from WL Worcester (H Blackmer, ed.), 
The Sower.  Helps to the Study of the Bible in Home and Sunday School
(Boston: Massachusetts New-Church Union, n.d.)

Table of Contents


Lesson 14

Mark 7:1-23: Washing of Hands

The Story


The interest of the multitude in the Lord, and their desire to make Him a king, was very disturbing to the Pharisees. They did not at all want that kind of a king, and were very jealous of the Lord who taught with more authority than they, and who cared more that the people were really good and kind and obeyed the Ten Commandments, than that they remembered all the many rules that men had written down and that the Pharisees thought more important than the laws of God. So now the Pharisees of Galilee and those of Judea joined together and came to watch the Lord and try to find some fault in Him and His teaching.

And first they saw the disciples eating with unwashed hands. Now this tradition of washing before eating was one of their most important teachings, and their books told just how it should be done, how one hand should be washed with the other fist, and that the hands should then be raised so that the water might run off just at the wrists. This should be done always before eating, and some considered it necessary after eating and even between the courses. And when coming home from the market they must wash all over before eating. Very particular rules were given also for the care of dishes and things used in eating. The scribes and Pharisees asked the Lord why His disciples did not keep these laws, and He answered them by first telling them what one of their prophets had said: "This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." The Lord only cares for those outside things of worship that help people to be good and love Him, and these rules of the scribes and Pharisees did not do this, but only helped the people to forget His Commandments.

Then the Lord said, "There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things that come out of him, those are they that defile the man." When the disciples were alone with Him they asked Him what that meant, and He explained, that it is not the things we eat, clean or unclean, that can do us real harm, but it is evil in our hearts which makes us do wicked things that really does us harm. It matters not so much whether the outside of the cup and platter is clean if the inside which comes next the food is only clean. But the Pharisees were always cleaning the outside which showed most, and letting the inside go. They had many tiresome laws for outside ways and manners, and did not care if their thoughts and feelings were wicked and impure, dishonest and murderous. Here the Lord showed how different His teaching-was from that of the scribes and Pharisees, and how worthless all the outside show of goodness is if there is no love for the Lord and one another in our hearts.


Who can tell me who the Pharisees were? They were those among the Jews who were most learned in the law of Moses, and still more learned in the countless rules made by old Jewish teachers. They thought that by keeping these rules they were better than other people. Remember how they kept the Sabbath, not doing the least kind or useful thing. What did they say when the Lord healed on the Sabbath day? When the disciples plucked the ears of corn on the Sabbath day? The Lord said many things about the Pharisees which show us how proud they were, and how they made a show of holiness in their dress, their fasting, their prayers, and giving to the poor, but they were wicked in their hearts. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: for ye are like whited sepulchres which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." "All their works they do to be seen of men." (Matthew 23) They were the hypocrites who sounded trumpets in giving alms, and made long prayers in public places to be seen of men. (Matthew 6) Remember the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable: "Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men." (Luke 18:11) The Lord said, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20)

Among the rules which the Pharisees kept most strictly were those about washing their hands and dishes and tables before and after eating. (See quite a full account of these rules in Edersheim's "Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah," Vol. 2, pages 9-15.) The Pharisees claimed that no one could be fit for heaven who did not keep these rules about washing his hands.

Some of the Pharisees from Jerusalem came to the Lord in Capernaum, and complained that the disciples were not keeping the rules handed down from the old teachers, but ate without washing their hands. How foolish to think that this could make them unfit for heaven! Some of the rules were worse than foolish, for they were made an excuse for breaking the Commandments. What does the Commandment say that we should do to our father and mother? It meant that they should obey their parents, and be respectful to them, and do all that they could for them, and support them when they were old. But one of the traditions said that if parents asked a child for something he could say, "I give to the Lord the thing you want," and then he need not give it to his father or mother; and sometimes he would not give it to the Lord either; but would keep it for himself. So the rules of the Pharisees were not only foolish but they led people to do wrong, and to break the Commandments.

Can anything I have eaten make my soul unclean and unfit for heaven? Is there anything in me which does make me unclean in the eyes of angels and the Lord? Bad feelings and bad thoughts if I do not try to put them away, and these lead to bad words and acts. It says in the Psalm, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD, or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart." Does it mean that we shall wash our hands as the Pharisees taught? Or what does it mean?

1. Who were the Pharisees? Who were the scribes?

2. What washings did the Pharisees observe? What washing does the Lord really require?

3. How had the Pharisees made a Commandment of God of no effect by their tradition?

4. What really defiles?

Spiritual Study


Were there any of the Pharisees who loved the Lord and listened to His teaching? (John 3:2; 19:39)

I have asked above what is meant in Psalm 24:4 by "clean hands." First, what is meant by hands? Remember the charge to bind the law upon the hands. (Deuteronomy 6: 8) Plainly, the charge meant that the Commandments should be the rule of all our actions. (E. 395; A. 9825, 9936) What is meant by the words: "Your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity"? (Isaiah 59:3; E. 329) What do these words mean: "Wash you and make you clean"? (Isaiah 1:16) Read the rest of the verse if you do not know. (T. 670-673)

What is the water which makes us spiritually clean? Divine teaching of right and wrong, especially the Ten Commandments, which show us what is wrong, and give strength to put it away. Remember how John the Baptist boldly taught the people to repent, and baptized them in the river to represent the spiritual cleansing. (E. 476, 724)

We have learned that the spirit as well as the body needs food. It needs instruction in what is good that will satisfy the affections, and in what is true to satisfy the thought. This instruction we receive from teachers and from reading, and from all we see and hear. We receive much which is not good and true. Does this necessarily defile us, and make us unfit for heaven? Natural food is received into the stomach and intestines, and what the body needs is drawn up into the circulation. The rest is rejected. So with spiritual food. It is received into the memory; from this we draw up what we wish to make a part of ourselves, and reject the rest. Remember this: bad things around us need not defile us, not even if we must see and hear them; but when we love them, draw them in and make them a part of ourselves, and think and intend them, and perhaps do them, then we make them of our heart and they defile us. (E. 580, 622) No more do good and true things become a part of us just from hearing them. We must assimilate them, draw them into our life, and make them of our heart.

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