“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” (Mark 7.1-2 ESV)
Mark uses the Greek word κοινός when he writes about the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that some of Jesus’ disciples “ate with hands that were defiled.” The difficulty with this word is that, depending upon the context, it can mean “common” or “defiled.” For instance, Paul writes to Titus: “To Titus, a true son in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.” (Titus 1:4) It’s easy to see that even though Paul used the word κοινός here, he did not mean to say “a true son in a defiled faith.” We understand from the context that Paul is speaking of the faith that he and Titus hold in common.
Why do we think that the Pharisees were complaining about eating with “defiled” hands and not “common” [i.e. just plain old dirty] hands? I mean, they certainly could have been just germaphobes, right?
We know that we should translate as “defiled” here because of the context. For one thing the Pharisees call what they are advocating “the tradition of the elders.” One can hardly think that they would have argued this way if they were worried about simple cleanliness. If that was the case their argument would have been, “Your disciples are going to get sick from eating with filthy, dirty hands, Jesus. Don’t you think you should tell them to wash their hands before they eat?” Instead, they argue as if the issue is very important and that something crucial is at stake here. Bob Utley points out that there is a recorded incident in Jewish literature of a rabbi who didn’t wash his hands before eating and he was excommunicated! This was not because he was literally Dirty Harry.
Jesus’ response to the question of the Pharisees is also a good indication why we understand that the argument is about being defiled. Without any warning rather than defend himself or defend his disciples and how they ate food, he launches into a blistering attack against the Pharisees! This is quite unexpected and is a good demonstration of the importance of the underlying issues here. He accuses them of treating the teaching of men as if it were the very doctrines of God.
Watch Jesus for a minute here. He is strong and firm in his denunciation of those who in their own minds were the most faithful, God-worshipers in all of Palestine. Jesus calls them hypocrites, which was the Greek word for actors. They are play-acting at being God-followers but in reality their hearts are far from God. We learn at least two things about God through Jesus here:
- He wants heart worship, not lip service.
- He is going to call a spade a spade. I’m sure that the Pharisees were offended when Jesus called them hypocrites. Jesus doesn’t care that he offends them, indeed he wanted to offend them because otherwise they had no chance of eternal life.