Mark 7.1–23 tells the story of Jesus’ interaction with a group of inquisitive Pharisees and teachers of the law. Through his response to their question, we learn about the danger of externally defined righteousness as well as the necessity of inward moral transformation. Let’s take a closer look at the story!
Notice the context: A committee of Pharisees and teachers of the law from Jerusalem go down to Galilee to investigate Jesus’ orthodoxy. When they see Jesus’ disciples eating food without first washing their hands, they ask Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” For the Pharisees and teachers of the law, hand washing is a religious ritual, not just a hygienic practice. (In our day, it is the reverse: a hygienic practice, not a religious ritual.) If Jesus’ disciples do not observe the hand-washing ritual, then the Pharisees and teachers can conclude that Jesus’ teaching is heterodox and spiritually suspect.
Now, the Mosaic law commands the priests to wash their hands before they minister in the temple (Ex. 30.17–21). It also commands men and women to bathe—and wash their hands—if they experience a bodily discharge (Lev. 15.4–30). But it nowhere commands the Israelites to wash their hands before eating.
Noticing the discrepancy between “the commands of God” and “the traditions of men,” Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for three reasons.
First, their priorities are misplaced. Quoting Isaiah 29.13, Jesus points out to his hearers that the Pharisees and teachers of the law let go of “the commands of God” even while they hold on to “the traditions of men.” They claim that their hand washing honors God, but in reality, it dishonors God by elevating human interpretations of Scripture to the level of Scripture itself.
Second, they are hypocrites. They expect others to obey human traditions while they themselves disobey divine laws. This is the point of Jesus’ example about the practice of corban. The Pharisees and teachers of the law dedicate money to the temple that should go toward the care of their elderly parents. For Jesus, the moral requirements of the law are paramount. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law find ways to evade them.
Third, they have an external, rather than internal, definition of “cleanness.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law value clean hands. But Jesus values clean hearts. Indeed, according to Isaiah 29.13, God himself wants clean hearts above all else. Or rather, he wants our hearts to be near to him. The Pharisees believe that they are basically good inside and so strive to avoid contamination by outside influences. But Jesus believes that our heart, not our environment, is what contaminates us. “‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’”
It is easy enough to beat up on the Pharisees. But how often is our religion like theirs? Too often, in my opinion. So, let us repent, prioritize God’s word, obey his commandments, and seek divine help to change from the inside out!