WHAT'S IN YOUR HEART?
See Mark 7: 1-23
What’s in Your Wallet?
ABLUTION—or washing, was practised, (1.) When a person was initiated into a higher state: e.g., when Aaron and his sons were set apart to the priest’s office, they were washed with water previous to their investiture with the priestly robes (Lev. 8:6).
(2.) Before the priests approached the altar of God, they were required, on pain of death, to wash their hands and their feet to cleanse them from the soil of common life (Ex. 30:17–21). To this practice the Psalmist alludes, Ps. 26:6.
(3.) There were washings prescribed for the purpose of cleansing from positive defilement contracted by particular acts. Of such washings eleven different species are prescribed in the Levitical law (Lev. 12–15).
(4.) A fourth class of ablutions is mentioned, by which a person purified or absolved himself from the guilt of some particular act. For example, the elders of the nearest village where some murder was committed were required, when the murderer was unknown, to wash their hands over the expiatory heifer which was beheaded, and in doing so to say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it” (Deut. 21:1–9). So also Pilate declared himself innocent of the blood of Jesus by washing his hands (Matt. 27:24). This act of Pilate may not, however, have been borrowed from the custom of the Jews. The same practice was common among the Greeks and Romans.
The Pharisees carried the practice of ablution to great excess, thereby claiming extraordinary purity (Matt. 23:25). Mark (7:1–5) refers to the ceremonial ablutions. The Pharisees washed their hands “oft,” more correctly, “with the fist” (R.V., “diligently”), or as an old father, Theophylact, explains it, “up to the elbow.” (Compare also Mark 7:4; Lev. 6:28; 11:32–36; 15:22) (See WASHING.)
The Tragedy of Tradition
TRADITION OF THE ELDERS [Gk paradosis ton presbyteron (παραδοσις τον πρεσβυτερον)]. The precise phrase “tradition of the elders” occurs only in Matt 15:2 and Mark 7:3, 5, in connection with Pharisees, scribes, and other Jews and their custom of ritual hand-washing. It is probably a technical term that refers to customs observed and considered binding by Pharisees and some other Jews, although not written in the Pentateuch. Although the Pharisees themselves have left no writings, several ancient sources associate the Pharisees with the term “tradition” or “tradition of the fathers” (Josephus, Ant 13.10.6 §297; 13.16.2 §408; Matt 15:3–9; Mark 7:8–13; Gal 1:14). Other sources mention unwritten traditions which have been handed down for generations (Philo, Spec 4.28.149–50; Ben Sira 1:1). Josephus reports that observance of these traditions evoked controversy with the Sadducees. The Qumran texts contain attacks on “the seekers after smooth things” (dwršy ḥlqwt), who are identified by most scholars as the Pharisees, for following their own traditions and not God’s law (1QH 4:7, 11).
Detractors of the “tradition of the elders” stressed its human origin and contrasted it with God’s law (Matt 15:3–9; Mark 7:8–13; cf. Col 2:22; Titus 1:14). Its champions undoubtedly saw it as divinely revealed, complementary to the written Law, possibly analogous to the way later rabbinic Jews regarded the oral Law (m. ʾAbot. 1:1).
The three NT references to the “tradition of the elders” suggest that ritual hand-washing before eating, originally prescribed only for priests eating consecrated food in the temple, gained wider practice. Though there are no other 1st -century references to the custom, 3d -century evidence shows that some Jews ate ordinary food in a state of ritual purity (t. Dem. 2:2).
Later Jewish literature yields no example of the phrase “tradition of the elders,” although “tradition” (mśwrt) is common, as is the related verb “receive” (qbl). The expression “elders” may have been used by the Pharisees themselves to add the authority of antiquity to traditions which were transmitted orally from teacher to student in the manner of the Hellenistic schools. These traditions may have been susceptible to attack because they were neither priestly nor handed down along familial lines. Baumgarten (1987: 72) has suggested that the charges against the tradition of the elders in Matt 15:3 and Mark 7:8 may not have originated with Jesus or his followers, but may have been a common anti-Pharisaic slogan in antiquity. In other instances, Christians characterize their own traditions using the term paradosis in a favorable way (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15
William Poteet wrote in The Pentecostal Minister how in 1903 the Russian czar noticed a sentry posted for no apparent reason on the Kremlin grounds. Upon inquiry, he discovered that in 1776 Catherine the Great found there the first flower of spring. “Post a sentry here,” she commanded, “so that no one tramples that flower under foot!”
Some traditions die hard.
But, it’s More than That!
Jesus repeated and amplified the positive truth that what comes out of a person is what defiles him morally (cf. v. 15b). This is confirmed by noting what things come from within, out of a person’s heart (cf. v. 19).
The general term translated evil thoughts precedes the verb in the Greek text and is viewed as the root of various evils which follow. Evil thoughts generated in a heart unite with one’s will to produce evil words and actions.
The catalog of evil Jesus gave has a strong Old Testament flavor and consists of 12 items. First, there are six plural nouns (in Gr.) depicting wicked acts viewed individually: sexual immorality (porneiai, “illicit sexual activities of various kinds”); theft (klopai); murder (phonoi); adultery (moicheiai, illicit sexual relations by a married person); greed (pleonexiai, “covetings”), insatiable cravings for what belongs to another; malice (ponēriai, “wickednesses”), the many ways evil thoughts express themselves.
Second, there are six singular nouns depicting evil dispositions: deceit (dolos), cunning maneuvers designed to ensnare someone for one’s personal advantage; lewdness (aselgeia; cf. Rom. 13:13; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 2 Peter 2:2, 7), unrestrained and unconcealed immoral behavior; envy (opthalmos ponēros, lit., “an evil eye,” a Heb. expression for stinginess; cf. Prov. 23:6), a begrudging, jealous attitude toward the possessions of others; slander (blasphēmia), injurious or defaming speech against God or man; arrogance (hyperēphania, used only here in the NT), boastfully exalting oneself above others who are viewed with scornful contempt; and folly (aphrosynē), moral and spiritual insensitivity.
All these evils defile a person, and have their source from inside, from one’s heart. So Jesus took the focus of attention away from external rituals and placed it on the need for God to cleanse one’s evil heart (cf. Ps. 51).