How many times does a child hear, “Wash your hands”? And in our virus sensitive society, it’s not only the children who hear that. In Matthew 15:1–20 Jesus was criticized for a failure to wash hands, but not for hygienic reasons. He was accused of breaking tradition.
Don’t worry too much about unclean hands. Jesus was criticized for allowing his disciples to break the tradition of the elders. Handwashing was serious business for the Pharisees. Mothers want children to wash their hands because the house stays cleaner. We’ve discovered germs, and hand washing keeps us healthier. For the Pharisees, unwashed hands meant that the food one touched became ceremonially unclean, and thus the person(s) eating it also became unclean. (These Pharisees came from Jerusalem, perhaps doing some sort of investigation of Jesus.) Further, the washing became an act of righteousness, a means of justification. They specified just how the hands were to be washed, with water poured over them. The accusation against Jesus was not just that he or his disciples neglected a ceremonial washing or two, but was something far more serious. He, as a teacher and leader, was allowing, or even encouraging his disciples to ignore the tradition of the elders. The traditions of the elders had arisen as a fence to protect the people from breaking God’s law. The fence soon became a burden, and the emphasis shifted from obeying and glorifying God, to keeping human tradition. Someone told me of living near a synagogue that inherited those tradition. The commandment to keep the Sabbath was expanded to exclude all carrying, even of a child. Fathers would walk to worship with children who could walk. But their wives had to remain at home, sometimes for years, caring for children too young to walk on their own. A human addition to God’s command had superseded the command to worship. Closer to home, even in reformed circles, even in our own denomination, I’ve see those who may have started out with a well-meaning effort to oppose humanistic egalitarianism end up taking the position that all women are subordinate to men and even that women are ontologically inferior to men. Beware of adding to God’s law. It is a short step from requiring that which God does not require to ignoring and denying what he does require, as John Murray reminds us. It can be easy to set up human rules as standards of godliness. Jesus points out that the source of contamination in God’s eyes is something far more important than unwashed hands. What goes into your mouth is simply consumed, verse 10.
Don’t break the Word of God for the sake of tradition! The traditions of the elders were more than simply elaborations of or additions to the Law of God. They came to be means of disobedience. The command to honor parents sometimes was ignored by adult children who took what should have been going for the care of their parents, and declaring it dedicated to God (and thus unavailable for helping parents). Worship became a matter of externals, rather than drawing near to God with heartfelt commitment. Isaiah had rebuked Israel for the same problem in his day, Isaiah 29:13–14. See the minor prophets, Amos 8:3–6, 10. Rather than apologizing for neglecting tradition, Jesus boldly accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites. They are blind leaders of the blind, verse 14, providing a false sense of security, but actually leading people further from God. Jesus emphasizes divine authority. It is the Word of God, not the traditions of the elders that are important. Plants that were not planted by his Father will be uprooted, v.13. Beware of allowing any human rules to substitute for the Word of God. Christian liberty is worth defending! “Because righteousness is a matter of immediate, personal concern between the soul and God, it can rest on nothing else than the divinely revealed commandments, and no human tradition can bind the conscience: ‘Every plant which the heavenly Father planted not, shall be rooted up” Matt. 15:13.” Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching Of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 62.
Be concerned about a clean heart! From your heart come the things that make you unclean. Your basic problem is not ceremonial contamination from eating food with unwashed hands. You have a bigger problem even than the germs you might ingest. Your problem is not so much with dirt on the outside getting into you, but rather you need to be concerned about the pollution which comes from within. The heart is the source of evil thoughts, v.19. Jesus elaborates on the kinds of sins you find there: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. See Matthew 5:21–32. The Pharisees could be scrupulous about the traditions of hand washing, but their hearts conceal all kinds of sin. In fact, their presence with Jesus was apparently part of the establishment’s efforts to have Jesus put to death. If what comes out of your mouth is hatred towards fellow believers, ask yourself what is going on in your heart. Your life may look good on the outside. You may have a reputation for being religious. But what does your heart look like? Remember that the Lord who looked into the hearts of the Pharisees who were challenging him that day still looks into your heart and mine.
Turn to Jesus who can cleanse your heart. It might appear that all Jesus does is criticize. He unmasks the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He looks into your heart, and finds all that’s there. He points out just how corrupt our hearts are. He diagnoses the real source of uncleanness. While Jesus may seem critical, he is showing you that your problems cannot be solved by handwashing or other superficial acts. You cannot justify yourself. What you need is a new heart, a clean heart. “Accordingly, if there is to be good fruit, the tree must be made good first, something only God can do ([Matt.] 19:26). Children of God and citizens of his kingdom are those who have been planted by the heavenly Father (15:13), to whom the Son had revealed the Father and the Father the Son (11:25–27; 13:11; 16:17).” “Jesus, therefore , returned to the spiritual sense of the law as it had been explained by prophecy. The righteousness of the kingdom of heaven was different from that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20; Luke 18:10–14). God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matt. 9:13). The tree must first be sound before it can bear good fruit (7:17). What matters before all else is the purification of the heart, from which flow all sorts of iniquities (5:8; 105:18–19; 23:25). The demand of the law is nothing less than perfection…. But a person obtains such perfection only by conversion, faith, regeneration….” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics,pages 47, 233) The very presence of Jesus in Galilee that day was part of his work of suffering and dying to take away your hearts of stone and to replace them with hearts of flesh. He is sent by his Father in heaven. Yes, the plants that the Father has not planted will be rooted up. But those who belong to him will be redeemed by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 Paul quotes the same passage of Isaiah that Jesus did in Matthew 15. He reminds you not to depend on human wisdom, but on what seems offensive or foolish—Jesus Christ crucified. Jesus description of your heart is a call to turn from any efforts at making yourself right with God, and to trust in him alone as the Savior.
No, I’m not telling the children here to ignore their parents’ instructions to wash their hands. But Jesus does tell you need something far more effective than a ceremonial hand washing. You need him to cleanse your heart and your entire life.