Jesus and Purity (Part 1: Hand Washing)

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.

HandWashingR. 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!)

17 thoughts on “Jesus and Purity (Part 1: Hand Washing)

  1. The hand washing dilemma in Mark 7:1-5 refers to the traditions that the elders had in place during Jesus time on earth. Jesus does not associate with the tradition of His time though. He instead associates strictly with the Law. It is scary to think what Jesus would do if He came to our churches today. I believe He would be very untraditional. It would be interesting to observe what Jesus would do with the offering plate that is passed around. There is an Old Testament tithing law (Deuteronomy 14:22), but there are no tithing verses in the New Testament. Jesus tells his followers lose their lives, (Matthew 16:25) to give everything they can for the Kingdom of God. The best example we have of how Jesus viewed giving was the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21). Jesus tells him to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him. Most people in the church give because they feel bad for not giving, they are pressured into giving (by peers or pastor), or they give because they will get something more out of it. The main purpose of the tithe was to trust and give reverence to God, not for any of the reasons mentioned above. Jesus would look around the church and know every motive of every individual person (Luke 5:22, 1 John 3:20) when the plate is passed around, and I think He would grieve for the lack of heart change in the area of giving.

  2. I would say that the reason Jesus doesn’t wash his hands is because he uses it to prove a point about the Pharisees. The Pharisees are so strict with the laws that they think if they follow them all, they will go to heaven. But Jesus shows them through this example of not washing His hands that it is not completely about the rules. It is about the heart. The rules are there to guide, not to base your life off of.

    If Jesus would come into some churches now, he would probably be quite upset. Reason being, there are some churches that have restaurants in them and sell food for a prophet, or selling other things in order to make a prophet (i.e. books, movies, shirts, etc.).
    Like Jake said in his post, Jesus could find an issue with the tithing that is happening because of the amount that is being given. That is entirely a possibility. It would be interesting to see how Jesus would react to our churches because I am sure there are things in our churches that we don’t even think of that He could find to be wrong or dishonoring to Him. However, we wouldn’t know because it is what we are used to. This is definitely a topic to think about a ponder while we are attending our churches.

  3. I think maybe the hand washing may have been used to show superiority. They think by ritually cleaning their hands they are cleaner (more holy) then someone who doesn’t. Eventually it just leads into something you do because you were taught that way. In our churches today we have loads of hand sanitizer sitting by the doors. We shake the hands because culture says that’s friendly but then we worry about the germs and pretty much bath in hand sanitizer. Not much of a difference today.
    I believe something that we do in churches that is ritualistic and has no heart behind it is the greeting. I have been in many churches where the pastor needs a transition between the music and the message, and he says before you’re seated greet the people around you. We all shake hands but how many people are asking the name of the new people, or are saying how are you and then just moving to the next hand. It is not personal and instead trains people to not actually care. There is not enough time to share care. We get thirty seconds to try and say hi how are you to ten different people. That’s not even including the people who just say hi to their friend our parent sitting right next to them. It is a ritual with no heart behind it. Although Jesus probably wouldn’t ignore the thirty second greeting process He would, I really believe, be working to change it.

    • Except I do not think hand sanitizer is for ritual purity! Totally apples and oranges here! A better analogy might be an evangelcial raising hands in worship because that is how someone truly worships God.

  4. I do believe Jesus was ignoring the hand washing rule because it was just a ritual that the Pharisees were doing just because it was their routine that they would do before eating. I think Jesus wasn’t doing it to show the Pharisees that you shouldn’t go through the motions without the heart. I mean looking at my old church every single Sunday we would say the Lord’s Prayer. It was after the sermon response song. We would sing then sit back down and the pastor would pray for about five minutes and then go to the Lord’s Prayer to end the prayer. I know that most, if not all, including me, would just say the Lord’s Prayer because it was just the routine of the service. We would say it without any heart at all. I believe that is where Jesus is getting at is that if we are going to use anything in routine that has anything in relation to God that we shouldn’t do it with no heart. We should always take everything in relation to God with a full heart for God.

  5. When Jesus compared the present leadership of Israel to the generation responsible for the exiles, he is showing that even the people who were thought to be the most holy were still bad sinners that needed to have the salvation of Jesus. At that time, the Pharisees were seen as one of the most holy social groups, and even they were compared to wicked groups. In Jesus’ eyes, the Pharisees were wicked because they pretended to be spiritual and did many practices in public to get recognition. Jesus speaks of hypocrites like them in Matthew 6:5, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Moving on, if Jesus were to visit a contemporary church, I think there would be some practices that he might ignore because they are “external rituals without any real change of heart”. I think many churches do a good job of creating many different elements that truly work to change believer’s hearts. The problem with this is that there are many wrong ways that churches express and practice these things. I truly think that practices like communion, worship and sermons are good practices that Jesus would be happy with, but the focus and purpose of them is wrong in many situations. I think Jesus would be most disappointed with the lack of focus and purpose we have when we practice these at church.

  6. Jesus typically was seen as permissive amongst the Pharisees because of his lack of following traditional norms. Not washing his hands was I’m sure, one of the many traditional norms that Christ blatantly did not follow. Like Benji said, I believe Jesus did this mostly to show that he lived righteously without simply doing works of the law. If Jesus was submissive to cultural norms, how would people identify his as a Messiah who has come to fulfill a new covenant…a new covenant that is clearly different from the Mosaic Law? It is hard to say how Christ would react or choose to present himself in the church today. I wouldn’t say that there are necessarily “rituals” that we perform in modern churches…but simply the entire structure of the service can be seen as a ritual. The timing of the worship pastor’s prayer, or the timing of the ushers or maybe even putting a time limit alone on how long we worship for can be seen as a ritual.

  7. He might ignore the stages that pastors preach from. The money we tithe and the things we sell. I can think of to many catholic or old Lutheran traditions he would probably ignore. He might ignore the way we dress. He might ignore our style of worship. I mean, it’s really hard for me to say what practices Jesus would ignore. I think our American church does a lot of things that Jesus would scratch his head about. He would probably be astonished at what we think a successful church community looks like. The whole hand washing thing with Jesus is beyond out of my understanding. It’s almost funny to think about that in our current day. We try and explain what Jesus did and why he did things in our human perceptions. Maybe he didn’t wash his hands because he forgot? I mean, I know a lot of Catholics who think going to church on Sunday regardless of how hung-over you are means salvation. Perhaps Jesus would wonder why we do communion or baptism the way we do. The bottom line is the heart. I just think Jesus could see past the ritual with the Pharisees, like only God can do with us.

  8. The whole washing things was an added on command which are not to do. You can see a great vidoe on youtube called the Hebrew Yeshua by Nehemiah Gordon where he explains this

  9. That is a very hard question to answer, every church seems to have its own traditions that are a little bit different, so for Jesus to come back and enter into a service would be very interesting to see what he would do at each different church/denomination. I wonder how Jesus feels we should be going about in worship, hands raised? Bowing on our knees? Would he expect the congregation to give oral confessions as a whole? All these things that are a little bit different from church to church, but still traditions at each one, how would Jesus feel about those? I would say he wants us to do what we fell God is leading us, and as long as we have a heart full of love for God, he would approve.

  10. It is difficult to imagine that there are not practices in the modern church that Jesus would ignore in order to make understood his ideals on what is important. It is a pretty common to find instances in the Bible where God places importance on internal obedience, as opposed to external/ritual obedience. One such example is in 1 Samuel 15:22, which says, “To obey is better than sacrifice”, which seems to point out that God cares more that a person is obedient, and has their heart on him, rather than just their actions. Jesus mind find issue with the way that churches tithe, or perhaps even the way that church services can sometimes feel like concerts; but the important thing, even in today’s churches, is the heart. If the heart is in the right place, Jesus is okay with rituals. I imagine Jesus would have washed his hands to eat with the Pharisees, as you said in the post, simply because being with them was more important than the rituals. I think, to a certain extent, the acceptance of rituals goes both ways. Sometimes we need to dispose of them because hearts are in the wrong. But, perhaps, sometimes we ought to incorporate them in order to better minister to the people we are currently around.

  11. The handwashing issue goes back to legalism. The Pharisees were all concerned about following the rules but they were following the wrong set of rules. To them, rules were established in order to show their “good works” they could do, but to Jesus the Law was established to show the “good works” that we do not do. There is a different mindset to both sides. Matthew 15: 3-9 illustrates Jesus telling the Pharisees that human traditions are different than the commands of the Scriptures. Matthew 23: 23, 24 also illustrates how the Pharisees miss the point of the law and decide to make it something that they will fit their belief. I think that if Jesus came to my church, He would be a little disappointed because my church is very traditional, and we tend to not show much emotion in our worship. I think that there are things within my church that He would be impressed with, and He would be proud that my church is faithfully preaching the gospel and continually meeting every Sunday for worship. I’m curious to see how everyone will worship in heaven because I think that we tend to make worship what we want worship to be instead of what God wants it to be. In heaven, it will be perfect and I look forward to that.

  12. I thought your point was interesting that it seems the Pharisees expected Jesus to submit to their traditions. Perhaps, to some extent, the Pharisees had become so accustomed to their way of life and their way of “being holy” that they were no longer able to think objectively and critically about what their practices really meant. They were likely so detached from their actual beliefs and heart attitudes that they became more ritualistic than righteous. This story reminds me of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Mark 11. Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables as an act of “cleansing to remove defilement” (Strauss 481). While He didn’t physically remove defilement by challenging the Pharisees’ hand washing rituals, Jesus’ subversion of this cultural expectation may have served to help ‘cleanse’ the Pharisees’ thinking. Even in our churches today, there are traditions we have and rituals we perform that could use a good cleansing. These actions, just like the Pharisees’ washing, may not be bad at all on their own, but if they are only actions and do not reflect attitudes of the heart, are simply another self-righteous deed.

    “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.”
    Isaiah 64:6 NLT

  13. The idea of cleansing the Pharisees thinking makes an interesting point. Maybe Jesus was trying to make the point that the Pharisees were worrying about the wrong things. Their hearts were not set on God’s people but about the rules that they followed. I also thought that it was an interesting suggestion by the professor that maybe the Pharisees saw Jesus as one of them and was expecting him to be “on their side,” and to uphold the law. In reality Jesus had no reason to follow their laws when he was the true authority. He was upholding the laws that God had placed before him, not the petty ones that the Pharisees had created to make an “I’m better then you” system. This verse may have helped to set the record straight for the Pharisees, Galatians 2:16 “Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

  14. Giving in the church has been more of what can I get out of this instead of how is God going to use this to bless others. We have become so fixated on ourselves that we have made it more about us than God. In the Old Testament God wanted the Israelites to tithe 10% of their livestock and by doing so it was out of trust that no matter God would provide and extend the amount of food they had. In the New Testament their is nothing said about tithing because it is the matter of the heart. Whatever the Holy Spirit leads you to give that is how much we should give and it will look differently for everyone.
    If Jesus were to come to a church in this modern day era He would probably get kicked out because He would be untraditional and people would probably gossip about Him. Jesus would do I think, everything backwards. For example, Christians think that cussing is a sin. Well, I don’t. If used in the right context I think it is ok, but if it’s used in the wrong context then it would be a cuss word. Also, we all have different convictions and we need to be aware of that because in reality, Jesus is lenient and easy to get along with.

Leave a Reply