The Tradition of the Elders
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
The Pharisees, and those who adhered to their strict traditions, had a process of ritual washing of the utensils, hands, and head before eating. As 21st century people, we think of hygiene when we speak of washing our hands before meals, but the controversy that begins here is not about hygiene! Nor is it necessarily about the law. It is about the Pharisaical interpretation of the law, their strict guidelines between clean and unclean – a person may have inadvertently touched something that was unclean during the course of their day; the ritual washing was to bring them back into ritual cleanliness before eating. Every law was “fenced in” by a body of interpretation, rules created to prevent someone from becoming unclean, or breaking the law inadvertently. And so, there were rituals before eating, and rituals outlining how far one could walk on the Sabbath, and what defined work, and what one could and could not wear, and how one could cut one’s hair. There were so many rules, or traditions, that they had become a burden to the people.
And so, this controversy begins: the Pharisees are watching, to catch Jesus or his disciples in some infraction of the rules. Sure enough, the disciples, weary from their journey, do not perform the ritual before eating. And they challenge Jesus, asking why his disciples do not observe the traditions. Jesus responds to their challenge with his own challenge. He calls them hypocrites, a word derived from actors on a stage, saying that their rituals are man-made, and only a pretense at worshiping God. He quotes a passage from Isaiah (29:13), saying that Isaiah was right about them! (Of course, Isaiah lived many centuries earlier, but Jesus says his was a prophecy that applied to him. Jesus quotes Isaiah more often than any other Old Testament book.) The true worship of God is not made up of the formalities and rules; the true worship of God comes from the heart. Their hearts are caught up in judging, rather than loving, others.
When do we become like the Pharisees? Where do we set up fences or rules around God’s love? Do we become protective of our traditions, rather than loving those who have other traditions? Do we keep Christ at the center, and loving as our focus?