The Pharisees gathered round Jesus, together with some legal experts from Jerusalem. They saw that some of his disciples were eating their food with unclean (that is, unwashed) hands. (The Pharisees, you see – and indeed all the Jews – don’t eat unless they first carefully wash their hands. This is to maintain the tradition of the elders. When they come in from the market, they never eat without washing. There are many other traditions which they keep: washings of cups, pots and bronze dishes.) Anyway, the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples follow the tradition of the elders? Why do they eat their food with unwashed hands?’ ‘Isaiah summed you up just right,’ Jesus replied. ‘Hypocrites, the lot of you! What he said was this: With their lips this people honour me, but with their hearts they turn away from me; all in vain they think to worship me, all they teach is human commands. ‘You abandon God’s commands, and keep human tradition! ‘So,’ he went on, ‘you have a fine way of setting aside God’s command so as to maintain your tradition. Here’s an example: Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Any one who slanders father or mother should die.” But you say, “If someone says to their father or mother, ‘What you might get from me – it’s Korban!’ ” (which means, ‘given-to-God’), you don’t let them do anything else for their father or mother! The net result is that you invalidate God’s word through this tradition which you hand on. And there are lots more things like that which you do.’
We were staying in a remote part of Scotland for a holiday. Our hosts, welcoming us, pointed out that we didn’t need a key for the door. They never locked it. The risk of intruders or burglars in that part of the world was more or less nil.
I reflected on other places we had stayed over the previous few years. In some parts of London it takes you two or three keys to get into a house – one for the tall, secure outer gate, another for the main front door, then a third for an inner door after that. Taking no chances. In some parts of the country people are building new estates, almost whole villages, which have a secure peri meter fence, and an outer gate which is staffed 24 hours a day.
Some societies and cultures have been like that, too. When we lived in Montreal, the French majority in the province of Quebec were fiercely protective of their culture – hardly surprising, being as it were a French-speaking island in the middle of a massive English-speaking continent. They passed laws to force businesses to use French on their official documents, even when all the people concerned were English speakers. Looking back through history, many embattled peoples have done the equivalent. If your culture is distinct, many people will want to keep it that way, even at the cost, metaphorically speaking, of triple-locking your gates and doors.
That protective locking-in of a way of life is all the more important if the way of life in question has been given by God – which of course the ancient Jews believed theirs had been. They couldn’t stop the Greeks and the Romans taking over the running of their country, but they could maintain their own way of life in their villages and homes. This wasn’t so much a matter of an official edict enforced by official police. As often in tight-knit and sensitive cultures, self-appointed guardians of public standards – gatekeepers, if you like – sprang up to watch out for anyone compromising or colluding with the paganism of the surrounding world. That’s where the Pharisees came in. They were, to that extent, a bit like a ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ committee, keeping an eye out for danger.
And danger was what they thought they’d spotted. As in many cultures, a sense of the need to protect the community from pollution is reflected in a heightening of the laws and codes of personal purity and hygiene. Obviously a certain amount of hand-washing makes good sense in any culture. But they elevated it to an art form, and did their best to enforce it, more because of what it symbolized than because of a concern for personal health. And Jesus and his followers chose to ignore the rule. As with sabbath observance, they cut clean through it.
This raises two issues. First, what is the status of the traditions that the Pharisees were trying to insist upon? Second, what then is the nature of true purity? The present passage focuses on the first, the next one on the second.
In the present passage, Jesus deals with the underlying question: by what right are the Pharisees adding their traditions on top of what scripture itself says? In fact, Jesus counter-attacks: instead of defending himself and his followers against the charge of impurity, he accuses the Pharisees of inventing traditions that actually undermine the law itself. The example he gives is of a neat dodge that excuses a person from financial obligations to parents. Over the generations the Pharisees, and their successors the rabbis, developed a great deal of subtle ‘case law’, designed to make the official Torah more practical but in some instances, it seems, actually undermining its original intention.
This is a delicate area because, as I have tried to show, the Pharisees’ concern was not simply a matter of being ‘legalistic’, encouraging people to think they could make themselves good enough for God by their ‘good works’. That is a much later problem. They were concerned, rather, to defend and preserve the God-given way of life handed down from their ancestors in obedience to God’s covenant. (They would have loved Psalm 19, which we studied yesterday.) The problem was, as St Paul would later put it (he having been a Pharisee himself ), that they had ‘a zeal for God; but it is not based on knowledge’ (Romans 10.2). The ‘knowledge’ in question was the knowledge that came with Jesus, with his announcement of God’s kingdom, and with his saving death and resurrection. Something radically new was happening, something through which Israel’s deepest calling and tradition was being fulfilled but also, in the process, transformed. The Pharisees, in trying to enforce other layers of tradition as well, were like people discussing the type of horses you should ride to get from London to Edinburgh when the railways had been invented and were offering a far more efficient mode of transport.
That was the basic issue, and we see it again and again in the gospels. It isn’t a matter of ‘rules and regulations’ on the one side and ‘anything goes’ or ‘do your own thing’ on the other, as many today wrongly imagine. It was a matter of God’s new initiative in and through Jesus. Like someone triumphantly putting the ceiling on the ground floor of the house they’re building, this then creates the floor for the next storey. Jesus was declaring, by his actions as well as his words, that the ground floor was complete, and that it was time to start work on the upper floor, not because the ground floor was a failure but because its job was done. And the view from upstairs would, in some respects, be significantly different.
All this is basic to understanding what Jesus was doing, and what Mark is saying. But of course the same issues resonate through church life in every age. Are we paying attention to the foundational principles of our faith? Or are we allowing all kinds of extra traditions to grow up around them, which might actually undermine some of those foundation principles themselves? This is an old problem, but one that every generation needs to address afresh.
Grant us, gracious Lord, the wisdom to discern which of our customs and habits are genuine expressions of our true faith and which are mere human inventions.