By Chuck Griffin
Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
I had been wondering when this text would come up during the pandemic. I figured someone would have something to say about Jesus defending his disciples’ lack of handwashing.
Except this story is not really about handwashing, is it? Instead, it’s about empty rituals, and even worse, rituals used in a mean-spirited way.
The Pharisees and other Jews did have a long tradition of ritual washing before eating, although the act had little to do with modern hygiene. It’s questionable whether they even had soap as we think of soap today.
The ritual, rooted in God-given instructions to priests, was intended to put a holy act between any inadvertent unclean contact and the act of eating. For example, you never know when you might have brushed against a person or object considered unclean under the law.
As Jesus often did when he realized a strategic effort to discredit him was underway, he in a theological sense returned fire, revealing the hearts of those who piously invoked the handwashing tradition.
Specifically, he pointed out the Pharisees’ tendency to use the letter of the law they had defined to overcome the spirit of the law given by God. Jesus picked an ugly example: the ritual neglect of needy parents.
If you know your Ten Commandments, you know that caring for your mother and father is very important. These Jewish leaders, however, had designed a way to shield their assets by dedicating their property to the temple, even though they continued using their possessions for their own benefit. “Sorry Mom, sorry Dad—it’s all set aside for God’s work, can’t help you.”
Maybe Mom and Dad weren’t so great, having been neglectful or abusive. Who knows what could harden a child’s heart in such a way. None of that really goes to the point Jesus was making, however.
God in his greater wisdom ordained a system of relationships that holds godly society together. When a parent and a child are properly bound by unconditional love, or a man and a woman are joined in the marriage covenant, or a neighbor cares for a neighbor, we are seeing God’s system at work. We may not understand it in full, but we honor the fact that love undergirds what God has established.
Love also is why we should not let today’s Bible passage create in us a disdain for rituals. Ritual religion should be a powerful and beautiful part of our lives. Appropriately performed, rituals allow us to receive love from God, return love to God, and share God’s love with each other.
Let’s keep the good rituals, and if we run across one that fails to transmit love in one of these ways, let’s ditch it.
Lord, where we find ourselves working hard to avoid loving as we should, help us to pause and consider what you would have us do. Amen.