The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. ) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” – Mark 7:1-13
This passage is a retelling of a parallel account in Matthew that I reflected on in a post called Hand Washing and Human Traditions. My take on that passage was that Jesus was trying to make these religious leaders realize they were honoring something other than God with their traditions. They were really honoring themselves and their ability to choose their own path. Some traditions may seem to be very “God honoring” on the surface, but if they get in the way of an intimate relationship with God they must be set aside, at least until we are able to see them with the proper posture and perspective.
Comparing the two accounts it is clear that Mark is providing much more detail and context to this story which helps us understand what is going on in the hearts and minds of the Pharisees. Mark states clearly that this practice of hand washing is from the elders and tradition rather than a command from God “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.”
What Mark seems to be describing here is an obsessive focus by the Pharisees on being “clean”, at least in a physical sense. On one level this may have been just good hygiene in a world without proper sanitation, refrigeration, and a warm climate, but ultimately I think it represents an underlying lack of trust in God to protect them and care for them. I think Jesus desires for these religious leaders to find and accept His new teachings about the Kingdom of God, but they are having difficulty separating this new treasure from the old ones they are used to searching for. and holding on to tightly.
Jesus then quotes the same passage in Isaiah that is quoted in Matthew, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” So the human traditions of the Pharisees are preventing the heart connection that is required to know and be known by God. Jesus has an interesting way of calling out the Pharisees, “you have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” It seems there is a place in our souls for God to dwell and we can fill that spot up with human religious traditions just as easily as we can with more traditional “sins” and distractions.
Blaise Pascal explored this stretch of water in his book Pensées, defending the Christian faith. The famous God-shaped void quote apparently had its origin here. In Pensées he says:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)
God wants all of us to have malleable hearts that can be shaped and channeled toward Him, allowing us to be changed into the people He needs us to be. The only way to do that is to “let go” of some of the human traditions as Jesus has asked the Pharisees to do here. This is hard because our traditions often become firmly attached to our souls and their removal can be difficult and painful, but in order to make room for God we must clean house and jettison some of the things that are cluttering up our souls.
Prayer: God help us to see those traditions and practices which are filling our souls instead of You.