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 honors 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.’
9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
My tendency in reading passages like this one is to think, “How could these religious leaders have missed something so obvious? How could they possibly think that hand-washing traditions were just as important as who is welcome at the table?” The Pharisees and scribes end up being two-dimensional straw men in my imagination, the kind I can easily cross off my list and say, “Well, at least I’m not as obviously judgmental and thick-headed as they were!”
And that’s why I appreciate theologian Debie Thomas, whose sermon commentaries are such great conversation partners for texts like this one. She reminded me this week of this background:
“Consider their context: the first century Jewish people among whom Jesus ministers is an oppressed minority, living in an occupied land. How are they to keep their faith viable against the backdrop of colonization? In the midst of religious and cultural diversity, how should they maintain their identity? Their integrity? Their heritage?
The Pharisees’ solution to the problem is to contain and codify the sacred. How can God’s people best practice their religion among the surrounding pagans? They can create and maintain a purity culture — a culture that clearly delineates who is “in” and who is “out,” who is clean and who is unclean, who deserves God’s favor and who doesn’t. They can practice the ancient rituals of their elders down to the last letter, as if tradition itself is the gateway to holiness. They can refuse table fellowship with the “unwashed” — the tax collectors, sex workers, and other morally compromised sinners. They can set themselves apart,” Debie Thomas writes, “as God’s righteous and holy people.” (Debie Thomas, “True Religion,” August 22nd, 2021, Journey with Jesus: A WEEKLY WEBZINE FOR THE GLOBAL CHURCH, SINCE 2004.)
In that context of being an oppressed, colonized people with pressure to assimilate on every side, it makes sense that the Pharisees and scribes would be white-knuckling their ancestors’ traditions with such ferocity. And beyond that, as Debie Thomas points out, we need to read this text closely and realize that Jesus never actually takes issue with the tradition of ritual hand-washing in this passage. Jesus was not anti-tradition or anti-ritual. As a faithful Jew, he came from a people who, as we heard in the Deuteronomy passage, were called to closely adhere to God’s law to “show [their] wisdom and discernment to the peoples” surrounding them. Traditions themselves were not the problem. What Jesus calls out here are traditions that get hardened and calcified, stuck at one point in time, to the point that they cause God’s people to miss God’s heart entirely. It’s what Jesus means when he quotes Isaiah in his critique of the religious leaders: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
It’s important to understand how these religious folk got to this point of embracing faith traditions and practices that actually led them away from God’s heart because we too are invited to ask, “How do I fall into the same trap?” In what ways do we get stuck in traditions that are leading us away from the heart of God?
Are there any practices or ways of being that exist in our own church community that have gotten hardened, calcified, that drew us closer to God in the past but get in the way of God’s calling in our lives now? Are there spiritual practices in our own lives that may have helped us grow in the past, but have grown stale and only serve now to keep us comfortable and stagnant and safe?
And more important to me as I read this text is another question: How do I know if the traditions and ways of being I practice would get me a “You hypocrites!” call out from Jesus? And the good news is that Jesus answers that question for us in this passage when he says that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In other words, we are called to measure our traditions by what they cause to come out of us, by the fruit they produce in our lives. For every practice and pattern and ritual and tradition in our way of being, Jesus invites us to ask: Does this practice cause me to more fully live into the life of Jesus? Does this tradition give me the courage to speak up about injustice, especially in a small town environment where everybody knows everybody? Does this ritual refuel me with energy to welcome someone new to the table with curiosity and openness? Does this pattern in my life cause me to cling to money as a safety net, or does it fill me with energy to redistribute it to whoever has need? Does this “thing that I’ve always done” give me the humility to always be a learner and to never say I’ve “arrived” at my final destination in understanding God and Her call on my life? Does this tradition ground me more firmly in the reality that I can never, ever be separated from the love of God for me in Christ Jesus?
What a good moment for us to be asking questions like these, because right now we don’t have much of a choice about all our traditions and rituals and practices being totally up in the air. And so – it’s the perfect time to hold each habit of our daily, ordinary lives, every practice here in our worship and church life together, every rule and regulation by which we have lived and ask: Does this thing, whatever it is, help me get caught up in Jesus’ way of liberation for all creation? If it doesn’t, even if it hurts at first, friends, let’s challenge ourselves and each other, to thank that tradition and then let it go. And in the same breath, let’s open our hearts and spirits to new ways of being that Jesus is calling us to practice. Because maybe then we won’t miss what the Pharisees and scribes were missing in this text when the lasered in on the disciples hand-washing practices: the feasting, celebrating, joyous eating together of Jesus and his disciples, a beloved community where everyone was welcomed and where there was plenty of food for everyone at the table. May we question and test every practice and tradition in our lives and try on new ones in this very church family until every way of our being helps us to join this feast of liberation. Amen.