Mark 7:1-5 (NIV): The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
If we search God’s law in the Old Testament, we will not find anything pertaining to washing of hands before eating. This rule came purely from the traditions of men (as the Pharisees and teachers of the law correctly identified it: “the tradition of the elders”.) the idea behind the ritual was that contact with the things of the world, especially contact with gentiles, or with anything that they had touched, would leave a residual spiritual uncleanness on a person’s hands. If that person then picked up and ate something with unwashed hands, that uncleanness would be taken into their body, making them spiritually unclean.
It is a good thing to wash our hands before we eat, but that won’t keep us from being spiritually contaminated. As Jesus pointed out a little later on in this interaction (v15), spiritual contamination does not come from physical germs, but from allowing corrupting elements to impact our souls. Even those Pharisees who were most conscientious about washing any possible contaminants from their hands before they ate were unconcerned about allowing hate for Jesus to penetrate their hearts. Those who would not dare shake hands with a gentile, or go into a gentile house for fear of contamination that would exclude them from the temple, or from eating a Passover meal (cf. John 18:28), had no problem seeking out false witnesses against Jesus and plotting the murder of a man they knew to be innocent.
Traditions are a fine thing, especially traditions that help people to draw closer to God and to rely more fully on His strength to live holy lives. But when the traditions start to cloud the truth, when they make people believe that they are holy while they are disobeying God’s actually commands, or when they become more important than what God actually commanded in His law, then they become harmful, even deadly, and must be abandoned.
Father, I know that we have a tendency to become very comfortable in our traditions, to the point that we don’t notice when they become more important to us that You and Your commandments. And when they do hit that point, they become transformed into idols, and can actually be a snare to us. Help us, Lord, to see ourselves with clear eyes, so that we never lose track of what must always be the main thing: You. Amen.