“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”” (Matthew 15:1–11, NIV84)
Jesus had a knack of ticking off the Pharisees. On this occasion, his disciples were found to be guilty of not washing their hands before they ate. There is no Old Testament law that requires the washing of hands before eating, but there was a rule from the Jewish oral tradition (later codified in the Mishnah) that required a person be ceremonially clean before eating. The belief was that if the hands were dirty and the food became contaminated then the one eating that food would become spiritually unclean. Since there was no actual law about this, but only the oral tradition, the Pharisees are guilty of allowing their tradition to become equal with the Law of Moses. It isn’t hard to see how this is problematic. The conflict with Jesus again stems from the fact that he gives no regard to their pious legalisms, and this really ticks them off.
It’s here we see the two pitfalls of being a Pharisee. The first is that the Pharisees took their own traditions so seriously they were no longer able to discern the real will of God for their lives. In this case, the law is very clear in many places that the care and honor of parents was of paramount importance. The Pharisees made vows to God, and took them very seriously. These “gifts” included their time and their resources. These vows, though not required by God, were used as a way for these men to make themselves appear pious. They were so “righteous” that everything extra they had was given to God, but in doing so, they ignored one of the most basic requirements of God. They didn’t honor their parents by caring for them properly in their old age. God’s righteous law is always meant to honor him, and to show love for people. Self-righteousness does damage to everyone with whom we come into contact, and it is not what God wants.
The second pitfall is that the Pharisees have a basic misunderstanding about who and what they really are. They see themselves as pure because they have followed the rules they put into place but which were not expected by God. They mistakenly assumed that outward adherence to rules equaled spiritual purity. Jesus confronts the false righteousness of the Pharisees by showing them how their adherence to their own rules actually causes them to miss the point of real righteousness. Later in the passage, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as blind guides.
“Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”” (Matthew 15:15–20, NIV84)
In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis tells us that one of the great deceits that Satan has continually played against humanity is that we must keep sin from coming into us as if it is something that happens to us instead of something that begins within us. We create all manner of legalisms to avoid committing sin, when all along the poison is already within us. It is the putrid sickness that spews out of our mouths that makes us unclean.
Like the Pharisees, we may convince ourselves that we are clean because we follow all the rules. We may convince ourselves we’re not so needy of forgiveness because our stink isn’t as bad as someone else’s. We should never forget that stink is stink, filth is filth, and Jesus sees through it all. He always does. He wasn’t fooled by the Pharisees’ self-righteousness, and he won’t be fooled by ours.