Did you wash your hands? A Sermon for Proper 17B, 2021

Proper 17, Year B

August 29, 2021

We know all about washing our hands, don’t we? Here at Grace, we’ve got signs everywhere reminding us of the importance of that act. We’ve developed little rituals to help us make sure we do the full 20 seconds. If we’re not able to wash our hands, we’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere. Over the last eighteen months, we’ve developed instincts for things like staying six feet away, not shaking hands, all the rituals of sanitizing and social distancing. Many of us have so internalized these instructions and rituals that they have become second nature, even as we learn that much of the things we were told to do and did are no longer necessary. And at the same time, we’re all too familiar with the conflicts over such measures, the way those conflicts reflect partisan and cultural differences; the ways our views on such matters have become identity markers, to the detriment of public health and the suppression of the pandemic.

To hear Jesus debating the merits of hand washing may seem to us a bit strange, even if we might wonder whether there was something there that might connect with our own concerns and controversies. And truth be told, after all of those weeks listening to the conflicts over the meaning of bread in John 6, a switch in topic might be welcome indeed. At the same time, we might wonder whether Jesus is little more than a trouble-maker, looking for ways of generating conflict and drawing distinctions between himself and the religious establishment. Given that in our current context, watching people inciting or welcoming conflict and controversy has become commonplace, with fatal consequences for some, we may be a bit weary of it all, and eager to find other things to talk about in church.

But there’s more to it than that, and in order to make sense of it, we need to spend a little time talking about Mark’s gospel and the context in which this story appears. We are in Mark 7, so we are picking up the story where we left off—after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, after Jesus walked on water, after those trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. It’s not quite clear where we are, but I think we can assume we are back in Galilee. 

In any case, Pharisees and some scribes have come to check Jesus out. It’s the second time we’ve seen this constellation of characters. The first time was near the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when they confronted him about healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This time, they are challenging Jesus’ disciples about their conformity to ritual practices. 

For us, heirs of two thousand years of Christian polemic against Judaism, this debate seems lifeless, the outcome a foregone conclusion. But in the first century, it wasn’t. We need to remember just who the Pharisees were and what they were trying to do. They were a movement within Judaism that sought to make Torah, the Jewish law, relevant for the daily lives of ordinary people. They wanted to “build a fence around Torah” that is to say, to develop a body of interpretation that would help people be faithful while protecting the Torah’s central tenet. So they developed traditions of interpretation that applied the principles of the law to ordinary life. They also wanted to expand its reach and relevance, so they applied legal material that had originally affected only the priests, to all. That was the case here, with hand-washing.

But it’s also important to remember that they were only one group within 1st century Judaism; there were others who disagreed with their approach. In other words, this debate was alive and there were sound arguments on both sides.

We generally assume that Jesus preached against the Pharisees’ approach. He does so here, but note that he argues against their position by quoting the tradition, the prophets. In other words, Jesus is not trying to abandon the tradition, he is arguing from within the Jewish tradition against the Pharisees’ approach.

It’s important to understand just what the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was about—interpretation of the law, and especially interpretation of the purity laws. It was not a conflict between external religious practice and inward piety. That’s the way Christians have often understood the conflict and thus they see  Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees as an attack on external practice. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that impurity does not come from the outside, but rather an impure heart leads to sins, he is redefining purity and holiness. Sin, Jesus is saying, comes from within. Evil intentions lead to evil acts. 

The lesson from the Letter of James makes the same point in a slightly different way, “Be ye hearers of the word also, and not just doers.” This letter, well it’s not really a letter, more like a collection of ethical advice, emphasizes moral action. Throughout, the author of the letter emphasizes the importance of faith expressing itself by doing good toward others. 

We don’t think in terms of purity much these days, we don’t even use the term holiness very much. They seem old-fashioned, irrelevant in the contemporary world, not even terribly important in our lives of faith. But to ignore such important categories is to miss something that was crucial in Jesus’ message in the first century, and should remain of central significance to those who would follow him in the twenty-first century. 

Holiness has meant different things over the centuries. In the biblical tradition, of course, holiness was above all something denoted of God. But the real connotation of the term, both in the Hebrew, and later in the form we are also familiar with it—sacred, both terms mean essentially being set apart. That which is sacred, or holy is different from, that which is not. In a sense, what is holy or sacred is God’s, and that’s why when the people of Israel came to think of themselves as God’s chosen people, they use rules of purity to set themselves apart from other peoples. Over time, those purity rules became more important as they came to define the differences between the people of God and others. So in Leviticus, when the Israelites received the laws of purity, the holiness code, it found its meaning with God’s statement “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

The question of course, is what all this means. We are called to be a holy people, yet if you’re like me, you probably bristle at the notion. Some of us have good reason to do so. There was a time in the Episcopal Church, maybe some of you can remember it, when if you were divorced, you couldn’t receive communion. I don’t know if that was the practice here at Grace before rules were liberalized in the 70s; I know it was true in churches in South Carolina. 

For the Judaism of Jesus’ day, such purity rules were all about preserving the community over against a dominant and domineering culture. Over the centuries such rules, laws, had become more important, especially as the Jewish community had to struggle to survive as a subject of mighty empires. 

But Jesus challenged that view of things. Such purity rules, as helpful as they were and are in preserving community, went against something even more important to Jesus—the full inclusion of all people among his followers. We will see this more clearly in the coming weeks, but it is no accident that Mark puts this dispute about Jesus’ disciples keeping the purity code right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. For there was no more perilous moment for someone who kept purity laws than eating. And since they were somewhere out in the wilderness, as Mark makes clear, there would have been no way to keep the purity laws concerning the washing of hands, or, of food. 

That’s precisely what Jesus was advocating and living, a move away from a notion of holiness that divides and excludes, toward one that is inclusive—a holiness of the heart, rather than a holiness of rules. What that means for us in the twenty-first century may not be exactly clear. 

Jesus’ words challenge us to rethink our deepest cultural values and some of our deepest aversions. To be the inclusive, welcoming community that Jesus has called us to be means not only eliminating the barriers and rules that divide us but to embrace one another in a spirit of love and forgiveness and above all, to transform the love we experience in our acceptance by God, to the love of others. In our divided and conflict-ridden world, to welcome and embrace difference, to reach across everything that divides us and be witnesses to God’s love, may be the most important thing we can do.