In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals. This is “markan sandwich,” since hand washing will return in 7:14-23, with the material on Corban in the center (7:6-13)
While the crowds are growing larger and the miracles are increasing in number and intensity, the Pharisees are growing increasingly angry with Jesus because he does not observe their traditions concerning ritual purity. “Unclean hands” refers to the state of ritual impurity, therefore the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.
Mark provides a short explanation of the sorts of washings that the Pharisees use to ensure that they are always ritually pure, making the section accessible to the non-Jewish reader. Jesus uses this attack as an opportunity to preach against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, including the very difficult verse in which Mark interprets something that Jesus says as declaring all foods to be clean (7:19).
As Neusner has pointed out, the Pharisees tried to create the conditions of purity required in the Temple. It is critical, however, to realize that the Pharisees were in fact a popular group in the first century among the common people (JW 2.162-163, 166, cf. Antiq. 13:172 and Antiq. 18.12-15). They were the interpreters of the Torah for many of the common people, although they were criticized for their traditions by the Sadducees and Qumran community. They did not seek to impose their tradition of hand washing on all the people, only their own group.
What is Jesus doing here? Is he intentionally ignoring the tradition of the Pharisee because it is not biblical? Was this a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus? Is he trying to challenge these traditions, or is he simply eating a meal with sinners? When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, did he wash his hands as we expected? Maybe we can consider this a case of “all things to all men.”
A more interesting question (to me) is why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing. I think that Jesus was teaching things which resonated most with the Pharisees and there is at least a possibility that they thought he was “one of them.” Jesus is described as discussing the Law with Pharisees and weighing in on issues like a Rabbi (divorce, for example). But he was not a Pharisee in that he did not attempt to maintain Temple purity at all times. Theologically he was “conservative” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.
Is it possible to use either of these perspectives as a model for modern ministry? What sorts of “traditions” are commonly defended which are not particularly based on Scripture? How do we challenge a tradition without destroying what the tradition (originally) meant?