Pragmatics in Matthew 15

I’d like to take a look at a couple pericopae in Matthew with the focus on Matthew 15.1-20.

What’s rather strange about this story is its content in comparison with other similar episodes with the scribes and Pharisees. This particular one marks the final parting of ways, so to speak, between Jesus and the establishment. But its interesting that it is this one that causes the final divide. Previously, Jesus touched a leper, was in contact with a Gentile, visited Gentile territory with pigs and demons. He was touched by a woman with a menstrual disorder and even touched a dead body! And with all of this he is consistently found with “tax collectors and sinners.”

Yet this final separation arises out of the question of washing hands:

1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

I find this to be a rather strange way to begin an argument with anyone, particularly in light of previous encounters. This makes me wonder.

Could it be that the Pharisee’s very loaded question is an instance of Jewish pragmatics? They’re asking about washing hands, but they’ve brought an indirect criticism to Jesus to broach the issue of ritual purity. Just look at all the other options they had: lepers, Gentiles, dead bodies, impure illnesses. But they chose the very indirect route of hand washing -something not even required by the Torah, except for the priests.

I think they bit off more than they could chew though:

3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” 10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you” (TNIV).