Wash your hands or don’t – it doesn’t matter to God

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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 honours 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.”

(Read the whole passage here)

This story is not about washing hands. 

After a 5 week detour into the Gospel of John to hear the story of the feeding of the 5000 and then 4 more weeks of conversation about the bread of life, we are rudely dumped back into Mark’s gospel.

John has been giving us gentle rolling theological poetry of Jesus, hoping to unravel and expand our understanding of God. 

Yet, as we are dumped back into Mark this morning, it is kind of like being woken up by a harsh alarm clock in the middle of a great dream. 

Mark is not about expanding and unravelling the story of Jesus. Mark only gives us the minimum of details. He wants us to wonder. If we aren’t wondering what on earth is going on after hearing a passage of Mark’s gospel, we aren’t listening. 

So be forewarned, this story is not about washing hands. 

Today, Jesus and his disciples are just minding their own business while they eat lunch. Some of the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem had come down to see what Jesus is up to, probably hearing of the crowds he had been drawing. 

And when these Pharisees and scribes see that the disciples are eating with unwashed hands, they begin to make a stink about it with Jesus. And Jesus is not impressed.

He berates the accusers of the disciples: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Then Jesus goes on to name an extensive list of sinful behaviours and concludes with this gem: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” 

We left the philosopher poet of John behind last week, and this week we get Mark’s angry lawyer-like Jesus, who is sticking it to the Pharisees and scribes about what it is the really defiles. 

But lest we forget, this story is not about washing hands. 

The judgemental question or accusation that the Pharisees make about hand washing is what sets Jesus off on his tirade about the things that truly defile human beings. And while his response is to swiftly condemn the things that truly defile, hand washing is only the pretext for the Pharisees, the reason they give for their judgement is not the real reason. 

If they really cared about hand washing, they would have stopped the disciples before they started eating. Or at the very least their question to Jesus would have been, “Why are they eating with dirty hands, that can make them sick?”

Instead, the Pharisees and scribes are asking about something that is not really about hand washing. 

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”, they ask.

Jesus is upset because first of all the Jews believed that the law had been given to them by God through Moses. The Pharisees are placing their faith in the elders and ancestors. 

But not just that. The Pharisees have a confused understanding of faithfulness. They are trying to be faithful by appearing like they follow the rules, by being faithful to their ancestors and they way they practiced their faith. The Pharisees have intermingled their faithfulness and their understanding of being good, righteous and faithful Jews with being faithful children, with being good, righteous and faithful descendants. 

They live in a world that values staying the same. They learned their way of life from their parents, who learned from their parents, who learned from their parents. And they learned that it is important to refrain from change. The way of life they know is what worked for generations before them, what right do they have to change it? 

And while washing hands among the other rules of ritual cleanliness were first instituted as a way of keeping the people of Israel safe and healthy – the rules were meant to be of service to humans beings – the Pharisees had become servants to the rules. 

Faithfulness was no longer about living in right and healthy relationships which each other, with creation and God. 

Faithfulness, righteousness, knowing that you were in right standing with God was now about keeping the rules, the rules that made your parents, and grandparents and great grand parents righteous too. 

Even while Jesus lectures the Pharisees about what truly defiles them, he is challenging how they understand righteousness, how they understand the way that they are saved, how they understand the ways they are faithful. 

The Pharisees think it is following the rules handed down generation after generation is what makes them faithful, is what makes them worthy of being forgiven and loved by God. 

It goes without saying that this is something that people of faith, that church communities, that we struggle with too. Ask any couple bringing their child for a baptism why they want their baby baptized? Not one will say it is because through Water and the Word we are made children of God receiving God’s tangible sign of forgiveness, life and salvation. No, they will mostly say they are coming because it is what happens in their family, it is just the right thing to do. 

It is very easy for us to lose sight of big picture. We can get stuck in ruts and fear change out of a sense of loyalty to our ancestors, forgetting why they did the things they did in the first place. 

And so when Jesus challenges this idea that following the rules of the ancestors is not what earns us forgiveness, life and salvation – that being good rule followers is not why God loves us, we have to wonder… what does make God love us? 

God’s love for us is not earn or achieved. God gives us love freely.  Washing our hands or having our babies baptized doesn’t earn it. Mowing cemetery lawns or keeping the faith of our ancestors unchanged doesn’t make us righteous. 

In fact God’s love for us has nothing to do with those things. It has to do with who God is and who we are. It has to with God loving us because we belong to God. It is the love of the creator for the created, the love of a parent for a child.  

Jesus’ challenges our understanding of faithfulness so that we don’t have to live out to the faithfulness of our ancestors. We don’t have be good Christians because our grandparents were. We are loved by God first and that is what makes us good. 

Today’s story is not about washing hands. 

Today Jesus is reminding us that it is not what we do or don’t do that earns God’s love. Our faith in the traditions of the ancestors won’t save us, nor make us righteous. 

Only God can do that. 

And clean or unclean, defiled or undefiled, faithful to the ancestors or failing them, God chooses to love us no mater what. 

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