Matthew and Mark had Jesus feed the five thousand, followed by a walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee before the anecdote in this next study. Luke also had Jesus feed the five thousand, but skipped the aquatic jaunt. Luke does not include the content of this study until much later in his Gospel timeline, after Jesus was accused of being Satanic, spoke about the sign of Jonah, and spoke about the eye being the lamp of the body. Previously we discussed how John showed Salvation is by invitation only, but John skips this next topic entirely.
Are You Still So Dull?
Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 both similarly record an anecdote when some Pharisees from Jerusalem visiting the region north of the Sea of Galilee found that Jesus' disciples were eating without first washing their hands, transgressing the tradition of Jewish elders. The Pharisees asked Jesus why His disciples were transgressing the custom (Matthew 15:1-2, Mark 7:1-5).
Jesus counterattacks, asking the Pharisees why they break the commands of God in favor of their traditions. In example, Jesus says that God commanded for non-parent-honoring children to be put to death, but the Pharisees instead teach that it is acceptable for the children to choose to devote their gifts to God as opposed to their parents (Matthew 15:3-6, Mark 7:9-13).
This may just be the most confused passage in the Synoptic Gospels. Take a moment to think about what Jesus said here. Jesus is complaining that they are not obeying God's Law to put certain children to death. That should be strange enough to anyone who thinks that God is abounding in love and mercy. But did you also notice the what the Pharisees were allowing instead?
It is not that the Pharisees were completely ignoring this law. It is not that they were giving a free pass for children to curse their parents. It was that the Pharisees were allowing children to choose to devote gifts to God as opposed to their own parents. The Pharisees were allowing the children to put God, their heavenly Father, first and foremost. And Jesus had a problem with this teaching, despite His own teaching that serving God was more important than serving family.
Jesus also mentions how Isaiah had prophesied about the Pharisees; how they honored God with their lips but not their hearts, and taught teachings of man over those of God (Matthew 15:7-9, Mark 7:6-8). Yet if you look at the context of Isaiah 29 surrounding the quoted verse of Isaiah 29:13, it appears that the quoted verse is not prophesy at all, but rather a condemnation of the status of Jerusalem (referred to as "Ariel" in this text) in the time of Isaiah, and the actual prophesy is about how God will have all of the other nations attack Jerusalem to humble the Israelites, only to have God eliminate the forces of the other nations in an instant in order to shock the Israelites into worshiping God in purity.
So, now that Jesus has blasted the Pharisees for not completely obeying God's Law, you may expect Jesus to next give them a further lesson about that God had said about washing or cleanliness. If so, you would be wrong. Instead, Jesus teaches something completely different to God's Law, stating that nothing a man eats makes him unclean, and instead it is what a man says which can make him unclean (Matthew 15:10-11, Mark 7:14-15). The teaching itself is good, but it contradicts God's Law in Leviticus 11 regarding acceptable animals to eat, and completely ignores the other ways which God said that a person could be come unclean, such as if they simply touched anything unclean (Leviticus 5:2-3) (which may have been the source for the ritual washing), if they get a skin disease (Leviticus 13:3), if a man has a nocturnal emission (Leviticus 15:16), if anyone has sex involving a discharge of semen (Leviticus 15:18), or a woman has her period (Leviticus 15:19), among other causes.
There is a school of thought that Jesus contradicting these cleanliness laws is acceptable, because these laws belong to a subset of God's Law known as ceremonial laws. Some scholars posit that the ceremonial laws were fulfilled and thus nullified through Jesus, among other things. Being clean or unclean affected whether or not you could participate in festivals and worshiping God in the Temple, and so often Christian scholars take the position that these cleanliness laws were a metaphor, of sorts, to show how God could not tolerate to be around sin, and thus why Jesus' sacrifice was necessary. However, as is clearly seen in the examples above, some forms of uncleanliness came simply from natural biological functions; functions which nobody has control over. So the analogy of uncleanliness representing a state of sinfulness falls apart, if you are willing to consider the details.
Moving on, Matthew 15:12-14 contains a semi-unique thought, where Jesus' disciples tell Jesus that the Pharisees were offended. Jesus replies that they are blind guides who should be left alone to guide the blind. (Luke 6:39 also mentions the blind leading the blind, but not in connection with the Pharisees.) This is a rather interesting teaching, as Jesus is effectively saying "go ahead and let other religious teachers misguide other people." That is great news for religious tolerance, but it does not portray an attitude that God loves everyone and wants them to be saved.
Matthew 15:15-20 and Mark 7:17-23 both conclude the episode with Jesus' disciples asking Him to explain this "parable," which is not much of a parable. Jesus, being the great teacher that He was, asked them "Are you still so dull?" Are you really that stupid? Are you truly that slow-minded? You know, it is the kind of question you would expect from a merciful, humble, meek, and omniscient teacher. Not.
Anyway, Jesus goes on to explain that food does not affect or portray the morals of a person, but what people say can reveal all sorts of evils within their hearts. Again, this is a good teaching, so good you have to wonder why an omniscient God would not have included it from the beginning instead of messing around with apparently artificial cleanliness.
Here is the kicker: Jesus' disciples had already been breaking this hand-washing tradition, presumably for some time, but Jesus did not bother explaining to His own disciples why they were breaking this tradition until now. At least, that is what you should believe according to the text. In reality, however, this is a give away that the whole episode is a fictitious construct crafted to support a particular teaching; the teaching that it does not matter what is within your belly, but rather it is what is within your heart that matters to God.
As we have seen, there are many issues within this anecdote which make it questionable, at best, if not a flat out fictitious fable. Perhaps that is why Luke, the Editor, re-imagines the story differently. In Luke 11:37-41, Luke has Jesus invited for dinner to the house of a Pharisee, where that Pharisee questioned Jesus Himself why He did not wash His hands before eating. Jesus replies, blasting the Pharisees in general for being concerned with the appearance of outside cleanliness despite themselves being wicked and greedy on the inside. Jesus then tells him to give what is in the dish to the poor, and then everything will be clean for him. Thereby, Luke effectively circumnavigates the issues present in Matthew and Mark version. Now if only there was a demonstration that the Divine knew that personal hygiene, such as washing your hands before eating, was also a good thing, perhaps we could give God a little more credit.