The Pharisees and the scribes and their followers are well known enemies of Jesus. They are often referred to as ‘the Jews’. When we read in the gospel that they had come from Jerusalem and had gathered round Jesus a warning bell rings. If you like the David Attenborough nature documentaries you will think of the way the lions begin gathering around a herd of water buffalo, or the way the wolves gather round a mother elk and her newborn. Their intention is clear.
And so we are on full alert because we know they are out to trap Jesus and, if possible, have him put away – permanently. They stand among the crowd, watching and waiting for their opportunity.
Then they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands.
They noticed. Of course they noticed. They were experts at noticing. Their whole instinct was to notice even the smallest infractions of their traditions. This gave them an opportunity to correct and to criticise and to humiliate. Above all it gave them a good reason to feel righteous and superior.
The evangelist Mark gives us a few more important details: The Pharisees and the Jews in general follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes.
But these many observances were not the Law of God, they were the laws of men, the traditions of the elders which in their time-consuming complexity could only be fully practiced by those rich enough to have the free time.
And so these professional observers of the short-comings of others noticed that the disciples did not wash their hands before eating and found it a sufficiently important infraction of the tradition to question the Master about it: Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?
Now permit me to change tack for a moment because I wish to explore a question which has been surfacing with some regularity over the last several years. Why do some people accept the words of Jesus and why do others reject him? What is it that determines the response they give to him? How did the Pharisees actually come to think they way they do? And why do other people think like them? Let’s look at the very first time the gospel was preached to the people after Pentecost. It seems to me that this moment can serve as a paradigm for the process by which all people come to believe.
Peter and the apostles stand before the crowd and Peter calls them to attention: Men of Judaea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, make no mistake about this, but listen carefully to what I say. Surely this is the essential first step – to listen carefully – which presupposes a clear exposition of the gospel.
Peter goes on (Acts 2): Men of Israel, listen to what I am going to say: Jesus the Nazarene was a man commended to you by God by the miracles and portents and signs that God worked through him when he was among you, as you all know. This man, who was put into your power by the deliberate intention and foreknowledge of God, you took and had crucified by men outside the Law. You killed him, but God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades ... .
There is no moment in life more significant than the moment when the gospel knocks at the door of a person’s heart. Very often this moment will determine the course of the rest of that person’s life. Will the word be welcomed or rejected?
One would think that Peter might have tried to make the initial message a little more attractive than the accusation: You killed him; but strangely, inexplicably about 3,000 people opened that door and: were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles, 'What must we do, brothers? With uncompromising directness Peter answered: You must repent, every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So now we can clearly see the steps to faith – listen carefully to the gospel, let it convict you of your sin, experience sorrow, repent and be baptised.
It is no accident that the Pharisees were so fixated on the sins of others – and it is no accident that they thought of themselves as the ‘righteous ones’. For one reason or another they had not been able to open the door to the gospel when it knocked.
Of course the gospel never ceases to knock at our door. Perhaps in the years ahead there might be a graced moment of acceptance, but if there is not, there will be a greater and greater drifting away from the truth until a person is truly cut off and drifts from one silliness to the next. We have all seen where this silliness will lead when people can bring themselves to believe a child can justly be aborted in the womb, or two men or two women can be married, or that they can desert Christ in his Church because of the sins of others.
Our empty churches are only by-products of our empty confessionals. Undoubtedly, the great crisis of our times is the denial of personal sin. Why was it that the prostitute Mary Magdalen was so open to Christ when he came? It was because she truly knew her sin and her need for forgiveness. It all starts with this. Unless we acknowledge our sin we cannot feel sorrow, and unless we feel sorrow we cannot repent, and unless we repent we cannot receive the Holy Spirit.