The Gospel of Dirty Hands

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? (Matthew 15:1-3. NRSV)

Both Matthew and Mark tell the story of the dirty hands. It is one of the most baffling conversations between Jesus and a group of interlocutors—in this case, a group of Pharisees—who challenge the disciples in the name of the dominant religion. Both Gospel writers take us quickly through the conversation because we should already have a sense of the basic idea—which is that (pace Confucius) performing correct rituals is not the same as being a good person. It is not even close.

We must note that the Pharisees’ question, “why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” has nothing to do with actual cleanliness. Mark makes this crystal clear (Mark 7:3-5). This is a “tradition of the elders” that takes the Levitical requirements for ritual purity and applies them to the everyday act of eating a meal. The closest analog we have today is the practice of blessing food. We have no direct commandment to say a prayer before every meal. It isn’t even written down anywhere. But religious people often feel uncomfortable eating food that hasn’t been blessed, and if no one in a group blesses the food, somebody will probably bring it up.

Jesus doesn’t respond to the question with anything we would recognize as an answer. Instead, he asks them another question that embeds a very serious accusation: “Why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your tradition?” He goes on to explain exactly what he means:

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 nullify the word of God. (Matthew 15:4-6)

We need to spend some time unpacking this, and Mark can help. Mark tells us that Jesus is referring to something called “Corban” (qorbān), or “an offering to God” (Mark 7:12). We have to guess a little at the specifics, but the practice appears to have worked something like what universities call a “planned gift,” or an estate donation—except with more rules. Property declared “corban” was gifted to the Temple, with the provision that the person making the gift could continue to use it during their lifetime.

But here’s the catch: on the authority of tradition, nobody else could use resources that had been donated to the Temple (live in the house, eat the produce from the land, etc.). This tradition was so entrenched that it even applied to parents who were still alive—thus overriding the duty that children had under the Mosaic Law to provide for their aging parents. This was a huge deal in a society with no pensions or Social Security. Children were the only resource that parents could count on when they could no longer work.

Jesus brings all of this up when the Pharisees bring up ritual handwashing because it clarifies the problem that he wants to address. Religious traditions often acquire authority in people’s minds that displaces the kinds of commandments that Jesus focused on the most, which all involved taking care of other people and ministering to their needs. People in high-demand religions often think they are being moral by fulfilling religious demands. Jesus disagrees. There is a fundamental, qualitative difference between being good and being observant.

It is easy to see what Jesus means when we look at other people’s religious observance. Of course, those silly Pharisees should have known better than to give money to the Temple instead of taking care of their parents. But the text is not inviting us to critique the ritual practices of Second Temple Judaism. The text invites us to think about everything we do in the name of tradition or religious observance. Latter-day Saints have lots of these: tithing, the Word of Wisdom, dress codes, daily prayers, reading the scriptures, writing in a journal, and so on.

Jesus does not speak against these things. By all accounts, he and his disciples were religiously observant Jews. He doesn’t say that it is bad to wash your hands before a meal or forbid his disciples to wash their hands if they want to. He certainly doesn’t tell the Pharisees that they should give up handwashing. Nothing about this passage should give us the idea that ritual observance is bad.

But not being bad is not quite the same as being good. Jesus does not rebuke the Pharisees for wanting to wash their hands. He rebukes them for using a ritual religious practice to criticize somebody else and question their moral worth. When people do this, they ignore the greater commandment (to love other people as they love themselves) and obey a set of religious forms—often pretending that this is what it means to love God.

Nor does Jesus rebuke people for wanting to give their property to the Temple. The Temple had bills to pay and expenses to meet, and, like churches today, it depended on voluntary donations to meet its obligations. Donating to the Temple was a good thing. But doing so to the detriment of one’s parents—to whom one had legal and moral responsibilities more sacred than any religious ritual—was to elevate religion above morality.

One of the consistent messages of the New Testament is that religious traditions and rituals—dietary codes, dress and grooming habits, prescribed worship forms, Sabbath observance, and even Temple attendance and sacrifices—are not as important as other people. And the obligations that we owe to a formal religious structure are not comparable to the obligations that we have to care for and love each other—which, it turns out, is what loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength actually means.


  1. The Other Brother Jones says:


  2. My ward planned a trip to the temple, and for weeks it was the only thing that was discussed during sacrament meetings. This is a good point to take in Sunday school.

  3. I think the unique context of this and other exchanges between Jesus and these leaders reinforce the notion that Jesus is speaking to the deadness of their law. That context being that these people are using the Law of Moses, and the traditions they have built up around it, to condemn the one who literally gave them this law. The law was meant to point those who followed it to Jesus. But faced with God himself, the leaders’ understanding (or perversion) of the law was doing the opposite and they were rejecting God.

    I only mention this because in fulfilling the Law of Moses, it seems that Jesus didn’t do away with ritual and tradition, set them as something “not as important as people”, or make them merely good/ optional things. It was because people are so important that rituals under the new law were reinstated or clarified. Baptism and the sacrament, as two rituals and traditions, were instituted at Bountiful for the blessing of the people, as shown by the miraculous events that transpired as the people took part in them.

    I agree with the OP that dead or incorrect rituals and traditions should not take the place of taking care of people or be used as a standard of righteousness. This is spot on, in my opinion. I also believe that the current LDS church likely does not have a correct understanding or authorization regarding these rituals, or we would see the same miracles and outcomes accompany them.

    But, I wouldn’t throw out the idea of rituals and traditions altogether as extremely important, essential, and good things – someday we might have them again, and I think that when properly understood, performing them would be the same thing as loving God and caring for each other.

  4. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by the blessing of food (particularly meals). Giving thanks for the food makes sense. Blessing it…not so much. It seems to reside in this weird space between blessing the articles of the sacrament (an ordinance) and hoping it doesn’t cause sickness (which may have been justified at certain times in the past, but not so much now, in this society). But it’s a tradition, and a tradition with strong implications for righteousness. Go ahead and try to have a meal, or even “refreshments” in a Church setting without a prayer being said about it and you’ll get serious pushback. Like, what would happen if we didn’t pray? More than a tradition, it’s definitely ritual, and merely performative as there is really no rational reason for doing it (other than expressing gratitude for the food, which still gets tedious and redundant). I can imagine Christ, living among us today, pointing out the absurdity of blessing jello and potato chips, that they might “nourish and strengthen our bodies”. I imagine his response would be “If you’re interested in being healthy you could, you know, just not eat that stuff.” And the Pharisees would reply “But this is the way it’s supposed to be done! And those potato chips will make us healthy because we blessed them!”

  5. It is kind of funny though that our modern frame of reference can’t escape the idea that…ya, the pharisees were right; you should wash your hands before you eat.

    I mean, especially in an age where sanitation was minimal, people spread all kinds of disease from and through watering sources etc.

    I can’t help but think about the ritual hand washing before a meal with the ritual cleansing (full body) before going to the temple, and again John’s baptism. They were obviously all different, but had a similar purification theme.

    I don’t think Jesus was saying the ritual cleansing was bad, but he was responding defensively to the Pharisees who were looking for reasons to criticize and Jesus was having none of that. It goes back to the Saducees, who the text specifically reminds us don’t believe in the resurrection, asking about the resurrection.

    The Pharisees in this case didn’t care about the principle of the washing, but wanted to find something to criticize thar Jesus wasn’t don’t well enough in their eyes.

    It’s also no coincidence the chapter starts with criticism about washing before eating bread, a metaphor of dogs and bread and crumbs, and Jesus ends the chapter with feeding 4000 fish and bread. Surely some significance there.

    Excuse me while I go cut into a fresh loaf…

  6. “Go ahead and try to have a meal, or even “refreshments” in a Church setting without a prayer being said about it and you’ll get serious pushback.”

    It’s been years now, but I remember serving in the temple where the training season before the start of the day it was remarked that the cafeteria food has already been blessed so we don’t need to say a prayer. It’s hard to recall exactly, but the feeling from the communication was something like, “don’t bless the food before you eat, that’s been done already, we don’t need 100 prayers in vain for the same thing out of rote behavior.” Although it wasn’t said like that for sure.

  7. Sute,
    Rote prayers in the temple? Shocking.

  8. A Disciple says:

    Fantastic essay!

    A remarkable quality of Jesus’ministry is he asked questions. He engaged people around him by inviting them to think. An orthodox people are not keen on thinking – the thinking was done earlier by others and the duty of the people now is to follow the tradition. Yet then the focus becomes on sustaining the tradition and we forget or are never taught the underlying principle that spawned the rule or practice.

    Traditions and social orthodoxy in general can sustain a community but they can also become obstacles to spiritual progression. They can justify us in accepting a lesser good. So we need to have the light of Christ in us and we need the courage to question in a given moment if doing what is expected is the best way to serve God and our fellow man.

  9. ideasnstuff says:

    Turtle: That has often crossed my mind as well. At family gatherings, when I am called (or call upon myself) to give the blessing on the food, increasingly I find myself expressing thanks, asking for the spirit to remind us all to have a thankful heart, and then consecrating the strength and energy obtained from the food (even jell-o and potato chips provide empty but burnable calories) to doing some good in the world. Reminders from my sons (now grown up) that we need to “lift the curse” seem to be less frequent. We honor the ritual, but it’s not really about the food; it’s about gratitude for the bounty of God’s creation, our privilege to enjoy that bounty, and commitment to not waste it.

  10. Stephen Hardy says:

    Regarding our possibly rote and repetitive meal-related prayers:

    I have not asked for the blessing of the food for decades but have instead focused on our gratitude and our desire to life in a way that reflects our gratitude. I was talking about this with a friend at church one day. He told me that in his opinion the practice of praying before meals had nothing at all to do with the need to purify food, and in many cases had nothing to do gratitude. Rather he saw the occasion of praying at mealtime as simple a way to stay focused on God throughout the day. Meal-time prayers were a way to structure frequent prayers into our lives. They give us repetitive opportunities to seek God in prayer. It had, for him, nothing to do with food.

  11. On the topic of being told the food served in the temple had already been blessed in one’s absence, so that further prayer is not required: I have always found this to be very odd, since for me the purpose of the prayer is to express my personal gratitude for the food before I eat it. Now I can do that in my head, silently, that’s not an issue, but to be told not to? Mind boggling.

  12. I instantly thought about all those older people who choose senior missions over spending time with their grandchildren. Or parents sending their children off, thereby robbing the children of the two most pivotal years on their lives. Or insisting on a temple marriage that denies close relatives of the chance to participate. And on and on. Face it, folks- the Mormon church is all based on worship of the institution over personal development.

  13. I think a good modern day example of this is the teaching (and expectation) that if it comes down to being able to pay your bills and feed you family or pay your tithing, you are expected to pay your tithing. We are told that if we will first pay to the church, the Lord will take care of everything else, and in true pharisaic fashion, if the other bills are NOT taken care of after tithing is paid, the donor is told they did not have enough faith.

  14. Thank you Michael for a beautiful essay. This is, of course, this Sunday’s Gospel doctrine topic. I have the privilege of leading that discussion in our ward and plan to use many of the questions and ideas you pose here.

    I particularly like the sentiment of using the text, not to further demonize those horrible “Pharisees”, but rather, as Jesus’ attempt to expose a human problem that echoes throughout history, our tendency to rally around our ideology and use it to self-justify hostility, enmity, exclusion and all, in the name, of “Loving God”. Jesus is most conscious of this danger within the ranks of religiously zealous.

    Any virtue held to tightly will eventually become a vice. C.S. Lewis once said “Badness is just goodness spoiled”. I don’t see anything in the life and teachings of our Savior, Jesus Christ that suggests our allegiance and love for God would ever favor our truth claims at the expense of despising our neighbor. However, this has become a toxic reality in our modern discourse. We often value being right over having right relationship.

    We see this beautifully illustrated in the Story of Simon the Pharisee inviting Jesus to his home for a meal. Then, a sinful woman arrives seeking Jesus.
    What we see in the juxtaposition of Jesus’ compassionate response and Simon’s self-righteousness is the clear and present danger of rigid orthodoxy blinding us to the outward looking charity that is the disciples true calling.

    Simon’s relationship to the law has become the root of the greatest sin, and more clearly defines what sin is, and its tragic result, the fracture of relationship, separation from God and man, and man and man. It has produced fully justified enmity, hostility, and hatred for mankind. He has mistaken the law as the standard by which he measures personal purity instead of how to attend to the needs of others.

    He interprets the law as a divisive heuristic and rationalizes public shaming and private exclusion based on his closely held beliefs.

    This is a problem that will always be in need of close personal reflection or, like the scribes of old, we too will continue to express our beliefs in ways that simultaneously violate them.

  15. Todd S, reading your detailed analysis it brought to mind my own less academic sounding version:

    Simon, the Pharisees, and most church goers at one time or another, forgot that the point of commandments is to make us more like God. God loves all his children and has compassion on them, especially when they are suffering. Jesus wants us to follow the law to become like him, which especially entails showing compassion on those who are suffering.

  16. Sute, love those thoughts. I have wrestled much with our language around ordinances being “essential” to salvation. If often feels like we use ordinances like heavenly tickets, and if that is the case, then mortality largely becomes a primitive game of cosmic hide and seek.

    I see the “essentialism” of ordinances in the picture they paint about the thoughts you posted above. The plan of salvation is NOT an act of individualism in any sense.

    We don’t baptize ourselves, we don’t pass the sacrament tray to ourselves, we don’t lay our own hands on our own heads, we don’t act as both the administrator and recipient in temple rituals. ALL of them are the picture of first receiving and then giving. Covenant, to me, is a co-operative project, which requires us to be both the healed and the healer. Paraphrasing Elder Maxwell, he stated, the gospel is the only place where the patients are also the physicians.

    Jeus says in Luke 6:40 “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” Jesus always presented himself as our model. He never proclaimed our duty was to merely acknowledge his divinity, but to emulate it. It does not take away from his divinity for us to claim our own, it only fulfills the law he came to fulfill.

  17. John Scott,

    Cory is spot on…my in-laws decided to stay on their “senior mission” rather than return home a coupe of months early to help a son who had almost overdosed.

  18. I pray before eating, because eating reminds me of partaking of the Sacrament, and it makes me feel grateful.

  19. “the obligations that we owe to a formal religious structure are not comparable to the obligations that we have to care for and love each other—which, it turns out, is what loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength actually means.”

    Beautiful! Thank you for writing. This essay would be a wonderful discussion in Sunday school.

  20. Two observations:

    First, I think the types of situations called out in the OP and in the comments are examples of traditions and rituals that exist in any organizations or groups of people, not just religious ones. Meaning, if you really are intent about drawing analogies and lessons from these tales that aren’t really there, and making these stories about you, then why stop at religion? Why not also assess how you and those around you put tradition and ritual above other people when it comes to work, politics, social life, family, etc. In other words, if this is your takeaway from this story, this behavior is not limited to religious people and church institutions, and my guess is you would be just as guilty of these things as any church leader you can think of. Seems like that would be the more honest and comprehensive approach.

    Second, it seems that a continual theme of these NT posts (and other posts on this site… I don’t mean to just single out the OPs writings, but they are a good example of what I am trying to say) is that the LDS church (its leaders and general membership), if one had to choose, is more similar to the Pharisees, scribes, etc. in practice and belief than with Jesus, if placed on a spectrum.

    I would actually tend to agree with this view, though I think my reasons for doing so would be very different, and I would not limit my assessment to just the Mormons, or even only religions. But my question, if I have called out this theme correctly, is why stay in this rut? I feel that there is a bigger story to understand here, one that doesn’t have to keep beating a dead horse into the ground. By the almost obsessive focus on making every story, in some way, about the deficiencies of the Mormon church and its practiced religion, you are robbing yourselves of an opportunity to see and explore different and better stories.

    The last credible, contemporaneously recorded dream we have of Joseph Smith was from the night before he died, as related by Cyrus Wheelock the very next day. That dream involved JS coming back to his farm after a long absence, and seeing it pretty much in total ruin. The barn specifically was mentioned as being under a curse. I won’t recount the rest of the details in this comment, as people can just look it up, but it concluded with JS realizing the barn was not worth salvaging and walking away from it, while others stayed in the barn and fought and quarreled over it, which become a very disturbing scene resulting in their implied destruction.

    Why am I mentioning this dream in this context? Because, if you have come to some sort of realization that all is not right with the LDS church, rather than staying in that barn and fighting over it, posting about it, using bible stories to call it out, or whatever it is you are doing, follow the example of JS and just walk away and save your soul.

    Mormonism, as what it was meant to be, died with Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage, and was buried when Emma and her children found themselves on the wrong side of certain leaders’ desire for power. It doesn’t mean, though, that the promises made to and through Joseph Emma, Hyrum, and others, and the stories they attempted to bring back into being, won’t still come about. The sooner one can step out of that barn, I think the sooner one can start understanding and experiencing these stories for themselves.

    Then you won’t have to keep bringing every story, scripture, post, or comment back to these same repetitive themes. There will be bigger, and better, stories to also immerse yourself in.

  21. WW–not everything has to be a binary referendum on whether the Church is good or bad. It could be that Michael is just offering a reading of the scripture. There’s really only one sentence in the OP about the Church, and it’s a neutral factual statement.

    Also, we’re not in the habit of letting commenters invite people out of the Church, no matter how elegantly they do it (or politely, but thanks for that just the same!). I’m sure there are other places where your message would be appreciated.

  22. “Why am I mentioning this dream in this context? Because, if you have come to some sort of realization that all is not right with the LDS church, rather than staying in that barn and fighting over it, posting about it, using bible stories to call it out, or whatever it is you are doing, follow the example of JS and just walk away and save your soul.”

    WW, while Kristine’s comment is absolutely enough, I did want to add something: this idea that we can only participate in institutions where the institution is perfect/perfectly aligned with our personal views would mean the end of all institutions. Maybe that’s your goal, but I would argue that the destruction of institutions–a situs where people come together and become more than they are individually–is objectively a bad thing.

  23. Kristine:

    I agree with you on the referendum comment… that is actually one of my points. Many/ most posts and comments on this site seem to gravitate back to an evaluation or assessment of religion in general, and the church more specifically, and how mark has been missed based on some scripture, story, current event, personal experience, etc.

    It is a fixation that I think causes people to make incorrect analogies and make the stories fit their preconceived notions.


    No, I don’t think I have written anywhere or presented an idea that we can only participate in perfect institutions. Same goes for having a goal of ending all institutions. Maybe you recast my statement in order to create something you could establish a position against, but you are positioned against yourself on this one, I am afraid.

    I’d be happy to address any concerns you have with my comment, but it would need to be on what I have actually written and not on what you have imagined I have written.

  24. WW – I generally agree with your first post, but I think part of the reason posters here tend to pick at “The Church” or religion in general is because, first, it’s a religious blog; and Second, “The Church” has created its own monster by perpetuating an all or nothing narrative. For the LDS church, or any church or institution that supposes themselves to be “The one and only” solution for all mankind, it will certainly run into some roadblocks when maturing human beings contend with the complexities of life and that arrogant statement.

    Additionally, sure the leadership of the Church says they are fallible and imperfect, but it’s mere platitudes, as they fail miserably at actually acknowledging their weakness and faults. They have made the fatal mistake of believing that “Trust” exists most in the absence of “sin”, as it were. When, in reality, Trust flourishes most in being “honest”, sharing life’s weakness is probably our greatest binding power.

  25. Kristine says:

    “Many/ most posts and comments on this site seem to gravitate back to an evaluation or assessment of religion in general, and the church more specifically, and how mark has been missed based on some scripture, story, current event, personal experience, etc.”

    ok. Then I guess we just have a hermeneutic disagreement.

  26. Todd M Smithson says:

    Kristine – I think that the hermeneutical cycle is a great representation of what Moroni means by, “Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith”. We often read Moroni’s statement as a passive waiting for my faith to be acted upon, but I also think Moroni suggests the ethical responsibility we have to continually place our faith and understanding back into the laboratory of our lives.

  27. Todd s:

    Good points.

    Hopefully there are other outlets that people here use where they are able let their spirits and imaginations run free, and not fixate so much on bringing everything back to what is wrong with religion and the church. Thanks for the reminder that this is likely the case, and not to draw caricatures solely based on what is posted and discussed here.

    And I agree that the church – its leaders and many of its members – have put themselves in a pickle as you have described, and that this has gone on for quite some time. I sometimes wonder, though, whether more charity, forgiveness, and even pity is warranted. This might also help free up people’s minds to explore other topics and not worry about things that ought not to matter as much as they are made to.


    That could be. I confess I had to look up what ‘hermeneutic’ even means, so I will take your word for it.

  28. “The Church” can mean two things. Church(1), refers to an incorporated, hierarchical institution with a physical address, an accounting department, a tax status, and an org chart. I have no influence on, and very little interest in, what the Church(1) does or believes. Church(2) refers to an egalitarian spiritual body, made up of all of the people who trace their spiritual heritage back to the Restoration Movement that began in 1830. These people have all promised to love and support and mourn with each other as part of their spiritual practice. This is the much older and much more common definition of the word “church”— the ekklēsia, or the Church Militant, or the Body of Christ.

    I care deeply about Church(2), and I often write out of a conviction that we who constitute Church(2) can do better than we are doing. This is not an atypical stance for writers to take when talking to a body of people who claim a common text or canon. Nor is it odd for people who take this stance to try to explain better ways to read the shared text or canon. Pretty much the entire New Testament consists of writers telling a spiritual community that they need to do better at understanding their sacred text. Most of the Old Testament too.

    I have plenty of other interests and have written about plenty of things that have nothing to do with Churches, scriptures, Mormons, or spirituality. I have explored other topics and written several whole books about completely secular topics that I find compelling. I write about Church(2), often in a corrective fashion, not because I have come to the conclusion that it is fatally flawed. But because I believe that it has enormous potential that it is not currently realizing. It is an act of devotion and love, not an act of dismissal or contempt. That is simply what I do. Some people like it, some people don’t like it, and most people never read it because they are busy doing other things. That is just how “writing stuff” works. I write what seems important to me, and readers decide if it is important to them. There is no shortage of other things that people are free to pay attention to if super niche progressive-but-not-radical Mormon scriptural commentary is not their cup of herbal tea.

  29. Michael: Brilliant Post! It’s interesting that there is so much focus on the ritual handwashing this week. (Even Living Scriptures featured it in their weekly video). As someone who has reached the age of caring for my parents, this post resonated heavily with me.

  30. “Whited sepulchers” also comes to mind.

    I can’t comment on the current state of Rabbinic Judaism, but this is a significant problem in Islam. It’s not uncommon to find people who are very scrupulous and fastidious in observing the fiqh of all religious requirements but won’t hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise hide bad behavior behind piety. I know this is a common issue in every faith tradition, but it seems particularly so in Islam — in my view — due to the prevalent feeling that if someone fulfills the ritual requirements, it’s enough. Plus, those who are highly observant are held in very high regard and are considered untouchable. “But he prays and fasts…” is a common rebuttal to criticisms of such people.

    In the Hebrew Bible, God doesn’t condemn his people for shortchanging him on doves and oxen but rather neglecting widows and orphans.

  31. By the way, I love the phrase “Gospel of dirty hands”.

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