Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 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.So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
– Matthew 15:1-20
This is the second step in Matthew’s account of how to care for and feed multitudes. The first step, Have Faith, was worked out in the disciples’ crossing of the sea with the winds against them. But now, safely on the other side, the disciples see that the healing of the people will immediately bring opposition from those who want to enforce the rules.
The Pharisees and scribes are supposed to be taking care of the people in their charge. Instead, they are looking for excuses to criticize those who are doing the work while they hide behind rules they have invented to justify their own position and advantage. Notice that though the work had been Jesus healing (Matthew 14:34-36) the Pharisees and scribes open their opposition with what at first seems a totally unrelated issue: they criticize Jesus’ disciples for not following the rules about washing their hands before eating. Again with the eating! Remember, this is about feeding people.
Jesus’ answer brings the point home: they are letting the rules get in the way of what needs to be done. Specifically, Jesus sites an instance where the Pharisees use the rules to exempt themselves and others for providing for the needs of fathers and mothers. The commandment applies so long as the “honor” is understood in the abstract. But another rule applies when something substantive must be done. The same is the case for washing of hands – a ceremonial washing. (Germs and personal hygiene in the sense we know it today hadn’t been invented yet.) If you take up all your time and resources (water) trying to get the ceremony right, you’ll never get around to what’s important – doing the work, feeding the people. It’s this stalling, beating around the bush with ceremony, standing on traditions, that keeps the disciples, then and now, from doing what Jesus is calling them to do. And it’s the continuing hesitation to stand up and call out the rule-enforcers, who still today stand on the pretense of abstractions, that holds modern disciples back from doing what they need to do.
Against the sticklers for rules, Jesus wants his disciples to be able to focus on whose rules? Are these really God’s rules? Or are they someone else’s? And who do these rules in question benefit? Jesus says you’ll know whether someone is holy or damned by what they do for the good of others, not by how meticulously they follow procedure all the while stepping on others to get ahead and to look good themselves.
To care for and feed multitudes, disciples must ignore the rules people will always be making up to distract them from doing the actual work. Multitudes can be fed, but someone needs to actually roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and feed them. And you can’t get your hands dirty if you’re constantly going back to wash them.
Caring for and feeding the multitudes is bound to raise the hackles of the rule-makers. They are bound to come up with reasons to make you think (and make others think about you) that you’re doing the wrong thing. Jesus demonstrates that the second step, after addressing your own self-doubt, is to have the courage to break the rules that others have made and called sacred, especially when those rules are unjustly skewed to the advantage of the rule-makes and to the disadvantage of those in need.
Time and again, the greatest things have happened because someone decided not to follow the rules. This was behind the civil disobedience and non-violent resistance of the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is what was behind Gandhi. The care and feeding of multitudes is possible for the average disciple, but it will always make people in high places angry.
Whose rules are getting in the way of your doing what Jesus needs you to do? What rules are you hiding behind? And what would it take for you to break them? The disciples point out to Jesus that the Pharisees are offended at what Jesus said. Are you willing to risk offending powerful people to do what is right? Are there some rules you would not be willing to break? Why?
Tomorrow: Step 3 – Make the Enemy Your Friend