7 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, 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 defiled hands?”
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 merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
(Mark 7:1-8 NIV)
Today’s passage is actually the beginning of a larger passage (verses 1 – 23) where Jesus takes on the Pharisees and their traditions.
As we finished chapter 6 yesterday, Jesus and His disciples were in the Gennesaret region, going from village to village healing people. As we begin chapter 7, Mark is not clear about the timing or location of these events. The location is not important to these interactions – they could have taken place anywhere within Israel where the people were expected to follow the rabbinic traditions of the Pharisees.
Jesus has had other run-ins with the scribes and the Pharisees (chapters 2 and 3); now the Pharisees are now back to investigate Jesus. Before, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of breaking the Law by healing on the Sabbath. Now, the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples (and thus Jesus) of something much more pervasive – ceremonial uncleanness.
In Exodus 30:17-21, God described a ceremonial washing for Aaron and the priests before they came before the Lord and performed their priestly duties. The Pharisees believed in the “priesthood of all believers”; that is, they believed everyone was to follow the commands God laid out for Aaron and the other priests. The Pharisees thought that this made them more acceptable in God’s sight. God never said that everyone had to follow this command to Aaron and the priests.
This washing of hands before eating was not about hygiene or sanitation; this was strictly about ceremonial cleanliness, about following the traditions of men.
A short history lesson will help us understand the Pharisee’s thought process. The Pharisees believed that Moses handed down the Law (the Ten Commandments) to Aaron and the priests. They also believed that Moses gave an oral (unwritten) law to Joshua and the elders. The Pharisees believed both the written Law and the oral law were equal in value and weight; both must be obeyed. Of course, this oral law was human tradition, not given by or sanctioned by God.
In verses 3 -4, Mark provides a brief explanation to his Gentile (non-Jewish) readers about the traditions of the Pharisees. He explains how ceremonial purity is pervasive in Jewish life – from washing the dirt off after being in the market, before eating, and even how eating vessels, earthenware vessels, and metal vessels are affected.
In verse 5, the Pharisees confront Jesus directly. They are not accusing Jesus of eating in ceremonial uncleanness -they are accusing His disciples of doing so. And in Jesus’ day, the master (the teacher) was held accountable for the actions of his followers.
In verse 6, Jesus begins His reply. Mark notes that Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, then quotes Isaiah 29:13 as his basis of judgment. Jesus then summarizes His condemnation in verse 8, accusing the Pharisees of dropping God’s Law in favor of their oral traditions.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of being hypocrites because they were like the Greek actors – pretending to be something on the outside that they were not on the inside. According to the Pharisees, as long as they followed the outward traditions of ceremonial cleanliness, the inward condition of their hearts did not matter. Yes, God gave the Israelites His Law to govern their relationship with Him and with each other, but it was not to be the basis of their righteousness. In Deuteronomy 6:5 and many other places in the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to live from the heart, from the inside out.
Whenever we put human tradition on equal footing with God, we have made the human tradition an idol in our life. By putting human tradition in equal stead with God, we have pushed God off to the side and make that tradition our god.
May we give God the glory that is due Him, and not look to prop our own self-righteousness.
May our life be genuine and come from the heart, from the inside, and not just be a stage prop to look good on the outside.