As the Passover of 32 C.E. approaches, Jesus is busy teaching in Galilee. Then he likely heads to Jerusalem for the Passover, as God’s Law requires. However, Jesus does so cautiously because the Jews are seeking to kill him. (John 7:1) After that he returns to Galilee.
Jesus is probably in Capernaum when Pharisees and scribes come to him from Jerusalem. Why do they make this trip? They are looking for grounds on which to accuse Jesus of a religious offense. They ask: “Why do your disciples overstep the tradition of the men of former times? For example, they do not wash their hands when about to eat a meal.” (Matthew 15:2) God never told his people to observe this ritual of ‘washing their hands up to the elbow.’ (Mark 7:3) Yet the Pharisees consider not doing so to be a serious offense.
Rather than answer their accusation directly, Jesus points to how they willfully break God’s Law. “Why do you overstep the commandment of God because of your tradition?” he asks them. “For example, God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Let the one who speaks abusively of his father or mother be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother: “Whatever I have that could benefit you is a gift dedicated to God,” he need not honor his father at all.’”
The Pharisees claim that money, property, or anything dedicated as a gift to God belongs to the temple, so it cannot be used for a different purpose. In reality, though, the person is still in possession of the dedicated gift. For example, a son might say that his money or property is “corban,” a gift dedicated to God or to the temple, as if the temple now has prior claim to the gift. The money or property is still the son’s to use, yet he claims that it cannot be used to help his aged and needy parents. He thereby evades his responsibility toward them.
Jesus is rightly indignant at this twisting of God’s Law and says: “You have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition. You hypocrites, Isaiah aptly prophesied about you when he said: ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far removed from me. It is in vain that they keep worshipping me, for they teach commands of men as doctrines.’” The Pharisees have no response to Jesus’ strong criticism. So he calls the crowd to come near. “Listen and get the sense of it,” he says. “It is not what enters into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but it is what comes out of his mouth that defiles him.”
Later when in a house, the disciples ask Jesus: “Do you know that the Pharisees were stumbled at hearing what you said?” He replies: “Every plant that my heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted. Let them be. Blind guides is what they are. If, then, a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Jesus seems surprised when, on behalf of the disciples, Peter asks for clarification about what defiles a man. Jesus responds: “Are you not aware that whatever enters into the mouth passes through the stomach and is discharged into the sewer? However, whatever comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and those things defile a man. For example, out of the heart come wicked reasonings, murders, adulteries, sexual immorality, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man; but to take a meal with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
Jesus is not discouraging normal hygiene, nor is he arguing that a person need not wash his hands before preparing food or eating a meal. Rather, he is condemning the hypocrisy of religious leaders who try to bypass God’s righteous laws by resorting to human traditions. The fact is, wicked deeds originating in the heart are what defile a man.