Jesus didn’t wash his hands before eating. Eww.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 January

Mark 7.1-5 • Matthew 15.1-2 • Luke 11.37-38.

Sad to say, your average Christian knows little to nothing about what’s in the Law, the commands the LORD handed down to Moses and the Hebrews in the desert. If they’re on a bible-reading plan, they skim the commands in Exodus through Deuteronomy ’cause they’re looking for the stories. The rest, they consider as effective a sleep aid as melatonin.

This is bad enough considering God still expects us to follow certain relevant commands. But when it comes to studying Jesus, these Christians don‘t know the difference between an actual, God-mandated command… and Pharisee tradition. So when Jesus butts heads with Pharisees ’cause he violated something, Christians regularly and wrongly assume Jesus was violating God’s commands.

In other words sinning. Which he never, ever did, no matter how much he was tempted. He 4.15 But weirdly, we imagine it was okay for Jesus to violate the Law, ’cause he was only violating the commands he nullified. The commands we ignore, ’cause didn’t Jesus come to do away with the Law? Absolutely not, Mt 5.17 but you try telling an irreligious person that Jesus expects ’em to behave themselves.

Jesus never violated a command. Never once. Never ever. For two reasons.

First, sin is defined by the Law. Break a command, even one of the little ones, and you sinned. Ro 7.7-12 And Jesus never sinned. 1Jn 3.5 Had he, he wouldn’t be able to die for our sins: He’d have to die, same as everyone, for his own sins. And if Jesus never paid off our sins, we’re never getting resurrected. When we die, we stay dead. No kingdom. No New Jerusalem.

Second, Jesus is God. The same God, the LORD Almighty, who handed down the Law in the first place. It’s his Law. Breaking his own Law goes against his very nature. He doesn’t get any special God-loophole so “it’s not a sin when Jesus does it.” If that were so, it’d be utterly meaningless when the apostles point out Jesus didn’t sin.

So let that sink in: Jesus never violated the Law. He taught us to follow his Law. His kerfuffles with Pharisees were never about breaking the Law: They were about violating the way Pharisee elders interpreted the Law. Jesus had his own interpretations—because he knew precisely what he meant when he handed down these commands in the first place. His view was the old wine, which is better. Lk 5.39 The Pharisee view was a more recent spin on the commands than the LORD’s original intent, i.e. new wine.

So today we’ll get into one of those disagreements Jesus had with Pharisees. Specifically about their custom of washing before meals.

…Which, when you think of it, is also our custom. And kind of an important one. Because we frequently eat with our hands. Apples, grapes, sandwiches, carrots, pizza, nachos, burritos… we don’t use utensils as often as we imagine. And Jesus’s culture used utensils for food preparation and serving, but eating was done with your hands. Even when you scooped out wet food… from the same bowl as everyone else. You’d better have clean hands.

But it seems Jesus was having a meal with Pharisees, and nobody saw him or his kids wash their hands. Understandably they made an issue of it. As would we. Even if it is Jesus. “Um… aren’t you gonna clean up first? I mean, you’ve been touching lepers…”

The Pharisees and their elders.

In Luke this took place after Jesus taught about having a good eye; in Matthew and Mark, after Jesus cured people at Khinnerót.

Luke 11.37-38 KWL
37 During the speech, a Pharisee requested Jesus dine with him.
Entering the house, Jesus reclined at table.
38 Seeing this, the Pharisee wondered why Jesus didn’t first wash before the meal.

In the other two gospels, Jesus isn’t necessarily eating, but the Pharisees brought up the whole washing thing anyway.

Mark 7.1-5 KWL
1 Pharisees and certain scribes from Jerusalem went to synagogue with Jesus.
2 Seeing some of Jesus’s students, eating bread, had “common hands”—meaning unwashed—
3 for unless Pharisees and all Judeans wash their hands, front and back,
they don’t eat, as holding to the elders’ traditions.
4 When they don’t wash after coming from market, they don’t eat.
There are many other customs they received and hold,
washing cups, pots, copperware, couches.
5 The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus,
“For what reason don’t your students walk in the elders’ tradition, but eat bread with common hands?”
Matthew 15.1-2 KWL
1 Then Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying,
2 “For what reason do your students violate the elders’ tradition?—
they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread!”

I mean, it’s a fair question. Rabbis were expected to pass down the elders’ traditions to their students. Jesus either sucked at it, or wasn’t doing it at all. So the Pharisees and scribes wanted to know the deal. Don’t Jesus’s kids wash?

But let’s press pause on this and get to who “the elders” were.

The term “elders” (Greek πρεσβυτέρων/presvytéron) makes Phariseeism sound old and ancient. It wasn’t really. The two most famous of their elders, Hillel and Shammai, lived at the same time Jesus did. Hillel died in the year 10, when Jesus was a teenager. Shammai died in the year 30—and was possibly still alive at the very time this story took place. There’s every possibility Jesus met both Hillel and Shammai… and taught them when he was a 12-year-old prodigy in temple in the year 5. Lk 2.41-52 If they were there, these elders got to meet their Messiah, so that’s kinda cool.

Anyway this “tradition” we read about in the gospels? Less than a century old. Imagine we, in 2019, were practicing an “ancient custom” which we’re not aware was invented in the 1980s. (Heck, some of us Evangelicals totally are.) That should give you a good idea of how “ancient” Pharisee tradition actually wasn’t.

The “elders” were the Pharisee rabbis who’d made various rulings about how to interpret the Law. These rulings were carefully passed down to the attendees in Pharisee synagogues, like where Jesus taught. The goal was to get young people to grow up and be proper, observant, holy Pharisees. But these rulings—these customs, traditions, habits—are not Law. They’re not from bible. They’re based on bible, much as Christian popular culture is based on bible… more or less.

Fr’instance the bible has, “Observe the Sabbath day.” Ex 20.8, Lv 5.12 Plus a few additional commands listing exceptions, and a few commands getting specific about what we can and can’t do on Sabbath—like light a fire, or gather firewood. In total there are about 10 such commands.

But the Pharisee elders composed an entire book, solely about Sabbath rules. It’s called Shabbat, and found in the Mishna, the copy of the Pharisees’ rulings which survived to the present day. Many Jews still follow it today.

Imagine an overzealous Christian has a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. (Not knocking this book whatsoever; I like The Purpose-Driven Life. I’m just using it as a fr’instance.) Imagine this person takes all Warren’s recommendations, claims they’re the only way to interpret bible, orders every true Christian to obey them, and starts a new Christian sect called Warrenism. Imagine Warrenism becomes the biggest denomination in the church. Seems far-fetched? Not when you know anything about Calvinism.

Good though Warren’s advice may be, it ain’t bible. Based, as it may be, on Jesus’s teachings, it ain’t Jesus. If you violate Warren’s advice, the Warrenists might freak out a little—much as Calvinists get offended when you question the five points of Calvinism. But you didn’t violate God. (And Warren himself will totally forgive you.)

Same deal when Jesus broke the elders’ traditions. He didn’t break the Law, nor the bible. He broke some traditions which he never invented. Got it?

Jesus, as his students’ master, was responsible for teaching them to follow God. In the Pharisees’ minds, it mean teaching ’em to be observant Pharisees. Except Jesus isn’t training Pharisees. He’s training Christians.

Ritual washing.

Most of the Law’s commands about ritual washing were for priests. And quite necessary, what with all the blood in the sacrifices. What the Pharisee elders did was turn everything into a “sacrifice.” Praise was sacrifice. Prayer was sacrifice. Blessings were sacrifices. Meals were sacrifices. And so on: They ordered their followers to wash before or after doing any of those things.

So washing before dinner had nothing to do with actual cleanliness, but ritual cleanliness. You know how we think of washing?—hot water and soap, or at least hand sanitizer? Pharisee washing wasn’t like that.

  1. There’s a stone barrel of standing water by the entry.
  2. Clench your fists and thrust them into the water, up to the elbows.
  3. Lift them up in prayer, and pray a blessing.
  4. Do this when you enter and exit.

Yeah, Pharisees changed the water every day, but still: You just dipped your hands in the same water everybody else dipped into. ’Tain’t all that sanitary. But sanitation wasn’t really the point. Ritual was.

Pharisees also insisted you baptize yourself for all sorts of reasons. Go out to a large body of water, fully clothed, and immerse yourself up to your head. The Law limited baptism to any instance where you made yourself ritually unclean, and had to become clean again before you could go to temple. But Pharisees figured every day is a day of worship, so they baptized themselves so they might always be clean for worship. Or at least as often as possible. Whenever they went home, they baptized themselves, ’cause you never know—you might’ve touched a ritually unclean person, or stepped on a ritually unclean bug. And just in case any non-kosher bugs touched your containers and defiled them, baptize them too. And while you’re at it, baptize the couches you lay on while eating. I’m not kidding; that’s what Mark says. It gets obsessive-compulsive.

And none of it is necessary. God never mandated it. So you can understand why Jesus and his students ignored it: It didn’t make you any closer to God, and you might even have to take time out from God just to keep up with the rituals.

But you can also understand why the Pharisees, who went to such trouble, were annoyed by that attitude. It made light of their devotion.

Keeping and ditching tradition.

While it’s certainly a mistake to follow traditions which don’t further our relationship with God, way too many Christians interpret Jesus’s debates with Pharisees to mean it’s okay to ditch all tradition. Or pick and choose our traditions—and a few divine commands, while we’re at it—based on convenience. We like to think tradition is old and fusty, that Jesus thinks the same way, and that’s why he ignored it: It’s old and dumb, and Jesus is young and hip.

That isn’t why. Jesus is God, God is love, and Jesus’s sole motivation is love. He didn’t ignore traditions because they’re inconvenient. Inconvenience is always a sign of selfishness. Jesus never acts out of selfishness. He acts out of love.

Many of our cultural traditions should be practiced, if only for love’s sake. Opening doors for others, or covering your mouth when you sneeze, or waiting your turn, or saying hello to strangers. Courtesy is kindness, and a good thing. It particularly stands out when no one else practices it. Jesus encourages courtesy.

Jesus’s reason for rejecting Pharisee custom was to make a point: They followed custom instead of God. That’s seldom our motivation for defying custom: We follow nothing. Not custom, not God. We claim “freedom in Christ,” but really it’s about doing as we please, and if it trips up other Christians, so what.

It’s okay to provoke people to ask, “Why don’t you do what we do?” when what they do is wrong. It’s okay to purge fake religion from our lives, and encourage others to do likewise. But let’s be careful we’re not purging true religion, proper behavior, or acts of love. Let’s not presume we can do whatever we like. We’re Christians. We’re supposed to do whatever Jesus likes. It’s what’s best for us.

Christ Almighty!