Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?” He 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But 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)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Today, I begin my message with something that may seem counter to what we just read. Please, wash your hands before eating. I’ll go further, please wash your hands often and thoroughly. Two years, almost, have passed since this pandemic began and I hope we have some idea about how important soap and hot water are. However, having used public restrooms recently, I know that not everyone took anything away from that exercise.
Now, lest I seem like a pharisee in our story today, I want to look at our scripture a little more closely. The preaching of Jesus attracted attention from all corners of Judea. There were followers of Jesus who believed in violently rebelling against Rome, these were called the Sicarii or “knife-men.” There were the Torah thumping fundamentalists who called themselves Sadducees. Alongside them were the trendier, far more accepting and prophecy loving Pharisees. Even the reclusive and mystical Essenes sometimes made their way out from their enclaves to see what Jesus was about. All flavors of belief and expression were drawn to Jesus because Jesus had something to offer no one could deny. He had truth, and an authority in the way he spoke it, that was irresistible even as it was controversial.
We should see the initial approach of the Pharisees and Scribes, not as antagonistic toward, but likely genuinely interested in Jesus. Pharisees, despite our modern use of the term, were not mustache twirling villains. In fact, Jesus taught many of the same things they did, just in different ways. The disagreement between Jesus and Pharisees was something like a Baptist fighting with a Methodist. Where they differed was important, but where they agreed was equally so. For the Pharisees, individuals decided whether or not they sided with Jesus, except in larger cities where politics and faith were more closely intertwined. When we get too close to judging the Pharisees, remember Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both among them.
The interest of the Pharisees who visited that day quickly turned into disgust as they saw Jesus’s followers. Some among them ate food without washing their hands. This was not a washing to eliminate dirt and grime, but to remove any potential unclean debris. This way a person could avoid accidentally becoming ritually unfit for prayer. This practice of adding precautions against violating God’s teachings is called “building a fence around the Torah.” This term was seemingly coined by Rabbi Akiva, a teacher and likely Pharisee who was born a few years after Jesus’s ministry on earth. When we read that the people washed pans, hands, and foodstuffs, we should see it as an attempt to make sure God’s law was being followed. Even unintentional transgression was to be avoided. By avoiding doing what is wrong though, the goal wasn’t just to avoid trouble, but to eventually become better at being good.
To understand this, let us use a different example. If I wanted to avoid being hurtful to other people, I might start by forbidding certain language from leaving my lips. I do not mean swearing, although honestly most of us are too comfortable with the practice, but instead hurtful talk. Our tendency to abuse others is shown in the way we default to certain terms, “Stupid,” “Thoughtless,” “Dumb,” “Ugly.” Those abusive terms that put down a person rather than promote them to grow. Beyond these are many more that are best left unsaid. However, beyond not saying abusive language, hopefully my careful consideration of what I’m saying will show me how to be more considerate generally. Then, all of a sudden, I’m not just avoiding speaking ill of people, but actively encouraging them!
This practice of “building a fence,” is not in itself bad. Jesus uses this tactic a few times, imploring us not even to hate people, building a fence around the prohibition not to murder. Likewise, we are told not too look at other people like objects (even being told to pluck out our eyes if we cannot learn better!) This builds a fence around adultery. In this way, Jesus resembles those same traditions which are being discussed here. So, why is it that the question of hand washing upsets Jesus here?
The difference seems to come in how stringent the Pharisees who visit Jesus are. Though my reading of the Talmud is likely imperfect, a second century text separates out washing hands before a meal from doing so before prayer. The first is called a “mitzvah,” and the second is called a “choveh,” or obligation. The distinction is made clearer in William Davidson’s translation which adds context so as to read,” [the first] is a [command] by Rabbinic Law, [the latter,] is an obligation.”This suggests that while one is generally practiced as essential, the other is open to some debate. To draw a more easily understood parallel, it is customary and good to yield right of way to the car on your right at a four way stop, it is an obligation to stop at the sign.
Jesus then is not mad at the idea of a tradition, but at the idea that a nonessential tradition is now central to the identity of his critics. Instead of listening to the teachings of Jesus, they scrutinized his followers. For some issues that would be sensible. Many people look down on the Church as a whole for the conduct of Sunday brunch patrons toward waitstaff. Yet, to look at an optional custom as essential is to make what is essential seem trivial and what is trivial seem useless. It is to toss both into a shared pool of hurt feelings and broken hearts.
Lat week, we discussed communion at length. Though I won’t rehash all the details involved, it is strange that we let the outside bits of that rite cause so much conflict. The exact way that Jesus joins us in the meal is secondary to the fact Jesus shows up! The kind of bread and whether juice or wine is used is likewise auxiliary to this. What matters is Christ being with us and us being with Christ. All other materials, though important, must take a back seat to the unity that that table affords us. This is not just true for communion, but every ritual of the Church and every doctrine we teach from the scripture.
The conflict in this scene might have been avoided if the pharisees and scribes had come to this disagreement from another angle. Having seen Christ as a teacher worth seeking out, they should have trusted him in how he taught his disciples. That some of them were shirking a lesser statute was not worth a public dispute, something that was especially serious to begin in the ancient world. Jesus’s response, though perhaps a bit harsh to modern ears, was necessary to counter the critics he faced. By publicly raising this issue, the Pharisees were trying to shame Jesus, to question his legitimacy. The response that Jesus gives is direct, but it cuts through any pretenses we might place upon his teachings.
Jesus does not immediately address the idea of washing hands. Instead, Jesus points to the rationale behind the practice. It is a, “tradition of the elders.” These ideas are not completely written of by Jesus, but he points our how easily misused they are. While the Pharisees before Jesus are questioning hand washing, Jesus points to a custom that has become all too common among Judeans of his time. This is the denial of help to parents by donating money they need to the community. Jesus interprets :honor thy mother and father,” to mean ensuring they are fed, sheltered, and cared for.
Despite this responsibility, when parents become too old to take care of themselves, people would throw their hands up and say, “I gave too much money to the poor! I cannot help them!” Whether or not the person claiming this had really given that much is anyone’s guess. The practice of giving something as “Korban,” was meant to feed the poor in the community. Those who claimed to be unable to support their elderly parents were then creating a different sort of fence, one where people would be uncomfortable pointing out their failure. After all, how can you criticize someone for taking care of the poor? It would be like if I taught you all that it was fine to let your children go hungry or your parents live on the street so you could fund our food pantry. Our responsibility to do one thing, like feed the poor, is dependent upon our responsibility to do other things, like care for our parents. The opposite, it must needs be said, is also true.
Jesus brings up this trading of one responsibility for another to say that it is not external actions alone that defines a person, but the virtues within and the intention behind them. To wash your hands before eating is fine and dandy if it is truly done with the intent to serve God. Likewise, donating money to those in need or to causes that serve them is laudable. The problem emerges when the act itself is divorced from the true purpose. When we give money to look impressive, rather than to care for others, or act holy for clout rather than to please God and live a better life. In this, we fail to meet the expectations this teaching lays out for us.
If I may tell another short story, growing up, I knew a minister who worked with youth. He would guilt us into coming to services, even when we had obligations our parents had set for us. It seemed holy, to want to go to youth group more than visit grandma, but it only bred a misplaced sense of rebellion in us. We did not grow any holier through it, but we sure felt that way.
For us in our daily life, we can take two lessons from our scripture. The first is to interrogate our beliefs and decide which are essential and which are helpful, but ultimately not absolutely necessary. In the Church this is traditionally called “adiaphora,” a word that essentially means, “not worth fighting over.” I define it as a something worth talking about over dinner, but not worth leaving that dinner in a huff about. If it is still important enough to discuss after that, then we first speak with one another personally and seek understanding. By beginning with public disputes (and social media of all kinds counts,) we set ourselves up for hurt feelings.
By seeking to understand one another, we open up a new opportunity, the change to learn together and grow together. The biggest struggle Jesus’s opponent seemed to face was that he had not come to fight them, but to offer them an alternative to the world as it was. IF they had listened, if they had interacted with a bit more grace, more of them may have found their way into the Kingdom after all. By assuming that their differences from Jesus were insurmountable, they lost out on all the teachings that waited behind those minor squabbles.
The second lesson we take from this text is more universal. The things we do, though important, only matter when they produce inner change. The Wisdom we accumulate in life is lived out and grown through us acting out God’s instructions. There must be a two way interaction of one good and another. Many people will not start to do good until they feel they are doing it for the right reasons. Well, to quote Lemony Snicket, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” Likewise, we cannot use one good deed to avoid doing another. Instead, if we struggle to be generous, we must give things away. If we struggle to be chaste, we must deny ourselves more. If we fail in anything, we must simply act till we succeed.
By striving to do good, we shall become good, and in becoming good we shall know what it means to be cleansed of our sins. To be truly clean, we must not settle for the way we have always done things but seek out every opportunity to improve upon our personal and corporate methods. God calls us before we are ready, but unlike most callings, God makes us ready by getting us out and active. If we want to know God’s grace, we must live a life full of it. By pursuing what is good, the Spirit will supply all this is necessary, if only we go out and try.
So, let us take a deep breath before we snap back at someone. Let us seek to understand before dismissing their words. Likewise, we must lead ourselves into goodness with goodness. If we love when we do not feel like it, we overtime begin to really mean it. We cannot let excuses or substitutions get between God’s will and our souls. Let us seek to live a Godly life together, for that alone is what it means to truly be clean.
 Pirkei Avot 3. Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.3?lang=bi
 Chullin 105 a:13. In The William Davidson’s English Talmud. Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Chullin.105a.13?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
 Lemony Snicket. The Ersatz Elevator. (New York, New York: HarperCollins.) 2009