This Sunday's Gospel describes a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes.
The controversy focuses on the meaning and validity of religious tradition, referred to as “the tradition of the elders.”
This tradition was a collection of Jewish practices and understandings that had grown up over the years but were not actually found in Scripture and were not always interpreted in the same way. By the time of Jesus this tradition had become very burdensome both to understand and to implement. It seemed more concerned with periphery matters and not with the greater issues of the time.
1) The controversy. The Pharisees and scribes are upset over the fact that Jesus does not require his disciples to strictly obey the ritual purity laws regarding hand washing and the cleansing of household cooking utensils and other such ritual practices. These are practices that were not found in the Jewish Scriptures but were considered good practices to make sure one always kept the important elements of the law. This was sometimes called “the fence around the law.” This fence had become a law unto itself. While Jesus himself is not being accused of committing these violations, it is clear that he is the one teaching his disciples to pay no attention to these ritual defilements. The tradition of the elders has become more important than the commandments of God.
2) The commandment of God versus human tradition. Jesus responds to the accusations of the Pharisees and scribes by quoting the prophet Isaiah 29:13. Isaiah accuses the people of being more concerned with ritual defilement than with ethical defilement. They know how to say all the right things but they do not put them into practice. Based on the words of Isaiah, Jesus accuses the people of being hypocrites, two-faced. The teaching and practice of Jesus is based on the commandment of God while the Pharisees and scribes cling to mere human tradition.
3) A matter of the heart. The final point Jesus wants to make is that real defilement is always a matter of the heart. To be faithful to the intent of God’s commandment requires one to have a pure heart. External behavior is important but only to the degree that it manifests internal disposition.