There are those who make it their specialty to stir up controversy. Spoiling for a fight they watch, observe and when the time comes they agitate. Jesus was not immune from such attack, and in his time it was the Pharisees who performed this role. They were like vultures sitting or walking around waiting for Jesus to say something they could pounce on. In Mark 7 we see just such a pounce, but vultures are mainly good at dealing with dead things and Jesus was not dead.
Once the Pharisees pounced the give and take between them and Jesus became more like boxers or wrestlers who parry and thrust. They will see an attack and dodge only to return the attack upon their opponent. Jesus and the Pharisees lock up in this type of struggle over ceremonial purity. Jesus proved all too capable of parrying their thrusts and his hands are held up at the end of the bout. He was the clear victor. Unfortunately, victory does not wipe out the vultures. They will sit and wait for another opportunity.
1 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 7:1-5–ESV)
Vultures wait, it’s what they do
Jesus was going about his business, but so were the religious leaders. Spying out shortcomings was a specialty they had and in Mark 7 it was turned upon Jesus. In this chapter we see Jesus teaching, healing, demonstrating compassion and interest in the people of Israel. The Pharisees were less interested in such kindness preferring, rather, to spend their energies upon his downfall.
These religious leaders were circling overhead. They were walking this way and that. Assured of some misstep they quietly and with skeptical eyes peered into the life Jesus was leading.
Oh, Awesome! There it is!
Almost as if they knew patience would pay off the disciples did something “wrong.” They did not wash their hands before eating. That was the event of verse 2, and it was enough of an event to become an accusation.
The context for that pseudo-horror was laid out in verses 3 and 4. There Mark records the backstory of time honored religious assumptions and actions. Those were that no Jew was to eat without first performing a ritualized hand washing. The manner of it was strictly prescribed including minimum volumes of water, minimum numbers of knuckles to “cleanse,” and other things. The timing and frequency of this process had become extreme. It would seem that Jesus did not practice the same rigidity but lived with more practicality. That practicality was not in violation of God’s law just man’s law.
There was freedom in living the way Jesus led, but the Pharisees saw nothing positive in it. It was far worse than the “cooties” little boys and girls imagine to “catch” from each other in elementary school. Spiritual “cooties” could send you to hell, or so the Pharisees thought.
Let’s see what Jesus says about that!
Thinking they had a water-tight case against some of the followers of Jesus the religious leaders made their way to Jesus. It is important that we see their intentions. They do not really want an answer since in their minds there was a clear and present violation. Tradition was the rule of their day and the rule of their hearts. Jesus was not constraining his followers to those rules and so their question was more of an attack to bring him in line.
Sometimes we do better to hold our tongues and the Pharisees would have. Their reproachful question hit right at the junction where the Jews had broken ranks from the way of godliness and obedience.
God made the rules and those rules were to be followed. Man layered on the traditions and those had taken on far too great a place in the religious life of Israel.
Key points from this passage:
- Don’t be a vulture.
- Be ever so careful in your assessments of what others do.
- If you find judgmental tendencies in your heart leave them there. Don’t speak them.
- It is far easier to be a Pharisee than to be Jesus.