish of butter up on the window sill as an offering to God, since food was so scarce. One day his cat came in and ate the butter. To remedy this, he began tying the cat to the bedpost each day before the quiet time. This man was so respected for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshipped as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers placed an offering of butter on the window sill during their time of prayer and meditation. Furthermore, each one bought a cat and tied it to the bedpost. (source unknown, www.sermonillustrations.com).
Mark 7:17-23 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable (or difficult saying). 18 And he said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Man has always tried to make religion about what we eat and what we do. That has never changed. That is what religion is.
However, Jesus did not come to start another religion; another system to control the behavior of man.
This short passage is a clarification of an event in Jesus' and the disciples' ministry. We find that story in the first of the chapter, beginning with verses 1-4.
Mark 7:1-4 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, 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.)
The Jewish leadership sent scribes (experts of the law) and Pharisees from Jerusalem to Genneseret to investigate Jesus and His disciples. They came with a chip on their shoulders, and it didn't take long for them to find something.
"For the Jews often washed their hands", some translations say.
From Barnes' Notes: The Greek word translated oft(en) has been rendered various ways. Some have said that it means “up to the wrist” - Others have said up to the elbow.”
In short, the hand washing things that were observed came from the "commentaries" of the Law handed down by so-called "experts" of the law through the years.