12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
15 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’
5 But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you nullify the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ”
In the Book of Matthew, we find a number of passage where the Pharisees challenge Jesus with a particular teaching from the Torah and Jesus responds by first calling out the Pharisees for their own behavior and then by offering them a more expansive teaching of the same passage. We should not look at these encounters as adversarial. While the text does not explicitly tell us the difference between a Pharisee and a Nazarite, the sense is that these were two different sects of Jews with differing interpretations of the Torah.
Having more than one interpretation of the Torah would not have been unusual. It is actually one of the hallmarks of Jewish thought, the ability to argue one’s position with others who are capable of arguing their own points. Each person would build on the wisdom and knowledge of those who had come before, much in the same way that Christian scholars align themselves with specific theologians or church fathers from antiquity; Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Luther come to mind, but there are so many more to choose from. Because each theologian brings a particular view to the table, there are plenty of options to choose from. Being able to argue well is key. We can look at all sides of an issue without splintering.
So, in this context, I can imagine that Jesus and the Pharisees engaged in healthy debate all the time. In this passage, which I’ve chosen to accompany the 5th Commandment that instructs us to honor our father and mother, we find Jesus being confronted with the Pharisees who are concerned about Jesus’ disciples who aren’t washing their hands prior to eating. The rule associated with washing comes from Exodus 30:17-21 where God instructs Aaron and the entire priestly line to place a basin of water between the tent of meeting and altar to be used to wash their hands and feet prior to serving in the Temple.
This law gets extended to everyone in the Gemara, written while in captivity in Babylon. The Gemara, coupled with the Mishnah, comprise the whole of the Talmud. Jews would have been steeped in this tradition.
What is provocative about this passage is how Jesus compares this teaching, the need to wash one’s hands prior to eating bread, with the keeping of the 5th Commandment, which calls us to honor our fathers and mothers. These two laws seem disparate from one another, and yet, Jesus puts them side by side.
In some ways, we are fortunate that we are given additional commentary by Jesus on what he is arguing. He begins by providing us with a passage attributed to Isaiah, which is slightly different than what we now read in Isaiah. Compare the two:
Book of Matthew
‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ”
Book of Isaiah
The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote,
Jesus then follows with a discourse on what actually defiles the body. First, he begins by explaining that dirty hands do not defile the body. It isn’t about what we eat, or even how we eat, that makes our bodies unclean. What goes into the body comes out of the body eventually, and neither of those two things has much of an effect on the world around us. Once again, Jesus maneuvers his teaching to be in alignment with what is necessary for the community to thrive. Hand washing, while laudable, is not what influences others.
The words that we speak to and over one another are the more important lesson. It is what comes out of us that defiles the community. Hate speech, lies, deceit, gossip, to name but a few, are the things that twist and turn our community’s upside down. There comes a point when it is difficult to discern what is true and what is false. The words we speak over others and ourselves impact us at our core. They shape the way we see the world, how we know ourselves, how we love ourselves, and how we love others.
Jesus argues with the Pharisees because he wants them to understand that honor begins first with honoring oneself. When we honor ourselves, hold ourselves in high regard or esteem, truly love ourselves, (not narcissism or conceit, but a godly love) then we are able to love others with the same kind of compassion and care. We see this kind of honoring most present in the commandment to honor our mothers and fathers.
Honoring comes through both words and actions. It is the desire to give the other a measure of respect simply because of the title that they hold. I equate this with standing when the President of the US enters a room. We may not like the President. Maybe we didn’t vote for the President. But because of the title, earned or not, we offer the respect that goes along with that distinction.
This isn’t about loving our parents, although we do hope that love is possible, but it is about father and mother as figureheads receiving just props for being a father or a mother.
For some of us, this may be a difficult commandment. If you were raised by parents who were abusive, or who are in no other way honorable, it is hard to find the will to honor that which isn’t living up to the title. Still, Jesus asks the hearers of this story to go beyond what is comfortable. This isn’t about what makes us happy, but rather about doing what is right – if there is a right or a wrong way to do this.
My prayer is that we can learn to be more mindful with our speech and our actions; to remember that the words we speak over each other matter, and that how we behave toward one another effects the whole community.