Washing Your Hands Before Dinner

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus and the Pharisees have a public fight about the Jewish tradition of washing your hands before dinner. Jesus puts the Pharisees and their tradition down with a scathing denunciation. He calls the Pharisees ‘hypocrites,’ who have God on their lips but not in their hearts.

So, what does this story say about tradition?

Well, we might think, if cleaving to tradition gets the Pharisees the denunciation of the Lord, then so much the worse for tradition!

And yet where would we be without tradition? Our whole religious understanding and practice, even our creeds, are shaped by tradition.

The solution to the perplexity lies in the story. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t keep the tradition of hand-washing, their question isn’t a request for information. It is a challenge to his whole ministry. From the point of view of the Pharisees, a person couldn’t be from God and not wash his hands before dinner in accordance with the tradition.

A tradition hands on something precious from one generation to another. But the tradition the Pharisees cling to does not in fact hand on the God of Moses, does it? What kind of God would make his total acceptance or rejection of a person dependent on whether or not he washed his hands before dinner? Where is the righteous, merciful, loving God of Moses in this view of the Pharisees?

In the First Reading, Moses orders the people to hand on God’s commands without adding or subtracting anything from them. The Nicene creed, which is part of the tradition that structures our faith, does not violate this order of Moses, because the Nicene creed does not change biblical teachings. It only unfolds them and gives deeper insight into them.

But when the Pharisees privilege hand-washing above the true goodness of Christ, they don’t hand on what Moses gave them. They wreck it, in the name of tradition. And that is why Jesus says the tradition of the Pharisees is the tradition of men. These defenders of religious tradition have lost their grip on the very thing they were supposed to hand on, God’s goodness and love. That is why Jesus calls them ‘hypocrites’.

It is a cautionary tale for all of us, isn’t it?

Copyright © 2012, Eleonore Stump.
All Rights Reserved.