Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
Jesus’ conversations with scribes and Pharisees aren’t nearly as well known as stories about his parables and miracles. Anyone who watches movies and TV can tell you scenes with a lot of action are more exciting than scenes with a lot of dialogue. But I find this particular conversation to be especially striking in today’s world.
First, the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus to chastise him. Why? Because his disciples are not washing their hands before they eat. To be honest, this seems like a reasonable complaint! Even in the pre-COVID-19 world, we taught our children to wash their hands before meals. Today, “Wash your hands for 20 seconds” is the new mantra.
In ancient Israel, though, handwashing was part of religious rituals tied to purity and cleanliness. New Testament scholar Douglas R. A. Hare writes that Israel’s religion included many laws concerning ritual purity or holiness, in line with the holiness code of Leviticus 19.
“There is no biblical law about washing hands before eating,” Hare notes, “but there is a requirement that priests wash hands and feet before ministering at the altar” (Exodus 30:17- 21). The Pharisees also took seriously the command of Exodus 19:6: “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” They argued all Israelites should consider themselves as holy as priests (an early rendition of the priesthood of all believers, perhaps?), and therefore all Jews should wash their hands before eating.
Handwashing was not just an act of good hygiene, but also a religious act and ritual.
But Jesus’ response to the Pharisees here is not to advocate for folks to stop washing their hands or to suggest these rituals are unimportant. Rather, he’s saying rituals for the sake of those rituals are null and void in the eyes of God. “Why do you break the commandments for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus asks. In other words, why are you so keen on maintaining your rules and traditions at the expense of those around you?
Before the Pharisees (or we) can protest, Jesus gives another example from the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother” (Deuteronomy 5:16). Some of you, Jesus says, are telling your mother and father, either by your words or by your actions: “My love of God is greater than the love I have for you. My obligation to God is greater than my obligation to care for you. My worship of God is greater than my respect for you.” In this way, Jesus argues, you think you are following the commandments of God, but you are actually breaking them. “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.”
Jesus is teaching them, and us, that when traditions, practices, and acts of worship do not honor and respect those around us, God rejects those acts. Our religious traditions amount to nothing— are literally made void—when we prioritize them over honoring and respecting and loving those around us.
Loving God through our acts of worship and piety is never more important than showing love and respect to others, because loving our neighbors is also how we love God.
Presbyterian minister Amy Howe tells this story: “One Sunday morning I came into my office to find a note quickly scribbled and left on my desk. The author of the note wrote something like, ‘It seems that our youth don’t know how to spell any better than they know the Bible.’ I walked to my doorway where I had a good view of the newly created bulletin board that welcomed kids and adults to the Sunday school wing of the church. In bright, happy colors it invited one and all to attend ‘Sunday Skool!’ I chuckled as I realized that their intent was to get people’s attention . . . and it had worked. I may have been mildly amused, but I was also angry. I knew the young people who had created the bulletin board had sacrificed part of their Saturday so we could feel welcomed to a new season of Sunday school. The person who had left the note on my desk was missing the deeper Christian message.”
Instead of celebrating the message that honored and welcomed people, the note-writer was more concerned with proper spelling. In what ways do we care more about proper displays of worship and traditions than we care about respecting and loving people in their walk with Jesus?
How might the words of Jesus speak to us during a global pandemic?
Surprisingly well. This year Christians, and people of all faiths, reimagined what their beloved traditions and worship practices look like when it is not safe to engage in the usual ways of being the church: sitting close to one another in our sanctuaries, sharing meals together, singing in worship, and passing the peace of Christ. In addition to the tragic loss of life and livelihoods this pandemic has caused, a blow has been dealt to these traditions.
But these words from Jesus, as harsh as they may seem, give us deep truths to ponder today. During this pandemic, how have we been clinging to conventional worship and traditions in ways that actually bring harm to the most vulnerable among us? Are we, like the Pharisees, more concerned with following our obligation to familiar worship over our obligation to honor, respect, and care for those around us? If Jesus were standing in front of us today, would he look at the actions of his church and cry out, “For the sake of your tradition you make void the word of God”?
Since it has become clear that wearing face masks is a simple and effective way of helping to slow the spread of the virus, Brethren Press has created face masks that you can purchase.
Embroidered on each are well-known Brethren statements and values: “Speak Peace” proclaims one. “Peacefully. Simply. Not So Close Together” states another. But my favorite is this: “For the glory of God and my neighbor’s good.” This statement, which was displayed over the printing press of Brethren forefather Christopher Sauer, describes the life of discipleship for which Brethren strive: We seek to glorify God our creator while simultaneously working for the wellbeing of our neighbors. What a perfect message to display on a face mask, the purpose of which is to show loving care and respect to those around us!
Beyond the pandemic, we would do well to examine our own values around worship, traditions, and rituals and how those values do or do not show respect and honor to those around us. To do otherwise is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to honor God with our lips while keeping our hearts far from him. “For the glory of God and my neighbor’s good.” Pandemic or otherwise, I have a feeling that Jesus would approve.
Lauren Seganos Cohen is pastor of Pomona (Calif.) Fellowship Church of the Brethren and a member of the Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board. She is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School.