Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” -Mark 7:1-8
Every child learns that their parents will ask the inevitable question right before meal time: “Did you wash your hands?” Early in childhood, this question may be followed by a negotiation. “Yes,” the child may answer. “Both hands?” the parent asks. “Oh, ok, I’ll go wash the other one, too.” After it has been taught that both hands need to be washed, a whole other set of questions will emerge. “Did you use soap?” the parent asks. “No, but the water worked alright by itself,” the child answers. “Go and use soap on both hands!” the parent clarifies. Yes, washing hands is important, but how to wash hands is just as important. When our family is out to dinner, we add another level to washing hands. Each child is given a big blob of gel hand sanitizer to kill the germs of the washroom. I hope my children learn each step and take it with them into the world. But even more than keeping their hands clean, I hope they go into the world with clean hearts. We know that is more important in many ways, and that was what Jesus was teaching in today’s lesson.
I have heard the questions posed: “Which would you rather have as a child, one with clean hands or one with a clean heart? Or which next door neighbor, someone with perfect hygiene or someone with a good heart? What about as a friend, someone who was clean and neat, or who had a good heart? How about as a husband or wife? Perfectly clean on the outside, or a clean heart on the inside? Jesus might have asked questions like this. He had a way of asking questions that revealed what people’s real priorities were, and what they were really all about.
When the Pharisees challenged him, he knew exactly how to respond. In his ministry there are moments when we realize Jesus is speaking right through time to us. We read this story and feel like our inside needs as much attention as our outside. It was as if Jesus asked, Yes, Jesus reveals that we need to be clean inside and out. We begin with Pharisees, the teacher of the law, traveling to see Jesus.
The Pharisees had traveled a long way. They came all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to challenge Jesus. The local Pharisees must have known that something serious was going on when their peers from Jerusalem arrived. And it was serious. It was a turning point in which Jesus began to proclaim God’s love to those outside the Jewish tradition. Jesus was making God even more accessible to non-Jews.
When the Jerusalem Pharisees arrived they questioned Jesus about washing hands, asking why they didn’t follow the same rituals of the elders. They wanted to know, not because they were concerned about cleanliness or hygiene. They were concerned about the rules for coming into the presence of God. Was Jesus changing the rules that had been passed down for centuries? The rules included very intricate rituals, and the Pharisees chose washing hands as a case study. In order to come in the presence of God, hands had to washed in a very particular way. There is a word in this passage that might mean closed fist. Scholars consider it kind of an untranslatable word. But the point was that water ran across the hand in a certain way and the hands had to be in a particular position. The way the hands were washed were an example of many things that set the Jewish people apart from others. The rituals were vital to the Pharisees’ tradition of who was acceptable to God. There were other rituals, but this was the one the Pharisees caught Jesus and his disciples not paying much attention to so they pointed it out.
They gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed in the ceremonial way. This was easy for them to identify, since in the scriptures just prior to our scripture reading for today, we see Jesus ministering with Gentiles, non-Jews, touching them, healing them, and speaking words of love to them. “And wherever he went–into villages, towns, or countryside–they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.” (Mark 6: 56)
Since the Pharisees had just come through the marketplace on their way from Jerusalem, their question is especially pointed. They had to pass through the large marketplace there and they would have come into contact with Gentiles. This contact with non-Jews made them ritually unclean, so they had to wash the proper way in order to become acceptable to God again. As Psalm 24 states, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts . . .” As Isaiah 6 states, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah wasn’t clean again in his vision until an angel brought a hot coal to him.
The Pharisees thought that being in the presence of God required something special. They were aware of God’s holiness and saw the imperfection of humanity and the perfection of God as being far apart. They wanted to honor God by acknowledging that God was perfect and humanity was not. So they had developed and practiced external rituals of cleanliness, like the washing of hands and feet, to remind them of the holiness of God. Jesus began to teach them that somehow during the many centuries of trying to make themselves holy before God, their efforts and rules had become their religion, so he began by answering them with an appeal to authority. He quoted Isaiah, a very powerful and famous prophet: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
We know that it is good to keep traditions and ceremonies. We see no reason in scripture to doubt that Jesus kept the traditions of his people. We know that he was in the temple on the Sabbath. We know that he was a student of the Hebrew Bible, he referred to it constantly. He set aside time to pray on a regular basis. Traditions and ceremonies are good. Traditions and ceremonies help us define and hold on to what is important in our lives. People who provide a healthy foundation for our society are those who respect tradition.
But Jesus wanted them to pay as much attention to being clean inside as they were being clean outside. Jesus wanted them to see that devotion to God is not about washing your hands in a certain way; rather, Jesus taught that devotion to God is shown in your ethics, your attitudes, and your motives. Jesus wanted them to see that the way you loved others showed how close you were to God and how clean you really were, inside and out.
There is a clear tension that Jesus is addressing. It is the tension between law, or keeping God’s commandments, and Gospel, God’s unconditional promise through Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote that the law is the expression of God’s will that humans live in grateful trust in God and build a trustworthy world for their fellow creatures. However, the law can be misused when people use it to justify themselves and as a result are filled with pride or despair at their works.
The theologian Martin Luther made a clear distinction between the law and Gospel in his writings and how they relate by clarifying a central teaching of the Reformation- the teaching of justification by faith. Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians that the law both compels our love for creation and our neighbor but also accuses us when we fail to love them. Luther speaks of two uses of the law, to make guidelines and preserve peace, which would be following the Ten Commandments. His second use of the law was to give us an awareness of being less than perfect. The law humbles us before God and makes us realize that we have a lot of work to do.
We would consider the Pharisees were really good people. They were great at following rules and keeping the law. They could tell who were on their side and who were not. But this thinking had made their hearts dirty. That can happen so easily. When someone comes into the church and they are a stranger, I sometimes make a snap judgment based on appearance and tell them to “Wait here,” just as Jesus said the Pharisees said. We have a pre-school and it is part of my job to stop outsiders. Jesus said that yes, religious groups who begin to judge based on their view of themselves rather than from God’s view of everyone can become judgmental and unclean of heart.
There is an example of this in Charles Swindoll’s book, The Grace Awakening. It tells a story about a missionary community that looked down upon eating peanut butter since it represented a luxury of living in the states. So the whole community looked down upon peanut butter. When a new family arrived on the scene with some peanut butter, the new family was alienated and ostracized because they were not as spiritual as the people who shunned peanut butter.
Religion can make people feel that in some way God is favoring their way of coming before God. If others are not following their way, then they are not acceptable in society, and especially not acceptable to God. This makes God much like a legalistic, harsh parent that judges the slightest error with banishment. Jesus teaches that God would be more like a patient, waiting parent, hoping that everyone will come back, like the father in the prodigal son parable.
Jesus was teaching more than just a lesson that being overly judgmental would keep you from really knowing God. Jesus was teaching about how the church is supposed to act. If we, the church, are truly the body of Christ, then we are supposed to model the words and actions of Jesus. The church is supposed to go and find those who need to be healed, touched, fed, and loved. The church is the one place in the world that does not keep people out. The church welcomes people in. So as we go out into the world, Jesus is warning us to check our inside motives. Jesus is reminding us to be like him, to not be afraid to deepen our ministry toward those in need, toward those who are down and out, toward those who look much different than we do. That reminder of Jesus makes us look at our own clean hands and consider, are we clean inside and out?
Jesus redeemed the law from making everyone feel guilty and condemned. Since he made himself the ultimate judge, he made the law “complete” by allowing us to dedicate our lives to see the law not as a judgment of others, but rather as a way of living life on behalf of others. Though we are all convicted by the law, we are forgiven by Christ and able to use the law to guide us in love for others. Jesus makes us look at ourselves and ask what we are doing to live the Gospel. We can learn to be clean on the outside, but if that knowledge is keeping us from serving others with humble and clean hearts, we need to ask the question, “Are we clean inside and out?” We need to ask that question as we go out into the world to serve as the body of Christ.