Ritual is not Righteousness
We should applaud hygienic hands. But the Pharisees had no notion of transmissible bacterial infection - if they had, then the hand washing regime would have been much more rigorous! It was a ceremonial custom which originated in God's instruction to priests: they were to wash their hands and feet in water from a bronze bowl in the tabernacle, before performing any religious duties (Exodus 40:31). Centuries of Jewish tradition had extended this principle to all devout men, demanding that hands be washed or just rubbed with water whenever they may have touched anything ceremonially unclean. This applied to encountering Gentiles in the marketplace.
The 'Traditions of the Elders' were passed orally through the generations, with ever increasing layers of lifestyle rules. When they were eventually written down into the Mishnah in AD 200, there was a large section devoted to complex regulations about washing - which God had never demanded. Even in Jesus' day the washing of kitchen utensils was a major issue. The religious people wrongly thought that God would be pleased. But Jesus refused to play their games (Matthew 11:16-17).
These rituals became the mark of respectability. The failure of Jesus and His disciples to play the game was greeted by criticism, and became a 'reason' to reject the Son of God (even though He was fully obedient to His Father). All their rules were about what could be seen on the outside, whereas Jesus wanted to see a clean inside (Matthew 15:16-20). Dribbling a little water over the hands could never do that. It was hypocrisy (Matthew 23:25-26). It is much easier to invent rules that we can keep rather than face up to God's demands for a 100% pure heart and sin-free soul.
Even today, freshly ironed Sunday clothes are no substitute for a clean heart: nor can eloquent praying replace obedience (1 Samuel 15:22). Man keeps looking on the outward appearance, while God is keenly scrutinising each of our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). As always it is easier to detect the speck in another's eye, while being blind oneself (Matthew 7:3-5). Self-righteousness is a terrible disease for any Christian, and hugely off-putting for a sin-sick world. But perhaps its worst effect is that some people think that by trying to copy you they can reach God. Religious games confuse everybody. Hypocrites breed hypocrites. Jesus was teaching His trainee apostles not to be seduced by ritualistic religion. Even today, believers can be duped into thinking that simple faith and obedience are not enough – but that is all God is looking for in you.
© Dr Paul Adams