7 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
After three months of constantly hearing “wash your hands”, I really had to select this passage to write about today. As I understand it, washing our hands and not touching our faces helps us to avoid getting Covid19 from contaminated surfaces, while wearing a mask is more helpful in keeping us from transmitting the virus to others. Although there is some controversy over wearing masks, no one objects to being asked to wash their hands, because this is something we have been taught to do since we were very young.
In Jesus’ time it was customary to eat from a common dish, dipping your bread into the same soup pot and so on. Thus the washing of hands before meals was to avoid contamination in both directions. Many Jewish dietary laws do function to prevent disease, as do our modern rules of good hygiene and careful food storage and preparation.
Jesus wasn’t especially worried about ritual hand washing, and would go on to make the point that rigid obedience to human law did not make a person righteous. A person could conceivably obey the law to the letter, and yet not be a good human being. Rather, righteousness had everything to do with how they behaved toward other people - how they obeyed God’s law to love one another. He made that point frequently, much to the dismay of the religious lawyers.
Similar issues exist today. The more laws we have and the more rigidly we expect them to be obeyed, the less we seem to care about the individuals involved. For example, stealing is against the law and morally wrong. But it seems to me there is a significant difference between a parent stealing food for her children and a person stealing makeup from Macy’s, and that these two should be judged differently. One size does not fit all.
God of mercy, help us to know when the spirit of the law should be given precedence over the letter of the law, so that our justice may be tempered with compassion for the betterment of society. Amen.