After the lake crossing, Jesus was met by another crowd. Jesus never failed to care for their physical needs. Some were even kind of superstitious about the healing, but Jesus honored their simplistic faith with healing.
Then come scribes and Pharisees came all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Did they come just to hassle Jesus? This is the first contact with Jerusalem mentioned since chapter 4. We shouldn’t forget about Jerusalem because the story will move there soon enough.
These lawyers and amateur lawyers hassle Jesus because his disciples apparently don’t keep the Pharisaic tradition of ritual hand washing before they eat. This isn’t biblical law, but later interpretation and extension of it. Also, it is not an argument about hygeine. By the Pharisaic tradition, if the hands are unclean, the food becomes unclean, and the unclean food makes the person unclean. And that’s the house that Jack built.
Jesus’ answer goes to show that lawyerly machinations go both ways. While they are trying to apply a matter of their tradition to people who are not necessarily of their tradition, at the same time they are using loopholes they have invented in the law to get around what would normally be seen as their legal obligations, caring for their own parents.
Jesus quotes Isaiah in a stinging rebuke. Jesus is concerned with ethics and activities, not law tweaking.
When I was a young man I had planned to be a preacher, so I attended a week of short courses of study in preparation. That was my first real time spent in the company of preachers while they were not with their congregations. The disillusioning truth is that all the discussion in our downtime was about ways to work the tax system to avoid or minimize paying income taxes. Sound familiar?
Anyway, Jesus told the people that what goes into a person cannot defile the person, but what comes out certainly can.
When Jesus explained that to the disciples, it was pretty clear how he felt. What comes out comes from the heart. An evil heart shows defilement. Our behavior and our ethics are who we are inside, not what we say we believe.
People who claim to be Christians are showing the truth by how they behave and the truth isn’t always pretty. Are you offended by that? So were the Pharisees.
As far as Jesus was concerned, so much defilement in people’s lives was created by the inner life and moral choices that lay behind their words and deeds that to focus one’s energies instead on extending the boundaries of ritual purity was to fiddle while Rome burnt. Not what people encounter externally but what they generate from within constitutes the major purity issue.John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 621.
While we’re at it, we may as well mention that many of the issues and conflicts between various Christians today have more to do with tradition than with doctrine.