February 25 I Tuesday
“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’” —Matthew 15:1-2
However trivial the washing of hands before eating may seem, the question posed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law to Jesus was far more significant than it appears on the surface. Encased in this confrontation are the key issues that separate Jesus from Judaism and crystallize the principles of the New Covenant over the assumptions of the Old Covenant.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law travelled from Jerusalem to Galilee no doubt to investigate Jesus, as they tried to stop His ministry and prevent the growth of His influence. Jesus had violated their traditions, giving them reason to criticize and condemn Him. The issue at stake was the ceremonial cleansing that had been instituted by the Law of Moses. The whole concern of Pharisaic law was with external behaviour and external activity.
Uncleanness was contracted by touching or eating what was regarded as unclean. For example, touching a dead body, touching a woman after birth and during her monthly cycle, touching a Gentile and certain animals were considered not only unclean but also contagious. If a man touched something unclean, he became unclean and if someone touched him, they became unclean. This meant that one might unwittingly become unclean by touching someone on the street who was unclean. To combat this possibility, an elaborate system of washings had become mandatory in Jewish tradition.
Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisees and teachers of the law by exposing their uncleanness and stating the true nature of cleanliness. He said to them, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” Jesus called the crowd to Him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (Matthew 15:7-11).
True cleanliness does not work its way from the outside of a person into their hearts. It works its way from the heart to the outside. Good behaviour can be externally imposed by a set of laws that demand and reward right behaviour, but this is not what produces true goodness. It comes from a cleansed and changed heart that expresses itself in good behaviour, which is a result of true cleanliness. If a system of rewards and punishment is strong enough, it will induce conformity to the expected behaviour, which may appear good enough, but true cleanliness is of the heart and derives from the presence of God within us.
Prayer: Dear Lord, create in me a clean heart that keeps me from judging others and results in goodness and kindness to all. Thank You, Lord.