prepared by Fr. Abraham Mutholath
The Pharisees and Scribes were preoccupied with the traditions of elders that were developed a few centuries before the public ministry of Jesus. Many of the traditions were against the true spirit behind commandments of God. Instead of offering one’s heart to God, the Jewish leaders were adulterating religion with human precepts and rituals. Some of them like respect and service to parents were substituted by the practice of “corban”. The Pharisees and Scribes came from Jerusalem to find fault with Jesus in violating the Jewish traditions. When they criticized Jesus for not correcting his disciples who were eating with unclean hands, Jesus taught his adversaries on how they were violating the commandments of God by replacing them with human traditions. This must be an eye-opener for us who also lose the true spirit behind Jesus’ teachings.
The Bible Text
The Tradition of the Elders.
(1) Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, (2) they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (3) (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. (4) And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].) (5) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” (6) He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; (7) In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ (8) You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” (9) He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! (10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ (11) Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”’ (meaning, dedicated to God), (12) you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. (13) You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.”
(1) Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,
The Pharisees along with some scribes came from Jerusalem to spy on Jesus who had become popular as a revolutionary prophet. Jerusalem was the headquarters of the Jews where the temple was situated, and the Great Sanhedrin used to meet. The Sanhedrin, that had religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction over the Israelites, might have sent these representatives to report to them the faults of Jesus. They gathered around Jesus meticulously observing how he or his disciples were violating the traditional observances of the Jews. The Pharisees and Scribes were distinct groups though some of the Scribes were Pharisees.
Pharisee in Hebrew means “separated” or “detached” because this group had separated themselves from the ordinary people in their strict religious observances. They were against the Hellenistic influence in the Jewish religion. Besides the laws given through Moses, the Pharisees developed their own interpretations and applications of the Law. They gave importance to the traditional rituals that were not in the Mosaic laws but were handed over by the elders of previous generations claiming that they were also of divine origin. The Pharisees originated after the Babylonian exile when there was a thirst for maintaining the purity of the Judaism according to the written laws and oral traditions. Though some Pharisees appreciated the teachings of Jesus and invited him for dinner (Luke 7:36-50, 14:1), many of them objected him because Jesus did not strictly follow their man-made rituals and traditions.
The scribes were a group of people whose main job was studying, copying, and interpreting the Holy Scripture. They thrived from the time of Babylonian exile to 70 A.D. when Romans destroyed Jerusalem. They were very serious in copying the Bible without error. Deprived of them, Old Testament could not have been preserved in the past when there were no durable writing materials and copying devices. Though some of them were priests like Ezra (Ezra 7:5-6), Levites and common people also became scribes. They were also experts in the judicial procedures and served the Sanhedrin. Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They gained authority among the Jews and joined Pharisees in opposing Jesus for his liberal approach on man-made laws. Some of them were members of the Sanhedrin and wise scribes were also titled as Rabbi.
(2) they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
The Scribes and the Pharisees were successful in finding how some (not all) of the disciples of Jesus were violating their traditional observances. It did not mean that the disciples ate with dirty hands. They were sure that their hands were clean. But they did not follow the full formalities of multiple ceremonial washings. Hence, according to the critics, their hands were ritually unclean. Jesus had ignored such noncompliance of traditions by his disciples because he did not find sense in giving undue importance to irrelevant and man-made rules.
(3) (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. (4) And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].)
Mark, the evangelist, was writing his gospel primarily for the gentiles in Rome who were not familiar with the Jewish practices. So, the evangelist added an explanatory notefor his readers so that they could better understand the passage. The ritual purifications, originally started byPharisees, were laterpracticed by all Jews. Though they were not of divine origin or did not come from Moses, such man-made practices got precedence over God-given commandments. The evangelist specified that they were developed as tradition by the elders. The tradition insisted not just hygienic washing, but “careful washing” and ritual purification. People practiced such rituals before eating or after coming from market place. They also had prescribed formalities on purifying household utensils. These were also a part of untouchability with the gentiles or unclean animals because they might have been polluted by their contact with the unclean in the market place, or the utensils might have been manufactured or touched by the gentiles. Hence, the elders prescribed ritual purification for them.
(5) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
The Pharisees and scribes considered the unwritten, human rules as equivalent to the Mosaic law though Moses had prescribed laws for cleanliness before entering the Temple of the Lord. The Pharisees applied this Temple related cleansing practices to meals. The practice of cleansing before the meals is clear from the six stone water jars (John 2:1-12) that were available at the wedding of Cana. The Pharisees and Scribes questioned Jesus because his disciples were not complying to such regulations. Jesus was responsible for correcting them. Jesus might have felt that these man-made regulations were making the lives of people unreasonably hard while ignoring the spiritual cleanliness of heart.
(6) He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; (7) In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’
Jesus quoted from Isaiah 29:13 to hold a mirror against the hypocrisy of Pharisees and Scribes who criticized him. Isaiah, who lived around 700 years before Christ, criticized the Jews for their hypocrisy in worshipping God. God’s covenant with Israel was intended for a self-dedication to God. However, their heartswere in the worldly affairs and they did only lip service. Such sacrifices were in vain because they had replaced divine doctrines with the human precepts. The Jewish leaders during the public ministry of Jesus were continuing the same attitude in their relationship with God. Their ritual washing of hands before and during meals, their bathing after their return from the market, or their ceremonial washing of kitchen utensils were of less concern for God. God was more interested in their care for those who needed their service and acceptance of Jesus as their savior.
(8) You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
God’s commandments should have predominance over human traditions was also clear in the teaching of Ezekiel 20:18-19. “Then I said to their children in the wilderness: Do not follow the statutes of your parents. Do not keep their ordinances. Do not defile yourselves with their idols. I am the LORD, your God: follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” People should not repeat the same mistakes of their forefathers by worshiping worldly idols and following human precepts that were contrary to God’s commandments. The scribes had added many rituals and traditions to what God had taught through Moses making them prominent than God’s laws. So, their interpretation of the Holy Scripture went far from the true spirit that God had intended. Through such traditions, the Jewish leaders were deviating the attention of the people from God and making their life burdensome.
(9) He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!
While interpreting the commandments of God, the Scribes had wrongly set aside God’s commandments and replaced them with their human traditions. That was against the will of God. So, Jesus criticized the Pharisees and Scribes who came to find fault with Jesus by the same token.
(10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’
Jesus illustrated what he spoke against the Pharisees and Scribes with a typical example. “Honor your father and your mother” is one of the ten commandments. Among the vegetative, animal and human lives, humans are interdependent. Throughout our lives, especially in childhood and elderly life, we need support of others. Parents love and care their children and children in turn love and serve their parents in their later stages of life. Even during the healthy years, the child-parent relationship should be loving and reverential. This commandment of respect to God-assigned parents who act as God’s representatives for us is repeated in the Bible at several places. Jesus continued to quote from Exodus 21:17. In Leviticus 20:9, we read: “If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood guiltiness is upon him.” Thus, the word of God is very strong on honoring parents and on the punishment for the violation of that commandment. Still, the Jewish leaders found man-made substitute to violate that important commandment. According to Jesus, such replacement for God’s commandment was unacceptable to God.
(11) Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”’ (meaning, dedicated to God),
The literal meaning of “Corban” is “that which is brought near.” It was an offering made to God in the Temple to substitute an obligation. Such an offering and replacement of responsibility could not be withdrawn later. The temple authorities encouraged such offerings because they would benefit from the offerings made in the name of God. Jesus condemned such practices fostered by the Pharisees and Scribes because no temple offering could substitute the love and care to be given to the parents, especially when they needed care. It was also against the commandment of God and such an offering was not pleasing to God. Thus, Jesus was proving how the Jewish religious leaders were manipulating God’s commandments by substituting their own traditions.
(12) you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother.
Once a “corban” was offered, the person was free from any obligation to the parents. He could not reverse that by himself even if he changes his mind considering the needs of his parents. The exception should be sought from a wise man who had to formally approve to care for the parents whose services were already paid by corban. Jesus was criticizing that practice. Parents were suffering because of such false teachings and traditions the leaders had developed against the will of God.
(13) You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.”
According to Jesus, when the Jewish leaders were not allowing those who offered corban to care for their parents, that was against the word of God. Jesus continued saying that the Pharisees and Scribes had many other similar traditions and rituals that were inconsistent with the commandments of God. One among them was the ritual washing of hands before meal that the disciples of Jesus violated. Thus, Jesus made use of the opportunity of criticism against him to teach the folly of the traditions and rituals of his adversaries.
- Like the Pharisees and Scribes who came to find fault with Jesus, we normally have the tendency to look for the faults of others. Jesus taught them how they in turn were committing grievous sinby violating the commandments of God for giving undue importance to their human traditions. Let us evaluate ourselves whether we became ritualistic at the expense of God’s commandment of love and service.
- Quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Are we doing only lip service in our prayers and liturgical services without offering our heart and life to God and His people?
- In the teachings of Jesus on the final judgment and selection of the righteous at his second coming, we will be selected for the eternal banquet only if we commit ourselves to God and his people in action. Let us make sure that our religious practices shall not go in vain.
- Jesus cited as example, the commandment to honor our parents. Many people in the modern world, ignore their parents or give “corban” to old-age homes and think that they are free from their responsibility of caring their parents. Do we need a change on this?