The traditions of the elders had preoccupied the Pharisees and Scribes. These traditions developed only a few centuries before the incarnation of Christ, when there was no prophet. They were against the genuine spirit of Mosaic laws. Instead of offering one’s heart to God, the Jewish leaders were adulterating religion with human precepts and rituals. An example is “corban,” that substituted service to the parents with an offering to God. The Pharisees and Scribes came from Jerusalem to accuse Jesus of violating the Jewish traditions. When they criticized him for not correcting his disciples who were eating with “unclean” hands, Jesus reacted to his adversaries on how they were violating the commandments of God replacing them with the human teachings. This must be a revelation for us who also lose the genuine spirit of Jesus’ teachings.
The Tradition of the Elders
(Mark 7:1) One day the Pharisees with some teachers of the Law who had just come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. (2) They noticed that some of his disciples were eating their meal with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. (3) Now the Pharisees, as well as the rest of the Jews, never eat without washing their hands, for they follow the tradition received from their ancestors. (4) Nor do they eat anything when they come from the market without first washing themselves. And there are many other traditions they observe, for example, the ritual washing of cups, pots and plates. (5) So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law asked him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders, but instead eat with unclean hands?” (6) Jesus answered, “You, shallow people! How well Isaiah prophesied of you when he wrote: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (7) The worship they offer me is worthless, for what they teach are only human rules. (8) You even put aside the commandment of God to hold fast to human tradition.” (9) And Jesus commented, “You have a fine way of disregarding the commandment of God in order to maintain your own tradition. (10) For example, Moses said: Honor your father and your mother, and whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death. (11) But you say that if anyone says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever I could have helped you with is Corban (that is, offered to God), (12) then you no longer permit him to help his parents. (13) So you nullify the word of God through the tradition you have handed on. And you do many other things like this.”
(Mark 7:1) One day the Pharisees with some teachers of the Law who had just come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus.
The Pharisees along with some Scribes came from Jerusalem to spy on Jesus, who became popular as a revolutionary prophet. Jerusalem was the headquarters of the Jews where the Temple was situated, and the Great Sanhedrin used to meet. The Sanhedrin, which had religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction over the Jews, sent these representatives to report the faults of Jesus. They were meticulously observing how Jesus and his disciples were violating the Jewish traditions. The Pharisees and Scribes were distinct groups, though some Scribes were Pharisees.
Pharisee in Hebrew means “separated” or “detached” because this group had separated themselves from the ordinary people in their strict religious observances. They were against the Hellenistic influence in the Jewish religion. Besides the laws given through Moses, the Pharisees developed their own interpretations and applications of the Law. They gave importance to the traditional rituals that were not in the Mosaic laws. The elders of earlier generations handed over those practices, claiming that they were also of divine origin. The Pharisees originated after the Babylonian exile when there was a thirst for keeping the purity of Judaism according to the written laws and oral traditions. Though some Pharisees appreciated the teachings of Jesus and invited him for dinner (Luke 7:36-50, 14:1), many others objected to him because he did not follow their man-made rituals and traditions.
The Scribes were another Jewish group whose primary job was studying, copying, and interpreting the Holy Scripture. They thrived from the time of Babylonian exile to 70 A.D. when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The Scribes were serious in copying the Bible without error. Deprived of them, Old Testament could not survive in the past when the writing and copying materials were fragile. Though some were priests like Ezra (Ezra 7:5-6), the Levites and the common people also became Scribes. They were also experts in the judicial procedures and served the Sanhedrin. The Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They gained authority among the Jews and joined the Pharisees in opposing Jesus for his liberal approach on man-made laws. Rabbi was the title of the wise scribes.
(2) They noticed that some of his disciples were eating their meal with unclean hands, that is, without washing them.
The Scribes and Pharisees were successful in finding fault with Jesus’ disciples on violating ritual hand washing before the meal. It did not mean that they ate with dirty hands. They made sure that their hands were clean. But they did not follow the full formalities of multiple ceremonial washings. Hence, according to the critics, their hands were ritually unclean. Jesus ignored his disciples’ noncompliance because he did not find sense in giving undue importance to irrelevant and man-made rules.
(3) Now the Pharisees, as well as the rest of the Jews, never eat without washing their hands, for they follow the tradition received from their ancestors. (4) Nor do they eat anything when they come from the market without first washing themselves. And there are many other traditions they observe, for example, the ritual washing of cups, pots and plates.
Mark, the evangelist, wrote his gospel primarily for the Gentiles in Rome who were not familiar with the Jewish practices. So, he added an explanatory note for his readers so they could better understand the passage. The Pharisees had started the ritual purifications that the Jews practiced later. Though the traditions were not of divine origin nor from Moses, such man-made practices got precedence over God-given commandments. The evangelist specified that the elders developed them as traditions. The ancestors insisted not just hygienic washing, but “careful washing” and ritual purification. People practiced such rituals before eating or after coming from the marketplace. They also had prescribed formalities on purifying household utensils. These were also a part of untouchability with the Gentiles and the unclean animals. Their contact with the unclean animals or the Gentiles in the marketplace might have polluted them, or the Gentiles might have manufactured or touched the merchandise. Hence, the elders prescribed ritual purification for Jews coming from the market.
(5) So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law asked him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders, but instead eat with unclean hands?”
The Pharisees and Scribes considered the unwritten, human rules as equivalent to the Mosaic Law, though Moses had prescribed laws for cleanliness before entering the Temple of the Lord. They applied this Temple related cleansing practices to the meals. The practice of cleansing before the meals is clear from the six stone water jars (John 2:1-12) that were available at the wedding of Cana. The Pharisees and Scribes questioned Jesus because his disciples were not complying with such regulations. He had the responsibility to correct them. Jesus might have felt that these man-made regulations were making the lives of people hard while ignoring the cleanliness of heart.
(6) Jesus answered, “You, shallow people! How well Isaiah prophesied of you when he wrote: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (7) The worship they offer me is worthless, for what they teach are only human rules.”
Jesus quoted from Isaiah 29:13 to hold a mirror against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes who criticized him. Isaiah, who lived around 700 years before Christ, criticized the Jews for their hypocrisy in worshipping God. Self-dedication to God was the motive behind God’s covenant with Israel. However, their hearts were in the worldly affairs and they did only lip service. Such sacrifices were in vain because they had replaced divine doctrines with the human precepts. The Jewish leaders, during the public ministry of Jesus, were continuing the same attitude in their relationship with God. Their ritual washing of hands before and during the meals, their bathing after their return from the market, or their ceremonial washing of kitchen utensils were of less concern for God. His interest was in the care for those who needed their service and acceptance of His Son Jesus as the savior.
(8) “You even put aside the commandment of God to hold fast to human tradition.”
Ezekiel taught that God’s commandments should have precedence over human traditions. “I said to their children in the desert: Do not follow the example of your ancestors; do not keep their practices and do not defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord, your God. Observe my decrees and follow my laws.” (Ezekiel 20:18-19). People should not repeat the same mistakes of their forefathers by worshiping idols and following human precepts contrary to God’s commandments. The Scribes had added many rituals and traditions to what God had taught through Moses, making them prominent than God’s laws. So, their interpretation of the Holy Scripture went far from the genuine spirit that God had intended. Through such traditions, the Jewish leaders were deviating people’s attention from God and making their life burdensome.
(9) And Jesus commented, “You have a fine way of disregarding the commandment of God in order to maintain your own tradition.”
While interpreting the commandments of God, the Scribes had set aside God’s commandments and replaced them with their human traditions. That was against God’s will. So, Jesus criticized the Pharisees and Scribes who came to find fault with him.
(10) For example, Moses said: Honor your father and your mother, and whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death.
Jesus illustrated what he spoke against the Pharisees and Scribes with a typical example. One of the ten commandments is “Honor your father and your mother.” Among the vegetative, animal, and human lives, humans are more interdependent. Throughout our lives, especially in childhood, sickness, and elderly life, we need support of others. Parents love and care for their children, and they love and serve their parents in their old age. The love and reverence in the child-parent relationship should remain even during the healthy years. The Bible repeats this commandment of respect to God-assigned parents in several places. Jesus continued to quote from Exodus 21:17. In Leviticus 20:9, we read: “The man who curses his father or mother shall be put to death; since he has cursed his father or mother, let his blood be upon his own head.” Thus, the word of God is strong on honoring parents and on the punishment for violating it. Still, the Jewish leaders found a man-made substitute to violate that important commandment. According to Jesus, such replacement for God’s commandment was unacceptable to God.
(11) But you say that if anyone says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever I could have helped you with is Corban (that is, offered to God)…’
The literal meaning of “Corban” is “that which is brought near.” It was an offering made to God in the Temple to substitute an obligation. No one could withdraw later such an offering and substitution of responsibility. The temple authorities encouraged such offerings because they could benefit from it. Jesus condemned the practices the Pharisees and Scribes promoted because no temple offering could substitute the love and care that the parents needed during their helpless stage. It was also against God’s commandment, and He did not accept such substitute offerings. Thus, Jesus was proving how the Jewish leaders were manipulating God’s commandments by substituting their own precepts.
(12) Then you no longer permit him to help his parents.
Once someone offered the “corban,” he was free from any obligation to the parents. He could not reverse that by himself even if he changed his mind considering the needs of his parents. A wise man had to approve exemption from this procedure. Jesus criticized that practice. Parents were suffering because of such false teachings and practices the elders had developed against God’s will.
(13) So you nullify the word of God through the tradition you have handed on. And you do many other things like this.
According to Jesus, when the Jewish leaders exempted those who offered corban from caring for their parents, they were acting against the Word of God. Jesus continued saying that the Pharisees and Scribes had many similar practices inconsistent with the commandments of God. One among them was the ritual washing of hands before meal that the disciples of Jesus violated. Thus, Jesus made use of the opportunity of criticism against him to teach the folly of the traditions of his adversaries.