Washing Your Hands Isn’t Enough

The following post is Pastor Josh’s sermon manuscript from August, 16th, 2020. The text he preached from was Matthew 15:1-20 which is copied below (out of the ESV).

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

-Matthew 15:1-20

Introduction

To start our message today I want to bring up an ongoing issue in our home. 

Some of you who are parents will no doubt understand what I’m talking about here.

Here’s the issue: we make rules, but there are sometimes differences about how those rules are interpreted.  So take for instance, “no jumping on the couch.” 

Some of our more obedient ones in our home, take this rule as implying that there should be no standing at all on the couch… because if you stand, then you are inevitably going to jump or make a bouncing motion that resembles jumping.  So the “no jumping” rule also means “no standing on the couch.”  This additional rule was added to help people obey the no jumping rule.  Because if you are standing on the couch, you are probably going to be tempted to jump.

Some of our other little ones like to stretch the boundaries.  They think that this rule means that you can basically do anything on the couch that you want to, except jump.  You can run.  You can cartwheel.  You slam your brother or sister… Just so long as you are not jumping. This group will passionately insist that they were obeying the literal letter of the law and not being the rule breakers that the other group says they are.

Who is right? 

I think most of us would say that both groups are right about some things and wrong about some things. 

The Tradition of the Elders

As silly as this example that I’ve chosen this morning might seem, it actually is not too far from the way things were in Jesus’ day. 

For instance, take Sabbath observance.  God commanded that we work six days and that the seventh day be given to rest.  What does it look like to obey the Sabbath?  Is absolutely all work forbidden? Can you leave your house on the Sabbath day?  Can you perform a good deed on the Sabbath day? 

Much like the couch example in my home, there were respected and pious Jewish scholars who came up with their own interpretations about what Sabbath observance meant and over time these interpretations became a tradition.  This is what Jesus refers to here in verse 2 when he says the “tradition of the elders.” 

One example that I stumbled across in my study this past week dealt with the situation where someone wanted to give a gift to a poor person on the Sabbath day.  Given the command in Exodus 16 where it says that a person is not to leave their home on the Sabbath day, how would you give a gift to a poor person in need?  How can do this good deed without leaving your home and thus breaking the Sabbath command?  In the Mishna, which is a Jewish holy book, where much of this teaching is recorded, it wrestles with how exactly this transaction can happen. 

Leon Morris writes:

“If the householder stood inside his house and put his gift outside or if the poor person, standing outside, reached inside and took up the gift, in either case there was a transgression because a person had carried something out of a house on the Sabbath.” 

-Leon Morris in his commentary The Gospel According to Matthew, (PNTC, Eerdmans), p. 388

So these Rabbis came up with a solution. Morris continues:

“Neither person should cross the boundary carrying the gift.  But if the poor man stood outside and reached his hand inside and if the householder than placed his gift into the poor man’s hand, the poor man could withdraw his hand and neither had transgressed.  The same result of course was obtained if the householder stood inside and held his hand containing the gift outside so that the poor man, standing outside, could simply receive the gift… In this case there is no transgression: neither man has carried the burden across the line.” 

-Morris, Matthew, 388.

If you do this for the entire Pentateuch, those first five books of the bible, what you have is the “tradition of the elders.”

Now of course, here in our passage before us today, Jesus is not taking issue with their understanding of the Sabbath (though he does do that in other places), here he is taking issue with their teachings about the washing of hands. 

But maybe you’re asking what’s with the washing of the hands?

Hand Washing: Not About Hygiene

Now at the time, washing of hands was not something that was done for personal hygiene, it was done to prevent a person from becoming ceremonially unclean.  What that basically means is that these washings were to prepare a person to enter into God’s presence.  It was a way of acknowledging that a person was not worthy to be in the presence of the perfect Creator.  These washings were symbolic–not hygienic. 

We do these kinds of things all the time.  When I open the door for my wife, it is a symbolic act of love and respect and honor.  It’s not something I do because I don’t think that she is incapable of opening the door.  I do it to recognize that she has a special place in my life and as an act of service and love to her.  It’s an acknowledgment of something.

And so too these ritual washings were not actually about removing dirt or removing bad things from a person (they weren’t actually doing anything).  It was a symbolic acknowledgment that one was sinful and dirty and unworthy of entering into the presence of God which was a clean and holy and special place.  If one was to enter into the presence of the Creator, one must be clean.

In the book of Exodus (30:17-21) it was required for priests to wash their hands (and their feet) when they were ministering at the altar. In other words, washing of the hands was a ritual done at the altar to prepare the priest for his priestly service. If a priest failed to do this, he would be considered unclean and thus unable to minister at the altar.

But the tradition established by these ancient Jewish interpreters took this law and extended it to all people and into the realm of daily life requiring people to wash their hands before they eat.

In the Mishnah which is one of the places where these traditions are recorded, there is an entire section devoted to these laws that is just titled “hands.”  It talks about how this spiritual uncleanness can only be removed by running water so it must be poured over the hands and it discusses which parts of the hands are involved.  Some argue it’s up to the wrists while others believe only fingers are in view.

At first these many teachings were useful but over the centuries as more and more teachers added their contributions, some of whom were less wise, it had become an unhelpful and burdensome body of teaching. 

For most common people, all of this was just too much. 

So Jesus here in this story is going to address this group that has come all the way out to Galilee to speak to him about his disciple’s failure to wash their hands before eating.

This is Important

Now to us, on the surface, we see all of this as somewhat ridiculous.  Hair splitting nonsense.  We probably at first glance look at something like this and struggle to see the significance.  But if we are to really appreciate what is happening here, we must try and understand how this would have been perceived at the time. 

This was a very serious matter to pious Jews.  And there are a few things that Matthew records for us that give us indicators of just how serious this was.

Observe a few details with me in verses 1 and 2.

Notice how it says that the Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem.  In rural Galilee, to have religious leaders from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital, would have been quite the ordeal. Their appearance would have been very noticeable and they would have been viewed by the locals as people of great authority.  Today, it would probably be something of the equivalent of a bunch of government officials from Washington coming to South Royalton to confront someone right on the street.  You know everyone would be out there with their smartphones out recording and taking pictures and it would be all over Facebook.  

Notice also that it says that they came to Jesus.  One commentator writes that it was not as though they came for a pastoral visit and happened to bump into Jesus.  No, they came with the exclusive purpose of confronting Jesus.  The fact that they would come so far outside of the capital to speak to Christ, tells us a little bit about the reputation of Jesus and also maybe just how opposed to Jesus they were.

Now finally observe with me in verse 2 that their critique is of Jesus’ disciples, not directly of Jesus himself.  “Your disciples break the tradition…” they say.  Of course, the critique of the disciples would indirectly be a kind of accusation directed at Jesus because he would have been the one teaching them to not regard the traditions of the elders.  This was more serious than just an occasional transgression of the tradition—someone accidentally not washing their hands for one reason or another or just some laziness…  (Just too tired at the end of the day to get up off the couch and wash your hands before shoveling down the pizza…)

Because Jesus was teaching his disciples to break the tradition, this was no accident, this was a systematic, principled practice.  So in the history and culture of the time, this was a serious infraction and we must try and keep the seriousness of this in front of us as we talk about something that to 21st century modernized people on the surface looks like a waste of breath.

So this was a big deal.

How Does Jesus Respond?

And Jesus’ response here is going to help us to see why all of this is so important.  Let’s look at how Jesus responds to their question in verses 3 through 6:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 

-Matthew 15:3-6

Notice in this response that Jesus totally ignores the handwashing issue—he makes no reference to it at all. Instead, Jesus goes much deeper.

Jesus wants to show them that in their zeal to help people obey God’s law, they end up breaking that very same law.  And he doesn’t point out how they do that exactly in the case of handwashing but instead uses this other example about honoring one’s father and mother. 

Why does he do that?

Well some suggest that Jesus does this because the command to honor one’s father and mother, was greater and more weighty than these minor regulations about the washing of hands.  Some rabbis would have even considered this command to be one of the most significant in all of the law.

So Jesus here is using the argument of the greater to the lessor and showing how the Pharisees need to stop pointing the finger at others for minor infractions and start looking at their own lives and how they have broken serious commands of God.  And in the history and culture of the time it would have been expected that a child care for their parents in their old age—this was a part of what it meant to honor them.  But what the Pharisees did was allow people to dedicate money to God that would have been used to care for their aging parents… and then the parents suffer. 

Morris writes:

“The tradition about the rash vow is honored, but the commandment of God is not kept.”

-Morris, Matthew, 393.

So what has happened is the Pharisees are enforcing laws that actually allow people to participate in the breaking of God’s laws.  The result is that they care more about the laws of men than they do the laws of God.  Which is more important?  God’s laws or man’s laws?

Some of us are so guilty of this too.  Oh how we look down at others for minor infractions and yet all the while are not fulfilling the more significant, weightier matters of God’s law.  We scoff because of the clothes someone wears or because of the music someone listens to or because they shop at Starbucks or vote in a way that irritates us.  Yet all the while, we are neglecting prayer and we are being unfaithful to our spouse or harboring hate in our hearts towards our neighbors. Oh, how guilty we are of this too.

Jesus says in verses 7, 8 and 9 that when we do that we are hypocrites:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

-Jesus in Matthew 15:7-9, quoting Isaiah 29:13

And Jesus says that is exactly what is happening here in this instance with the hand washing.

How so?

Real Defilement Comes from Within

Jesus is now going to explain to us how the tradition of the elders was not helping people to obey God but was actually leading people into disobedience.

So, back to the couch example from the beginning of the sermon. Those kids who want to create new laws like “don’t stand on the couch” to help the other kids obey the “don’t jump on the couch” rule, actually end up creating more problems in the end. Fights are breaking out and people are getting angry and other things that are more important are being ignored.  The intention might be good at first but the end result is really bad.

And I want you to listen carefully because this is where the rubber meets the road for us too.  This is not just about what was going on in that time and place, this has to do with us also.

Look at verses 10 and 11 now.  This is kind of a transition moment in the passage.  Jesus has been addressing the Pharisees and now he calls the common people up to talk to him.  Far from being an irrelevant triviality, this is something that everyone needs to know:

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 

So before I get into the meat of what Jesus is saying here, let me quickly talk about this word “defile.”  That’s not a word that we use today very much.  It’s an archaic sounding word.  Most of us probably think about pollution or something when we hear that word.  You know like a factory dumping chemicals into a river.  That’s polluting or defiling the river.  It’s no longer pure and clean.  And that’s actually pretty close to the biblical meaning as well.

To defile here in this text is speaking of making something impure and unfit for God. So a person that is defiled cannot come before God and cannot touch anything that is dedicated to God until they have performed the necessary purification rites. Those might be washing or waiting a certain amount of time or presenting a particular animal to the priest to be sacrificed.

Okay, so now, with that in view, what is Jesus saying in verses 10 and 11? 

He’s saying that it’s not things like food and unclean hands and such that make us unfit for God.  It’s the stuff that comes out of the heart. 

Defilement was not something that happened from the outside of oneself but was something that originated on the inside of a person.

Think about the implications of that for a moment. 

[Pause]

Jesus continues in verses 15 and following:

But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

-Matthew 15:15-20

This would have been mind-blowing to the Jews of the day.  This is so different from the common teaching and practice of the day that Peter can’t even get his mind around it.

Maybe most concerning of all is that everyone does these things.  Everyone has committed at least one of the sins on that list.  If you haven’t you are way better than I am. 

And what this means is that we are all defiled, all of us are unfit for God.  All of us are unclean.  All of us have fallen short of God’s standard are not worthy to be in his holy presence. 

And no hand washing can take away the uncleanness in our hearts.  Just as eating with unwashed hands does not defile, neither does pouring water over the hands and wrists clean off the evil deeds that you and I have done.

How Does a Person Become Clean in the Sight of God?

But if we can’t just wash our hands or present an animal to the priest to be sacrificed.  What can we do?  How does one become clean?

We need a more powerful agent.  Something that goes deeper than water.  Our sins are like scarlet which cannot be washed away with mere water.  We need something greater.  The Old Testament prophets foretold a way that God would somehow remove the stains of our sins.  Isaiah 1:18 says:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

    they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red like crimson,

    they shall become like wool.

-Isaiah 1:18

But how?  How is this dirt and sin to be cleansed?

Not through rule keeping and rituals.  Not through a perfect obedience to all the commands of God and doing the right things.  God has made another way. 

There’s a great hymn that says it well:

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

-Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”

A modern rendition of that hymns says

        Hallelujah fountain full of love for us

        Poured out on us

-Shane & Shane

This same Jesus who taught that mere washing with water would not prevent one from becoming unclean went on to offer his life as a sacrifice for you and for me, in love.  And anyone who would put their faith and trust in Him will be cleansed from their sins and granted eternal fellowship with God.

So God is inviting you into relationship with himself today and the way is not through washings and rule keeping, it’s through Jesus. 

If you haven’t already I invite you to put your faith in Jesus Christ today.

Amen.

Photo Credit: © Parilov / Adobe Stock