- Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
- James 1:17-27
- Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A Matter of the Heart
Among other things, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends frequent hand washing to help reduce the chance for the Covid-19 virus to spread. Did the Pharisees have this in mind when they complained to Jesus about the handwashing habits of his Disciples? No, they did not. While there is no direct reference to strict handwashing in Hebrew Scriptures, there is evidence that later traditions within the Jewish community had set this as an essential part of their ritual. Bathing was mandated as part of ritual cleansing, and daily Baptism by emersion was part of an end-of-day ritual for groups such as the Essenes. They had ritual bathing pools in their settlement out by the Dead Sea. These pools had two sets of steps in them; one where you entered dirty, and another where you exited clean. This was more of a spiritual cleansing, but it also helped wash off the desert dust from the day.
Of course, washing is an essential part of our daily hygiene. We should wash our hands before handling food that will be served to others; we should wash our hands before we eat; we should wash our hands when we return home from being out in the world. But the cleanliness of hands is not what Jesus was concerned about here in our text from Mark’s Gospel; it is a matter of the heart.
Handwashing in Jesus’ day was not done for germ removal because they did not yet have any concept of how germs worked in their day. Washing had become a ritual that began as a way of marking the cleansing of their lives from sin, much as we use Baptism today, as a way of illustrating that in Christ, our sins are washed away. That original idea had long been lost, and now it was being used as a way of excluding others. So they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” They did this not because they were worried about hygiene. Instead, they wanted to discredit Jesus and his followers. In other words, to remove them through public disgrace.
Jesus’ response, using words from the Prophet Isaiah, cuts to the heart of the issue: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
It is easy for us to apply these words to others but let us begin by looking at the one person we can most easily change, ourselves. It is easy to give verbal assent to the teachings of Jesus but much harder to conform our lives to them.
Today, we might use attendance at church or the amount of money given in the offering plate of signs of our devotion to Christ. Indeed, these are vital signs of our faith, but they are hardly what would be considered the heart of the matter. I know from looking at my own heart that while I show up for church every Sunday and seek to tithe my income to the work of the Church, my heart is not always in the right place. And over the years, I have met more than a few faithful church attenders and regular givers who have been cruel to others in their church or even their family members.
The letter of James cuts to the heart of the matter as well as we read, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” James reminds us that behind all rule-keeping, there must be the grace of God. We must avoid doing wrong and be quick to hear and understand, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Faithful living responds to the needs of others (in this case, the widow and orphan) before it seeks to separate those we feel are not following the rules.
I have witnessed huge church fights over things like what to serve at lovefeasts (coffee or chocolate milk), what the servers should be called (sacristans for dieners), and whether to use paper cups or ceramic mugs. I have seen people leave the church over such matters—what a shame.
Our churches are called to be models of God’s reconciling love. We are called upon to focus our energy on our mission to others, not ensuring that all of the rules are followed. How can this be lived out in your congregation?