So when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 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 honours 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, “Honour 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.’
(Lectionary, New Revised Standard Version)
With the Covid pandemic our lives changed dramatically. We had to wear masks, observe social distancing and stay indoors for long periods of time. On television and on social media channels there were lessons on how to wash your hands properly. Children in school were taught how long to wash their hands by singing 'Happy birthday' through twice, which nearly drove everyone mad.
So we may wonder, did the Pharisees and the scribes expect Jesus and his disciples to do something like the Covid handwash? Well strict Jews did actually do something similar. The theologian William Barclay says the following: 'There were definite and rigid rules for the washing of hands .. for ceremonial cleanness. Before every meal, and between the courses the hands had to be washed in a certain way.' The hands had to be clean of sand or other substance and the water was kept in special stone jars used for the purpose. The hands had to be 'held with finger tips pointing upwards'. Water was then run over them to the wrist, then each finger was cleaned using the other hand. After this clean water was poured over each hand, with 'finger tips pointing downwards' from wrist to finger-tips, until the dirty water was washed away. For the Pharisees and scribes failure to do this meant that a person was unclean in the sight of God and punishments were very stiff.
If we find this slightly ridiculous, Jesus' message is serious. He accuses his enemies of effectively saying to their parents "I have promised my money to God, so I have none to give to you!" Something is wrong, he's saying, when petty rules and regulations are more important than helping our family or those in need. God does not want this. His judgement on the Pharisees and Scribes can be sometimes also be made on us today when our actions don't marry up with our worship!
Lord Jesus Christ,
help us not get too concerned about
the unimportant rituals of our life
especially if they stop us from doing
what You want.
May we learn to put our energy
into building our relationship with You
and in caring for our families
as well as those who need our help.
Here is some more information about the Pharisees: