In this passage, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees. That’s not a surprise. However, the subject of the clash probably is: hand washing. The disciples had not washed their hands before eating. Now, to us (especially in COVID days), that perhaps sounds a bit gross. We perhaps imagine that the reason that there was an issue was because the disciple’s hands were obviously dirty, especially as the word “defiled” is used. This is probably not the case. Let’s be honest, how many of us give our hands anything more than a cursory rinse before eating if they look clean?
The disciples hands, if they hadn’t washed them, were probably mostly clean. So, the Pharisees were not questioning the disciple’s hygiene. The Pharisees were questioning the disciples adherence to ritual practices. Before Jews ate, they performed a ceremonial washing of the hands. The worry was that the disciples had come into contact with something that was ritually impure (for example, they could have come into contact with someone that had contact with blood, like a butcher). So, their hands may have been ritually defiled, not literally defiled. This is what they were meant to wash off, the “impurity” of day-to-day life.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. It is not what they have come into contact with that makes them unclean. It is what is in their heart and the outpouring from that which makes them unclean. It is not the purity rituals but their morality that decides what type of person they are. This is why only God can truly judge us; only he can weigh the contents of a person’s heart.
Of course, the church has been so much better at this in recent times, hasn’t it? (We’ve only got to think of the appalling treatment of those on the outside of society by some of the church to realise this is not the case. A particularly harrowing example is the treatment of those born out of wedlock in Ireland, for example.) And although we perhaps don’t have such strong concepts of ritual purity, we’ve perhaps replaced this with social niceties today. These, too, are about the outward but superficial signs of goodness. You can still be malicious but say your please and thank yous.
Here’s a short and interesting video about how the UK church is too middle class. A lot of what we do, without realising, alienates those who don’t know our rules and regulations, our rituals and ways of doing things.
I wonder how then, we go about caring about what Jesus cared about. How do we see people as he saw them and focus on issues of the heart rather than outward and superficial signs of goodness. Truly, I don’t think we can. At least, not without the help of the Holy Spirit in us.