Matthew 15:1–20. Ritual Purity Is Not Actual Purity.

Key Notes: House rules and God's rules. Biblical hand-washing. Honoring parents. Where evil comes from.

In chapter 15 we will see Jesus in two controversial settings in which He was subject to intense criticism, the first from His contemporaries. In the second, we will find Him acting in a way that has been seriously criticized by modern teachers. That will be taken up in the next lesson. This lesson is about purity.

15:1–2 The Pharisees came after Jesus with the criticism that the disciples were eating without washing their hands. They were evidently looking for a fight. The disciples were  transgressing the tradition of the elders. On another occasion, Jesus Himself did not wash His hands (Lk.11:38), so this omission was not simple neglect but intended to teach a lesson.

Our immediate reaction is “Of course you wash your hands before eating. That’s what our parents taught us. ‘Don’t come to supper with unwashed hands.’” Those were part of our children's house-rules, which included making the bed, brushing your teeth, taking a bath occasionally and not hitting your sister. (God’s rules were telling the truth, going to church, not stealing and not saying bad words, etc.)  And so we too follow the tradition of our elders, but with no intent of ritual purity.

What was the tradition of the elders as seen in the first century?
“It was the practice to draw water (out of a stone jug) with… (a) glass which must hold…a measure equal to one and a half ’eggshells’ {about 2 tablespoons). The water was poured on both hands, which must be free of anything covering them, such as gravel, mortar, etc. The hands were lifted up, so as to make the water run to the wrists, in order to ensure that the whole hand was washed, and that the water polluted by the hand did not again run down the fingers. Similarly, each hand was rubbed with the other (the fist), provided the hand that rubbed had been effused; otherwise the rubbing might be done against the head, or even against a wall.”
(The life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. A. Edersheim. Longmans, Green,1896; Vol.II, p.11)

Plainly, this is not hand-washing as we know it, with soap and a quart of warm water. It could not purify the hands biologically. So the germ-theory of disease is not part of this discussion. Ceremonial purity is in question.

What does the Scripture say about hand-washing? Ritual purity was very important. The rules are outlined in Lev.15:11–17. One could not approach God without purification first.
If one touched a man who had a (genital) discharge, the  hands must be washed. (Lev.15:11)
The priests washed their hands at the laver in the yard of the tabernacle or temple before offering sacrifice. Ex.30:21
The elders washed their hands over a heifer sacrificed in expiation for an unsolved murder. Deut. 21:6
Hand-washing for meals is not mentioned in the Law, so ritual hand-washing for meals was tradition (house-rules) and not God’s rules. An elaborate set of purifications developed after the Exile.

Purity is still important. The caste system in India has much to do with ritual purity. If a high-caste Hindu becomes a Christian, he or she is automatically consigned to the “Untouchables” and is considered unclean and everything that the person touches is unclean. Moslems must perform ritual washings before prayers. Protestants may not be buried in Catholic cemeteries.

15:3 Jesus countered. If He violated the tradition of the elders, they have violated the Law of God with their traditions. They said that the person who vowed a gift to God (for the temple) was automatically released from obligation to the parents. The tradition was that if you had extra money and made a vow to give money to the temple, you were excused from using that money to care for your parents. Parents would have to do without. Anyway, isn’t God more important than parents? Aren’t the first four commandments that honor God more important than the flfth command to honor parents?

Jesus cited Isaiah (29:13-) which says that Israel was performing lip-service to God, and substituting tradition for God’s word. That text goes on to say that God was going to bring judgment on Israel.

God's Word, the 5th commandment is:
“Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the Land which the Lord your God gives you." Ex.20:12.

The commandment is amplified in the OT law.
“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death." Ex.21:15
“Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death." Ex.21:17
The Proverbs adds:
“He who robs his father or his mother and says ‘That is no transgression,’ is the companion of a man who destroys.” Prov.28:24
“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.“ Prov. 30:17
Paul also elaborates the Fifth Commandment:
“If anyone does not provide for his relatives and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” ITim.5:8

Vows are important and must be carried out.
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you.“ (Deut.23:21–22). The priests were using that commandment as an excuse to capture money for their own purposes.

What is our obligation to our parents? When we asked our mother what she wanted from us for Christmas, birthday, anniversary, etc. she had only one answer: “Good children.” We owe our parents honor, respect and obedience.
We are to provide for their care when they are not able to care for themselves. Hebrew tradition instructs children to give deferential care to their parents starting when they are ten years old. Then when such care is required, the parents' pride will not be wounded. When we recognize their new dependency and their need of us, we must recall our child-hood dependency and need for them.
Personal time with them as well as money is necessary to honor them.

15:10:11 Jesus spoke a parable, not changing the subject. Not what goes into a person’s  mouth, but what comes out  of a person’s mouth defiles. Jesus refused the argument that the person with unwashed hands is unclean and therefore whatever is eaten is unclean. He was not talking about food at all.

15:13–14 Pharisees were scandalized. In spite of their ceremonial purity, Jesus said they were ethically impure and  corrupt. He dismissed their opposition.
            They were not good seed planted by the Father. They were tares and will be rooted out.
            They were blind men leading the blind.

15:18–20 The parable is really about the spiritual life, not about food and the gastrointestinal tract. The mouth is a metaphor for the heart---things go in and out of it. What goes into the heart does not defile,  but what comes out, altered and amplified. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, etc. These make the person and his surroundings dirty. It is not our institutions that make our hearts sinful, but our hearts make our institutions sinful.

This concept is fundamental to our understanding of the world. It is the basis for pre-evangelism. We must persuade people that no external work is going to transform the internal disorder of sin. A bandage on the skin will not cure the dog’s heart-worm. An aspirin tablet will not cure colon cancer. How can we deal with sin?

An anecdote, talking with a student after the day's work was done.
> “Does the world make sense to you?
< No.
> Why not?
< It is chaotic.
> Is there chaos everywhere? The sun and moon behave so well that we use them for telling time. Or is it just the world that is  chaotic?
< It is a mess.
>Why is it a mess? Is it the fault of governments or climate or schools? Is it capitalism or fascism or communism …?
< I don’t know.
> What does evil come from? Why is Baghdad bad? Why is Amsterdam a lawless city? Do we have to have the debauchery of Mardi Gras before the penance of Lent? Why are there hundreds of murders in our big cities?
< I don’t know. I think people are basically good and they just need education.
> But if you educate a liar you get a more clever liar. So how can we clean up the human heart?
< I don't know.

There is good news. The human heart can be cleaned up.