I think I underestimate how much of a legalist I am. Let’s add to that a pious religious elitist.
It is easy to miss. I get comfortable in the traditions and rituals. Hang around long enough in a church and they become second nature. That is just the way we do it. Always have; always will. It isn’t worth it to rock the boat.
Jesus came to turn the boat over. The religious elites will eventually have Him killed. His teaching challenges them at every turn. Here He is at it again.
The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him. They observed that some of his disciples were eating bread with unclean—that is, unwashed—hands. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, keeping the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and dining couches.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ceremonially unclean hands?” | Mark 7:1-5
The Jewish religious leaders were now openly hostile toward the Master Jesus and His ministry. It was not unusual for them to follow Him from place to place simply to watch for something to criticize. Imagine that. You get up in the morning and ask the religious elite leader what to do that day. “Go see what Jesus is up to and trip him up if you can” they say. Okay, got it. Off you go.
They accused the disciples of failing to practice the Jewish ceremonial washing. These washings had nothing to do with personal hygiene, nor were they commanded in the Law. They were a part of the tradition that the religious elites had given to the people to add to their burdens. They point? Make life difficult for believers and dependent on the leaders.
Our Master had already violated their Sabbath traditions, so the Jews were eager to accuse Him when they saw the disciples eat “with defiled hands.” Why would such a seemingly trivial matter upset these religious leaders? Why would they feel compelled to defend their ceremonial washings? For one thing, these leaders resented it when our Lord openly flaunted their authority. After all, these practices had been handed down from the fathers and carried with them the authority of the ages! The Jews called tradition “the fence of the Law.” It was not the Law that protected the tradition, but the tradition that protected the Law! Why do we kneel to pray at a certain point in the church service? Why take up the offering at the same time each service? Why?
But something much more important was involved. Whenever the Jews practiced these washings, they declared that they were “special” and that other people were “unclean”! If a Jew went to the marketplace to buy food, he might be “defiled” by a Gentile or (God forbid!) a Samaritan. This tradition had begun centuries before to remind the Jews that they were God’s elect people and therefore had to keep themselves separated. However, a good reminder had gradually degenerated into an empty ritual, and the result was pride and religious isolation.
These washings not only indicated a wrong attitude toward people, but they also conveyed a wrong idea of the nature of missing God’s goal and personal holiness. Jesus made it clear in the Jesus Manifesto (aka the Sermon on the Mount) that true holiness is a matter of inward affection and attitude and not just outward actions and associations. The pious religious elites thought they were holy because they obeyed the Law and avoided external defilement. Jesus taught that a person who obeys the Law externally can still break the Law in his heart, and that external “defilement” has little connection with the condition of the inner person.
So the conflict was not only between God’s truth and man’s tradition, but also between two divergent views of missing God’s goal (aka sin) and holiness. This confrontation was no incidental skirmish; it got to the very heart of true religious faith. Each new generation must engage in a similar conflict, for human nature is prone to hold on to worn-out man-made traditions and ignore or disobey the living Word of God.
It is true that some traditions are helpful as reminders of our rich heritage, or as “cement” to bind generations, but we must constantly beware lest tradition take the place of truth. It does us good to examine our traditions in the light of God’s Word and to be courageous enough to make changes.
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Mk 7:1–37). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 133–134). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.