The “hand-washing” controversy is not easy for us moderns to understand. We think of hand-washing as, primarily, a personal hygene issue: wash before eating, rid yourself of germs, avoid contagious diseases.

But hand-washing took on a different significance for the Pharisees. They had no understanding of germs and bacteria. This wasn’t a soap-and-water habit they were advocating.

Hand-washing (for them) was about soul-cleanliness, not body-cleanliness. They washed hands to avoid contamination of the heart. In their view, all sorts of things could pollute a person spiritually: contact with a dead body … interaction with overtly sinful people … eating unclean food … being in public places … touching diseased persons (who, obviously, were experiencing punishment from God for their sinful ways) … cutting hair or nails … bodily emissions or excretions.

For the Pharisees, honoring God meant honoring the traditions. The rituals and customs of their faith were primary means of demonstrating separation from the world and consecration to God. Hand-washing, in particular, proved an intent to sluice away the wicked world in order to remain holy before the Lord.

Ask any good Pharisee about their traditions and they would have responded the same way: “We do these things because we love God and want to be obedient to his will.” And they went one step further: “Those who don’t do these things [like Jesus and his followers] do not love God and are not submitted to his will.”

Jesus isn’t even polite in his response. He calls such thinking “hypocritical.” He points out that the prophets (Isaiah, for instance) warned about those who confuse lips with hearts, hands with motives, human rules with God’s will. Such people “worship in vain.” They ignore the true business of the Kingdom. And it is important to understand why Jesus thought this way.

Jesus had several basic problems with the Pharisees’ approach to “purity.”

  1. He had a problem with their focus. Purity (for the Pharisees) was primarily a matter of “outside” things rather than “inside” things. It involved keeping hands clean and refraining from touch and avoiding certain foods. What it did not involve was an intensive moral inventory of the heart … a search for the blighting presence of greed, arrogance, sexual immorality, and hatred. By shifting focus to the external, the Pharisees managed to avoid the hard heart-work of conviction and confession that—alone—honors God.
    [BTW, the “evil thoughts” Jesus listed in 7:21-22—the thoughts that defile—contained a number of “Gentile” sins pious Jews would also condemn: sexual immorality, murder, adultery, lewdness. But there was still enough “broken” in Jewish hearts to make them vulnerable to other sins: greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, and arrogance. The Gentiles had no corner on the market of these vices. And the Pharisees, at one time or another, demonstrated each in their treatment of Jesus. There were plenty of defiling thoughts for even good Pharisees to address, if they were willing to focus on the internal rather than the external.]
  2. He had a problem with their understanding of what caused impurity. According to the Pharisees, impurity resulted from outside contaminants and occurred when pollutants passed into a person. Keeping pollutants out was the priority. Hence, they were meticulous about food and handwashing and contact with others. Jesus believed the opposite. Impurity before God was caused by what was already present in the heart of sinful people. We are capable of “evil” however clean we keep our hands. And it is this inner contamination that must become our priority—weeding our hearts, cleansing our thoughts, keeping evil impulses from becoming evil deeds.
  3. He had a problem with the means they employed to maintain purity. As difficult and inconvenient as ritual can be, it is easier to keep customs and perform rites than it is to grapple with the essential heart business that allows us to stand forgiven before God. Easier to wash your hands constantly than to be constantly aware of your own brokenness. Easier to do something than to recognize your need for God to do something for you. Self-awareness, conviction, confession, and repentence requires more of us than the most rigorous ritual. But these—and these alone—permit us to honor God with our hearts.
  4. He had a problem with who held the power to purify. The Pharisees thought that purity was purchased through their abstemiousness and ritual activities: keep the traditions and be pure. Jesus understood God alone had the power to purify. In this, the Pharisees demonstrated a common inversion of a basic spiritual law. They believed that purity resulted in a right relationship with God. Jesus taught that right relationship with God resulted in purity.
  5. In the end, it bothered Jesus that the Pharisees preferred their own path to purity rather than God’s. They wanted to pursue purity their own way. They favored traditions over God’s plan. They were more comfortable doing than trusting. They’d rather get it right themselves than rely on God to make them right.

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