Why are the Pharisees in this Sunday’s passage from Mark’s Gospel so bothered about washing hands before eating? What exactly did they expect? Was it (as the NRSV translates) that people should “thoroughly wash their hands”? In other words, were they genuinely bothered about cleanliness? Or were they (as the NIV translates) looking for a “ceremonial washing”?
It’s quite a big difference. My guess is that the NIV is right and the Pharisees’ concern was sticking to the tradition of the oral law which had been built up over generations, greatly extending and intensifying the demands of the Law of God, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). In that case the Pharisees were not really bothered about actual cleanliness but they really did care about sticking to the oral tradition and in particular whether Jesus would uphold that tradition. The fact that Jesus goes on to castigate the Pharisees for nullifying the word of God by their adherence to the oral tradition suggests that this is how he interpreted what they were up to.
Jesus cites in detail an example of the way the oral tradition was used to nullify the command of God about duties to parents. “You do many things like that”, he says. Religious people easily get set in their ways and become ferociously attached to what they’re used to: their particular place to sit in church, the time of the service, the style of music… Even such trivialities as these can get in the way of God’s purpose for the church. But church tradition can become much more destructive and self-serving than that: the Reformation of the sixteenth century was in part a protest against traditions which contradicted the free grace of the gospel itself.
All communities develop traditions, even the most self-consciously radical and innovative ones. It’s a natural human process by which communities create their own identities. But when church tradition overrides the purpose of God it’s time to call a halt.
The real problem, as Jesus saw it, with the Pharisees’ insistence on ceremonial washing was that it not only missed the point but tried to cover it up. The Old Testament purity laws were intended to point people to the real issue, which is purity of heart. Obsessive hand-washing doesn’t deal with the heart, as Lady Macbeth discovered. However often she cries “Out, damned spot” she is still left asking “Will these hands ne’er be clean?”.
She at least was conscious of guilt. The Pharisees may have gone so far down the road of hypocrisy that they cared only for the outward show of cleanliness rather than the state of their heart before God and neighbour. Looking good without being good.
Jesus goes on to explore the issue in detail. What defiles a person is not what goes into their mouths but what comes out of their hearts. This was radical stuff for a Jew. Mark notes just how radical:
In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.Mark 7.19
At a stroke Jesus sets aside the Old Testament dietary laws. Now you can eat pork, hedgehog, crocodile…
So is Jesus saying that the dietary laws of the Torah were a bad thing, a mistake? What did he mean when he said that he had come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5.17)?
I think the answer is in what Jesus means by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. I think he means that they’ve done their job, which is to point to Jesus as the full and final answer to the problem of human sin. We don’t need to bother about not eating pork because through Jesus our hearts are being cleansed. The real meaning of the Law has been revealed and fulfilled. Tom Wright puts it like this:
Learning to read the Old Testament this way wasn’t easy in the early church, and it isn’t easy today. The starting-point is to realize that the Jewish scriptures aren’t to be seen as a timeless code of behaviour, but as the story which leads to Jesus. This doesn’t mean we can casually set aside bits we don’t like or understand. When things are set aside, as the purity laws are here, it’s not because they’re irrelevant but because the deeper truth to which they pointed has now arrived .Mark for Everyone, page 94
In this controversy with the Pharisees Jesus does two things, each of which is vitally important for understanding the gospel and for the future direction of the church. He forces people to confront the real problem of life, which is inward rather than outward, what’s in your heart rather than what’s on your plate. And he paves the way for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church without their having to become Jews by adhering to the Jewish Law.
That issue would take up a lot of St Paul’s time and energy, but that’s for another day…
 See for instance the detailed discussion in William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark pp246f