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Matt. xv. 1–20; Mark vii. 1-23; Luke xi. 37–41.

The happy free society of Jesus, which kept bridal hightide when others fasted, was in this further respect singular in its manners, that its members took their meals unconcerned about existing usages of purification. They ate bread with “defiled, that is to say, with unwashen hands.” Such was their custom, it may be assumed, from the beginning, though the practice does not appear to have become the subject of animadversion till an advanced period in the ministry of our Lord,119119During the last stay in Galilee, within six months of the crucifixion. at least in a way that gave rise to incidents worthy of notice in the Gospel records. Even at the marriage in Cana, where were set six water-pots of stone for the purposes of purifying, Christ and His disciples are to be conceived as distinguished from the other guests by a certain inattention to ritual ablutions. This we infer from the reasons by which the neglect was defended when it was impugned, which virtually take up the position that the habit condemned was not only lawful, but incumbent — a positive duty in the actual circumstances of Jewish society, and therefore, of course, a duty which could at no time be neglected by those who desired to please God rather than men. But indeed it needs no proof that one of such grave earnest spirit as Jesus could never have paid any regard to the trifling regulations about washing before eating invented by the “elders.”

These regulations were no trifles in the eyes of the Pharisees; and therefore we are not surprised to learn that the indifference with which they were treated by Jesus and the twelve provoked the censure of that zealous sect of religionists on at least two occasions, adverted to in the Gospel narratives. On one of these occasions, certain Pharisees and scribes, who had followed Christ from Jerusalem to the north, seeing some of His disciples eat without previously going through the customary ceremonial ablutions, came to Him, and asked, “Why walk not Thy disciples according to the traditions of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?”Mark vii. 1, 2, 5. In the other instance Jesus Himself was the direct object of censure. “A certain Pharisee,” Luke relates, “besought Jesus to dine with him; and He went in, and sat (directly) down to meat: and when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that He had not first washed before dinner.”120120Luke xi. 37. Whether the host expressed his surprise by words or by looks only is not stated; but it was observed by his guest, and was made an occasion for exposing the vices of the pharisaic character. “Now,” said the accused, in holy zeal for true purity, “now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness. Ye fools, did not He that made that which is without make that which is within also? But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you.”121121Luke xi. 39-41. Vide, for a similar passage, Matt. xxiii. 25, 26. That is to say, the offending guest charged His scandalized host, and the sect he belonged to, with sacrificing inward to outward purity, and at the same time taught the important truth that to the pure all things are pure, and showed the way by which inward real purity was to be reached, viz., by the practice of that sadly neglected virtue, humanity or charity.

The Lord’s reply in the other encounter with pharisaic adversaries on the subject of washings was similar in its principle, but different in form. He told the zealots for purifications, without periphrasis, that they were guilty of the grave offence of sacrificing the commandments of God to the commandments of men — to these pet traditions of the elders. The statement was no libel, but a simple melancholy fact, though its truth does not quite lie on the surface. This we hope to show in the following remarks; but before we proceed to that task, we must force ourselves, however reluctantly, to acquire a little better acquaintance with the contemptible senilities whose neglect once seemed so heinous a sin to persons deeming themselves holy.

The aim of the rabbinical prescriptions respecting washings was not physical cleanliness, but something thought to be far higher and more sacred. Their object was to secure, not physical, but ceremonial purity; that is, to cleanse the person from such impurity as might be contracted by contact with a Gentile, or with a Jew in a ceremonially unclean state, or with an unclean animal, or with a dead body or any part thereof. To the regulations in the law of Moses respecting such uncleanness the rabbis added a vast number of additional rules on their own responsibility, in a self-willed zeal for the scrupulous observance of the Mosaic precepts. They issued their commandments, as the Church of Rome has issued hers, under the pretext that they were necessary as means towards the great end of fulfilling strictly the commandments of God.

The burdens laid on men’s shoulders by the scribes on this plausible ground were, by all accounts, indeed most grievous. Not content with purifications prescribed in the law for uncleanness actually contracted, they made provision for merely possible cases. If a man did not remain at home all day, but went out to market, he must wash his hands on his return, because it was possible that he might have touched some person or thing ceremonially unclean. Great care, it appears, had also to be taken that the water used in the process of ablution was itself perfectly pure; and it was necessary even to apply the water in a particular manner to the hands, in order to secure the desired result. Without travelling beyond the sacred record, we find, in the items of information supplied by Mark respecting prevailing Jewish customs of purification, enough to show to what ridiculous lengths this momentous business of washing was carried. “Many other things,” remarks he quaintly, and not without a touch of quiet satire, “there be which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.”122122Mark vii. 4. κλινῶν means “couches” rather than tables. But the right of the word to be in the text is very doubtful, and it is omitted in R. V. All things, in short, used in connection with food — in cooking it, or in placing it on the table — had to be washed, not merely as people might wash them now to remove actual impurity, but to deliver them from the more serious uncleanness which they might possibly have contracted since last used, by touching some person or thing not technically clean. A kind and measure of purity, in fact, were aimed at incompatible with life in this world. The very air of heaven was not clean enough for the doting patrons of patristic traditions; for, not to speak of other more real sources of contamination, the breeze, in blowing over Gentile lands to the sacred land of Jewry, had contracted defilement which made it unfit to pass into ritualistic lungs till it had been sifted by a respirator possessing the magic power to cleanse it from its pollution.

The extravagant fanatical zeal of the Jews in these matters is illustrated in the Talmud by stories which, although belonging to a later age, may be regarded as a faithful reflection of the spirit which animated the Pharisees in the time of our Lord. Of these stories the following is a sample: “Rabbi Akiba was thrown by the Christians into prison, and Rabbi Joshua brought him every day as much water as sufficed both for washing and for drinking. But on one occasion it happened that the keeper of the prison got the water to take in, and spilled the half of it. Akiba saw that there was too little water, but nevertheless said, Give me the water for my hands. His brother rabbi replied, My master, you have not enough for drinking. But Akiba replied, He who eats with unwashed hands perpetrates a crime that ought to be punished with death. Better for me to die of thirst than to transgress the traditions of my ancestors.”123123Buxtorf, De Syn. Jud. pp. 236, 237. This author quotes the following saying of another rabbi: “Qui illotis manibus panem comedit, idem est ac si scorto accubaret” (p. 236). Rabbi Akiba would rather break the sixth commandment, and be guilty of self-murder, than depart from the least punctilio of a fantastic ceremonialism; illustrating the truth of the declaration made by Christ in His reply to the Pharisees, which we now proceed to consider.

It was not to be expected that, in defending His disciples from the frivolous charge of neglecting the washing of hands, Jesus would show much respect for their accusers. Accordingly, we observe a marked difference between the tone of His reply in the present case, and that of His answer to John’s disciples. Towards them the attitude assumed was respectfully defensive and apologetic; towards the present interrogants the attitude assumed is offensive and denunciatory. To John’s disciples Jesus said, “Fasting is right for you: not to fast is equally right for my disciples.” To the Pharisees He replies by a retort which at once condemns their conduct and justifies the behavior which they challenged. “Why,” ask they, “do Thy disciples transgress the traditions of the elders?” “Why,” asked He in answer, “do ye also transgress the commandments of God by your traditions?” as if to say, “It becomes not you to judge; you, who see the imaginary mote in the eye of a brother, have a beam in your own.”

This spirited answer was something more than a mere retort or et tu quoque argument. Under an interrogative form it enunciated a great principle, viz., that the scrupulous observance of human traditions in matters of practice leads by a sure path to a corresponding negligence and unscrupulousness in reference to the eternal laws of God. Hence Christ’s defence of His disciples was in substance this: “I and my followers despise and neglect those customs because we desire to keep the moral law. Those washings, indeed, may not seem seriously to conflict with the great matters of the law, but to be at worst only trifling and contemptible. But the case is not so. To treat trifles as serious matters, as matters of conscience, which ye do, is degrading and demoralizing. No man can do that without being or becoming a moral imbecile, or a hypocrite: either one who is incapable of discerning between what is vital and what not in morals, or one who finds his interest in getting trifles, such as washing of hands, or paying tithe of herbs, to be accepted as the important matters, and the truly great things of the law — justice, mercy, and faith — quietly pushed aside as if they were of no moment whatever.”

The whole history of religion proves the truth of these views. A ceremony and tradition ridden time is infallibly a morally corrupt time. Hypocrites ostensibly zealots, secretly atheists; profligates taking out their revenge in licentiousness for having been compelled, by tyrannous custom or intolerant ecclesiastical authorities, to conform outwardly to practices for which they have no respect; priests of the type of the sons of Eli, gluttonous, covetous, wanton: such are the black omens of an age in which ceremonies are every thing, and godliness and virtue nothing. Ritualistic practices, artificial duties of all kinds, whether originating with Jewish rabbis or with doctors of the Christian church, are utterly to be abjured. Recommended by their zealous advocates, often sincerely, as eminently fitted to promote the culture of morality and piety, they ever prove, in the long run, fatal to both. Well are they called in the Epistle to the Hebrews “dead works.” They are not only dead, but death-producing; for, like all dead things, they tend to putrefy, and to breed a spiritual pestilence which sweeps thousands of souls into perdition. If they have any life at all, it is life feeding on death, the life of fungi growing on dead trees; if they have any beauty, it is the beauty of decay, of autumnal leaves sere and yellow, when the sap is descending down to the earth, and the woods are about to pass into their winter state of nakedness and desolation. Ritualism at its best is but the shortlived after-summer of the spiritual year! very fascinating it may be, but when it cometh, be sure winter is at the doors. “We all do fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

Having brought a grave countercharge against the Pharisees, that of sacrificing morality to ceremonies, the commandments of God to the traditions of men, Jesus proceeded forthwith to substantiate it by a striking example and a Scripture quotation. The example selected was the evasion of the duties arising out of the fifth commandment, under pretence of a previous religious obligation. God said, “Honor thy father and mother,” and attached to a breach of the commandment the penalty of death. The Jewish scribes said, “Call a thing Corban, and you will be exempt from all obligation to give it away, even for the purpose of assisting needy parents.” The word Corban in the Mosaic law signifies a gift or offering to God, of any kind, bloody or bloodless, presented on any occasion, as in the fulfilment of a vow.124124Num. vi. 14. In rabbinical dialect it signified a thing devoted to sacred purposes, and therefore not available for private or secular use. The traditional doctrine on the subject of Corban was mischievous in two ways. It encouraged men to make religion an excuse for neglecting morality, and it opened a wide door to knavery and hypocrisy. It taught that a man might not only by a vow deny himself the use of things lawful, but that he might, by devoting a thing to God, relieve himself of all obligation to give to others what, but for the vow, it would have been his duty to give them. Then, according to the pernicious system of the rabbis, it was not necessary really to give the thing to God in order to be free of obligation to give it to man. It was enough to call it Corban. Only pronounce that magic word over any thing, and forthwith it was sealed over to God, and sacred from the use of others at least, if not from your own use. Thus self-willed zeal for the honor of God led to the dishonoring of God, by taking His name in vain; and practices which at best were chargeable with setting the first table of the law over against the second, proved eventually to be destructive of both tables. They made the whole law of God of none effect by their traditions. The disannulling of the fifth commandment was but a sample of the mischief the zealots for the commandments of men had wrought, as is implied in Christ’s concluding words, “Many such like things do ye.”125125Mark vii. 13.

The Scripture quotation126126Isa. xxix. 13. made by our Lord in replying to the Pharisees was not less apt than the example was illustrative, as pointing out their characteristic vices, hypocrisy and superstition. They were near to God with their mouth, they honored Him with their lips, but they were far from Him in their hearts. Their religion was all on the outside. They scrupulously washed their hands and their cups, but they took no care to cleanse their polluted souls. Then, in the second place, their fear of God was taught by the precept of men. Human prescriptions and traditions were their guide in religion, which they followed blindly, heedless how far these commandments of men might lead them from the paths of righteousness and true godliness.

The prophetic word was quick, powerful, sharp, searching, and conclusive. Nothing more was needed to confound the Pharisees, and nothing more was said to them at this time. The sacred oracle was the fitting conclusion of an unanswerable argument against the patrons of tradition. But Jesus had compassion on the poor multitude who were being misled to their ruin by their blind spiritual guides, and therefore He took the opportunity of addressing a word to those who stood around on the subject of dispute. What He had to say to them He expressed in the terse, pointed form of a proverb: “Hear and understand: not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” This was a riddle to be solved, a secret of wisdom to be searched out, a lesson in religion to be conned. Its meaning, though probably understood by few at the moment, was very plain. It was simply this: “Pay most attention to the cleansing of the heart, not, like the Pharisees, to the cleansing of the hands. When the heart is pure, all is pure; when the heart is impure, all outward purification is vain. The defilement to be dreaded is not that from meat ceremonially unclean, but that which springs from a carnal mind, the defilement of evil thoughts, evil passions, evil habits.”

This passing word to the bystanders became the subject of a subsequent conversation between Jesus and His disciples, in which He took occasion to justify Himself for uttering it, and explained to them its meaning. The Pharisees had heard the remark, and were naturally offended by it, as tending to weaken their authority over the popular conscience. The twelve observed their displeasure, perhaps they overheard their comments; and, fearing evil consequences, they came and informed their Master, probably with a tone which implied a secret regret that the speaker had not been less outspoken. Be that as it may, Jesus gave them to understand that it was not a case for forbearance, compromise, or timid, time-serving, prudential policy; the ritualistic tendency being an evil plant which must be uprooted, no matter with what offence to its patrons. He pleaded, in defence of His plainness of speech, His concern for the souls of the ignorant people whose guides the Pharisees claimed to be. “Let them alone, what would follow? Why, the blind leaders and the blindly led would fall together into the ditch. Therefore if the leaders be so hopelessly wedded to their errors that they cannot be turned from them, let us at least try to save their comparatively ignorant victims.”

The explanation of the proverbial word spoken to the people Jesus gave to His disciples by request of Peter.127127Matt. xv. 17-20; Mark vii. 18-23. It is rudely plain and particular, because addressed to rudely ignorant hearers. It says over again, in the strongest possible language, that to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man, because nothing entering the mouth can come near the soul; that the defilement to be dreaded, the only defilement worth speaking of, is that of an evil, unrenewed heart, out of which proceed thoughts, words, and acts which are offences against the holy, pure law of God. The concluding words, “purging all meats,” have, however, a peculiar significance, if we adopt the reading approved by critics: “This He said, purging all meats.” In that case we have the evangelist giving his own opinion of the effect of Christ’s words, viz., that they amounted to an abrogation of the ceremonial distinction between clean and unclean. A very remarkable comment, as coming from the man to whom we are indebted for the report of the preaching of that apostle who in his disciple days called forth the declaration, and who had the vision of the sheet let down from heaven.

The evangelist having given us his comment, we may add ours. We observe that our Lord is here silent concerning the ceremonial law of Moses (to which the traditions of the elders were a supplement), and speaks only of the commandments of God, i. e. the precepts of the decalogue. The fact is significant, as showing in what direction He had come to destroy, and in what to fulfil. Ceremonialism was to be abolished, and the eternal laws of morality were to become all in all. Men’s consciences were to be delivered from the burden of outward positive ordinances, that they might be free to serve the living God, by keeping His ten words, or the one royal law of love. And it is the duty of the church to stand fast in the liberty Christ designed and purchased for her, and to be jealous of all human traditions out of holy zeal for the divine will, shunning superstition on the one side, and the licentious freedom of godless libertinism on the other. Christ’s true followers wish to be free, but not to do as they like; rather to do what God requires of them. So minded, they reject unceremoniously all human authority in religion, thereby separating themselves from the devotees to tradition; and at the same time, as God’s servants, they reverence His word and His law, thereby putting a wide gulf between them and the lawless and disobedient, who side with movements of religious reform, not in order to get something better in the place of what is rejected, but to get rid of all moral restraint in matters human or divine.

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