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In Matthew 15:1–4 we see:

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.’"

We see Jesus virtually defending the disciples who had failed in following a simple lesson of hygiene in an age when food was eaten directly with hand and not with the help of spoon and fork. Of course, Jesus was trying to bring the Pharisees home to more important things of life. But then, He could have started like this: "Well, I agree that my disciples are too old to be taught table manners, but..."

My question is: How does the Catholic Church explain the lack of importance attributed by Jesus to the washing of hand prior to eating by His disciples, in the face of criticism by the Pharisees?

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Cornelius à Lapide, S.J., commentates on Mt. 15:2-3:

Why do thy disciples, &c. Bread, in this verse, is a common Hebraism for all kinds oi food. Observe : Moses, m the old Law,enjoined, by God's command, that the Jews should abstain from contact with the dead bodies of rapacious birds and unclean animals,from lepers and various other persons and things. And if any one touched them accidentally, he was accounted unclean ; and was not allowed to enter the Temple until he had performed the ablutions which the law prescribed. And these corporeal washings were enjoined for the purpose of adumbrating to the dense minds of the Jews those spiritual washings of the soul, which are effected by contrition and repentance. (See what I have said on Levit. xi. 31.)

The Jews then, but especially the Pharisees, who wished to be accounted more religious than other people, made their whole sanctity consist in such outward and frequent washings before their meals,yea even when they were taking their food, as seems to be her eintimated. This was why, at the wedding-feast at Cana, there were placed six water-pots for these purificatory purposes. This was why they so frequently washed the cups and basons, out of which they ate and drank, yea even their beds and tables, as may be seen in Mark vii. 4. They were thus careful, lest if the vessels out of which they ate were polluted, they should contaminate those who ate out of them. But all this was merely done out of custom, since the law prescribed nothing of the kind.

Observe 2. This excessive scrupulosity of the Jews was little if indeed at all conducive to piety, or profit, since it kept them wholly intent upon external washings. And so it called off their minds from the interior care and purification of the mind from sin. Neither did God require of them this exceeding anxiety about external lustrations; but seems rather to have discouraged it. (Deut. iv. 2) Christ therefore being about to put an end to these vain and frivolous, or noxious traditions, and being desirous of directing their whole attention to the purification of the mind, was unwilling to observe these ablutions, or to enjoin them upon His disciples, although He did not say so in express words, in order to avoid the envy and calumnies of the Pharisees.

[…]

Jesus answered, &c., for the sake of your tradition. Arabic, for the sake of your ordinances. Instead of, for the sake of, some translate, through. But the meaning is the same in both; viz., your traditions set at nought and violate the Law of God. Therefore they are false and impious, and ought not to be observed.

Note the word, your. Your traditions were not instituted by God,or His Saints : nor by the ancient Patriarchs and Prophets. They were only invented in recent times by the Scribes and Pharisees,your predecessors. And you wish to maintain them, not from love and reverence for them, but because ye have come into their place,and because ye would arrogate to yourselves power and authority to ordain similar traditions. But there are Divine and Patriarchal traditions, which must be in every way observed. They are, that the Books of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the rest of the Prophets are Canonical : that God is One in Essence, Three in Person: that sins are blotted out by true contrition arising from the love of God :that infants are guilty of original sin, and therefore must be cleansed by the Sacrament which God has ordained, and so on. These traditions ye ignore, or make of none effect, O ye Scribes ; being wholly taken up with your own traditions.


The Pharisee's hand-washing was their own tradition made to appear like the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law, which were no longer in force since Christ's passion. The ceremonial precepts were only intended to help prepare the Israelites for His coming. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes addressing the question "Whether the ceremonies of the Old Law ceased at the coming of Christ?":

All the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law were ordained to the worship of God as stated above (Question [101], Articles [1],2). Now external worship should be in proportion to the internal worship, which consists in faith, hope and charity. Consequently exterior worship had to be subject to variations according to the variations in the internal worship, in which a threefold state may be distinguished. One state was in respect of faith and hope, both in heavenly goods, and in the means of obtaining them—in both of these considered as things to come. Such was the state of faith and hope in the Old Law. Another state of interior worship is that in which we have faith and hope in heavenly goods as things to come; but in the means of obtaining heavenly goods, as in things present or past. Such is the state of the New Law. The third state is that in which both are possessed as present; wherein nothing is believed in as lacking, nothing hoped for as being yet to come. Such is the state of the Blessed [in heaven].

In this state of the Blessed, then, nothing in regard to worship of God will be figurative; there will be naught but "thanksgiving and voice of praise" (Is. 51:3). Hence it is written concerning the city of the Blessed (Apoc. 21:22): "I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty is the temple thereof, and the Lamb." Proportionately, therefore, the ceremonies of the first-mentioned state which foreshadowed the second and third states, had need to cease at the advent of the second state; and other ceremonies had to be introduced which would be in keeping with the state of divine worship for that particular time, wherein heavenly goods are a thing of the future, but the Divine favors whereby we obtain the heavenly boons are a thing of the present.

  • But in reply to objection 2, Aquinas says that they ceased in Christ's Passion, which was still in the future during the scene of Matthew 15 ("before Christ's Passion, while Christ was preaching and working miracles, the Law and the Gospel were concurrent"). So this doesn't seem like an adequate explanation. Was there actually an OT ceremonial law that required handwashing before eating, or was this just a made-up tradition by the Pharisees? – Nathaniel Sep 2 '18 at 19:06
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    @Nathaniel "Was there actually an OT ceremonial law that required handwashing before eating, or was this just a made-up tradition by the Pharisees?" That's a good point. Thanks for the correction. The Pharisees were excessively scrupulous, thinking their sanctity consisted in externals alone. And He does say "your tradition" (the Scribes' and Pharisees' made-up laws). – Geremia Sep 2 '18 at 20:51
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In this instance, Christ defines and distinguishes the traditions of men versus the word of God (bible).

The scribes and Pharisees acknowledge that washing hands was a tradition of the elders, not of God.

Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. Mat 15:2

Christ recognizes this error and retorts with what is true.

But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? Mat 15:3

As to the Catholic Church, it would answer that there is such a thing as tradition, but some of it is called Sacred Tradition in the same sense there is Sacred Scripture. In this case under question, the Catholic Church would recognize the difference.

97 "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God" -catechism of the CC-

So, the Catholic Church may agree that the tradition of elders is Sacred Tradition at times, but not always.

PS The priests were required to wash their hands (and feet) prior to ministering.

When they [Aaron and sons] go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water [their hands and feet], that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: Exo 30:20

What the elders had done was made this washing a requirement for everyone without a commandment from God.

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First we are talking about two different mentalities:

  • The Pharisees think that the best way to serve God is to take the laws literally and to do what the laws say. They don't think about the sense of these laws but they simply do what the laws say.

    If they are in a situation where you have the choice between doing what the sense of the law is and doing what the law literally says they will do what the law literally says. This means they will NOT do what the law actually wants.

  • Jesus always thinks about the intention of the law. If he thinks that the law has a certain intention he will act in the way the law is intended. He will not act in the way the law is written.

    Another good example for this is Luke 13,15.

The intention of the law here is that God does not want the people to become ill. Therefore they should wash their hands to prevent illnesses.

In the sermon yesterday our priest said that St. Peter and the others were poor people. Perhaps they simply did not have access to clean water.

Of course St. Peter and the others do not want to get ill so they would definitely wash their hands if they had access to clean water. So obviously they currently only have access to dirty water.

In this situation the two different mentalities I described above will cause two different conclusions:

  • The Pharisees say that St. Peter and the others shall use the dirty water to wash their hands. It does not matter that the water is possibly polluted with disease-causing bacteria. The law says that the hands have to be washed.

    They believe that in the eyes of God it is most important to follow some rules without thinking if the rule makes sense in the current situation.

  • Jesus says that by using water being polluted with disease-causing bacteria you exactly do the opposite of what the law actually wants.

    Jesus' main message seems to be that in the eyes of God it is not so important that we follow some rules without thinking about them but it is more important to think about what God actually wants from us.

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