In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals. Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before a meal in order to avoid ritual purity, presumably the question directed at Jesus implies he was not requiring his disciples to follow a “tradition of the elders” (v. 5).
“Unclean hands” or “defiled hands” (ESV) refers to the state of impurity with respect to the Law. If one touched something unclean and then touched clean food, the clean food may become unclean. If that is the case, then a person could be eating unclean food even if the food was permissible in the Law. The Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.
R. T. France comments Mark’s description of the Pharisee’s practice is a “broad-brush, unsophisticated account which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement” (Mark, NIGTC, 281). Mark is explaining only very generally the practice of the Pharisees with respect to washing hands before meals. France also points out that it is impossible to know if hand-washing for ritual purity before meals had become the norm for all people at the time of Jesus.
When challenged for his non-practice of “the tradition of the elders” (κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν πρεσβυτέρων), Jesus quotes Isa 29:13. The verse is part of a long oracle of woe spoken against Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah is looking forward to the judgment of God on Jerusalem because of the half-hearted worship in the Temple. While they did the ritual correctly, their hearts were not right with God and as a result the nation would go into exile. By quoting this verse, Jesus is comparing the present leadership of Israel (the Pharisees) to the generation responsible for the exiles. The Pharisees are right to be aware of ritual purity and cleanliness, but they have made their interest in purity an end to itself. Their hearts are still far from God, despite their perfect obedience.
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? I would expect that he did, simply because a Pharisee might not eat with Jesus if he had not washed his hands prior to sitting down to eat.
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). Clearly Jesus was not living as a Pharisee, attempting to maintain Temple purity at all times. Theologically he was “conservative,” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.
Non-Jewish Christianity has always been perplexed by this passage since we Gentiles tend to smugly dismiss Jewish practice with little thought to what application this non-practice by Jesus might have for modern Christians. If Jesus were to visit a contemporary church, what practices might he ignore because they are simply external rituals without any real change of heart? (If Jesus did visit my church, I would hope he did not bring his whip!)