Jesus had claimed to be the Bread of Life, and word spread about it quickly. When the news reached Jerusalem, it infuriated the Jewish leaders. But what could they do? He had won every argument, and His healings made the crowds adore Him. They should have realized that if He had better answers, it might be good to listen to them. It didn’t occur to them to be humbled by His miraculous powers. They had been given the remarkable opportunity to join in God’s work and proclaim His Son, and they failed. Instead, they intensified in their determination to stop Him, and they began to make plans to kill Him. The whole region of Judea that surrounds the city of Jerusalem had become a very dangerous place for Jesus.
Some Pharisees and scribes were sent by the religious leaders of Jerusalem to visit Jesus. They wanted to catch Him doing something wrong to accuse Him with. They began to scrutinize the Lord’s disciples in hopes of catching them, too. It was a way to get to Jesus. One day, they saw the disciples eat bread with hands that had not been ritually washed. These religious leaders wouldn’t eat unless they had carefully washed in the way their Jewish elders taught them. They also had to wash themselves after going to the market and had to observe special rules for cleaning their cups and pitchers and pots. They expected that anyone who claimed to be a religious Jew would follow the same rules. The only problem was that many of those rules were not a part of God’s Word. They were man-made rules. Instead of drawing the people closer to God, these rules created a tyranny that gave the religious leaders power to shame and control the people. Now they were trying to do it to the Son of God Himself…and His disciples.
If eating bread without ritually washing their hands was the worst thing the religious leaders could find against Jesus or His disciples, they must have been a very well-behaved group of men! But they were desperate, so they asked Jesus, “‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?’”
To the common Jewish people of the day, this question would have created a hurricane of fear and condemnation. Their own religious leaders had told them that their rules were the way to God. If they were called out publicly for failing to follow them, it was devastating spiritually and socially.
Jesus would have none of it. He answered them with stunning boldness:
“‘Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your traditions? For God commanded saying, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.”
“ ‘But you say, “Whoever says to his father and mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God’- then he need not honor his father or mother.” Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.’” (NKJV)
“ ‘Hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me,
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (NIV)
Do you see what Jesus was saying? The religious leaders had made up a rule, telling the Jewish people that they had to offer a special gift of devotion called Corban. If the people gave the money to the religious leaders, they had permission to go to their parents and say that they weren’t going to support them financially. Yet in the Ten Commandments, it says, “Honor your father and mother.” The religious leaders were putting the people in a position where they were pressured to give money that forced them to violate one of the sacred laws of Moses! They were making the traditions of the elders more important than the Word of God itself. It was clear that God wanted the Jewish people to take good care of their parents, but the religious leaders were teaching the people to do the opposite. Jesus said this was just one of many examples where they dishonored the true law of God by making their own man-made laws more important in the daily life of the nation. Jesus was saying that when the people obeyed the religious leaders, they were actually disobeying the Law of God. In order to honor the Lord, the people had to start rejecting the religious leaders!
Then Jesus called the crowds to Himself. They had probably pulled away from Jesus because the religious leaders were demanding His attention, but Jesus was done trying to convince these hard-hearted men. He wanted to spend His energy on the people, and what He taught them was the opposite of everything they had learned before:
“ ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside of man can make him “unclean” by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him “unclean”’”
Jesus’ disciples were confused by what He said. In the Old Testament, God had given all sorts of instructions about what sort of food the people could eat and what they couldn’t. The food they were supposed to stay away from was called “unclean.” But what was far worse, what truly made someone unclean, was when they spoke falsehood and malice. The religious leaders had accused the disciples of being unclean because they hadn’t washed their hands the way the religious leaders wanted them to do before eating bread. Jesus said that the truly unclean were the religious leaders because what they said was full of self-serving deception, intimidation, and control.
The disciples came to Jesus to let Him know that the Pharisees were enraged by what He had said. The Lord told them, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, they shall both fall into a ditch.”
Wow. Now we see how Jesus thought of the religious leaders. They were not longer His problem, and those that chose to follow them would have to live with the consequences of their choice. Jesus’ own disciples had the freedom to disregard them and their authority. They could follow Jesus and the amazing things God the Father was doing through Him without worrying about those who were too blind to see.
The disciples didn’t get it, so Peter asked Jesus what He meant. Jesus said to them:
“‘Are you so dull? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean? For it doesn’t go into is heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body. What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.” For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.’”
The Lord was showing the disciples that the way to know if a person is spiritually clean or not is made clear by their actions. The religious leaders were full of evil thoughts, greed, arrogance, and slander, showing that they were truly the ones who were unclean. They were not the worthy leaders of God’s people, and they did not speak for Him in any way. The disciples wanted to make peace with the Pharisees, but peace was not possible. Jesus was rooting out their false traditions and ways. A new path was being forged by the Son of the Living God, and all of the energies and hopes of the disciples needed to focus on that remarkable journey.