Wrongly Elevating Tradition | Mark 7:1–5
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Mark makes a point here that official representatives from Jerusalem have now come. Perhaps Galilean scribes and Pharisees had requested them, or perhaps already investigating. It seems unlikely that some of them were not part of the plot to murder Jesus (cf. Mark 3:6). Whatever the case, this chapter marks a visible ratcheting up of their antagonism toward the Lord. In this passage, they interrogate Jesus concerning their traditions, and there’s at least a couple of points to note at this juncture.
Traditions become additions to God’s Word. We’re not talking about traditions such as visiting families on holidays, or reading and reflecting on the teachings of godly people, past and present. The Pharisees had developed a body of rules that they demanded observant Jews to follow, rules not found in God’s Word.
Mark, writing to a Roman audience, explains the specifics of this tradition. God did command that the priests wash before temple service (Ex 30:19; 40:12), but the implications of that command were applied to all manner of washings (v. 4), adding to their burdens (Mt 23:4). In truth, the Law demonstrates that people can become “unclean” through everyday activities, causing us to look all the more to Christ, Who alone offers our true cleansing. That brings us to the next point:
Traditions do not help make one holier. In v. 15, Jesus explains that holiness is an internal problem—He says that “there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” Colossians 2:23 says, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Washing hands before eating is without a doubt healthier, but it won’t stop sins such as gluttony, for instance. Sinfulness can only be dealt with through death and resurrection of Christ, not a set of man-made rituals.