Matthew 15 – Hand-Wringing About Hand-Washing

Today’s ChocolateEndangered Species 72% Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs

Today’s PassageMatthew 15

Today on Matthew 15: more fuss from the Pharisees. This time around, they’re getting on Jesus’ case about his disciples, who don’t wash their hands before meals. The Pharisees are less concerned about hygiene and more about decorum; hand-washing is a tradition, and to omit it is to disrespect the generations that have gone before, or so it would seem.

But Jesus counter-punches. He asks, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (3). The Pharisees are nominally about respect, but as Jesus points out, one of their traditions disrespects both God and man. According to them, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,’ he is not to honor his father or his mother” (5-6). The idea behind the principle seems to be that God is to take priority over family, which seems well-intentioned enough, but their tradition actually violates the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. In fact, God wouldn’t have issued the commandment if there were ever a conflict between revering God and honoring your parents, and denying your parents respect is never honoring to God.

Having exposed the Pharisees’ concern with an appearance of holiness over actual integrity, Jesus goes on the offensive. The Pharisees take offense at his next statement, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (11). And of course that doesn’t sit well with them; it’s a direct attack on their commitment to purity through not eating with unwashed hands! When Peter asks for an explanation, Jesus explains to the disciples: “[T]he things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (18-20). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with eating with unwashed hands (or for that matter, with washed hands), but whatever you do with a bad heart full of bad motives, those are the true unclean things.

It’s a substantially different ballgame now that we have widely-available clean running water. When Jesus feeds a crowd of over four thousand later on, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they had soap, or how long it would take them to get to the nearest water source, or whether the water was clean enough to use for washing. In this day and age, I’d recommend washing your hands before meals, as it’s a good way to maintain good health and eliminate germs both for yourself and those you come in contact with. But the point isn’t washing the hands. It’s doing God’s will and taking into consideration the needs and desires of the human beings around you, beings made in the image of God and worthy of respect. And despite the Pharisees insistence on hand-washing, there are far more important things at stake, both now and then, than whether you wash your hands.

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