There are two things to keep in mind in this passage. First, the Pharisees had created a system of rules, or “traditions”, that were designed to guarantee that people would follow the Laws of Moses. They believed that the reason God was not blessing the nation and was keeping the people under the rule of Rome was because the people were breaking Moses’ Law. In order to safeguard against breaking the Laws, thus insuring that God would bless them, they created a long list of rules that were even more intense than Moses’ Law. In a sense, they built a fence of rules around the Law that would be so strict that, even if someone broke one of their rules by accident, they still wouldn’t have broken the true Law. Their motivation behind this was to bring the nation back into obedience so that God would deliver them from their oppressors. While the motivation may have been good in the beginning, the problem with it was that, after a few generations, the traditions became all about external behavior and not about inward transformation. When you really study Moses’ Law, his motivation (God’s motivation working through Moses) was not to conform people’s behavior to a set of rules, but to transform people’s hearts to have a heart for God. The traditions of the elders became a power trip for the Pharisees that seduced them into believing that they were the judge and jury for everyone’s behaviors. Jesus did not approve of this.
The second thing to keep in mind is that Jesus’ disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about right away. His teaching was so radical that they thought He must have been speaking in a parable. When asked about this, Jesus said,” Hello! I wasn’t speaking in a parable, the truth of this is as plain as day!” You see, the disciples had grown up with the traditions of the elders so these sets of rules were so ingrained in them that it was difficult for them to see any other way. Jesus clearly said that it is what comes out of a man’s mouth that makes him clean or unclean, because what comes out of a man’s mouth is a direct reflection of the condition of his heart and character. The Jews thought that moral cleanness was about what you did and did not do, eat, or touch. It took the disciples a long time to grasp this. Actually, they didn’t even get it after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven. The whole book of Acts is the story of how the disciples realized this teaching for themselves.
The lesson for us to be careful about the standards we use to judge ourselves and others. It is easy to get caught up in the externals: appearance, status, impressive speech, etc. Although we might not like to admit it, we often get caught up in playing the “who’s better than who” game while we jockey for position in our social environment. As Christians we use external indicators to figure out who fits where on the totem pole. We must stop this and remember what God told Samuel when he was looking for Saul’s replacement amongst Jesse’s sons, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”