Actor and comedian W. C. Fields was an avowed agnostic, so he surprised his friends when they discovered him reading a Bible while on his deathbed. When asked why, Fields replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day approached God’s law with the same goal. They formulated an elaborate system of man-made regulations allegedly designed to protect God’s commands but that instead provided loopholes for those who wanted to get around them. Although those who established these traditions probably introduced them with the good intent of helping God’s people comply with the Law’s requirements, these traditions had become an end in themselves.
Jesus commented on this tendency when the Pharisees and the teachers of the Mosaic Law criticized His disciples for eating with “unclean” hands (v. 2). This was not a complaint about the disciples’ personal hygiene but their failure to comply with the practice of ceremonial washing prior to eating. After shopping in the marketplace, the Pharisees observed a ritual washing to “cleanse” themselves from any contact they may have had with Gentiles and non-practicing Jews.
Some viewed compliance with such rituals as synonymous with obedience to God’s command. Preserving the traditions became more important than obeying the laws that they were meant to reflect. As an example, Jesus cited the practice of declaring property “Corban” (v. 11). This term is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that meant “offering” or “oblation.” When something was declared Corban it still belonged to the owner but was no longer available for ordinary use. Apparently some used this as an excuse to shield their assets, even from their needy parents.
In other instances, focusing on such rules and traditions caused people to lose sight of the importance of the heart. They felt that the ritual alone was sufficient. Jesus compared the people of His generation with those condemned by the prophet Isaiah (vv. 6–7; cf. Isa. 29:3). Although meticulous in their religious practices, they did not truly honor God but offered only lip service.