Even to this day my mother calls my father and me to the kitchen table for dinner with “Get your ten little people washed. Dinner’s on the table.” It would almost seem that Jesus and the pharisees are having a disagreement about hygienic hand washing before meals, something that we would tend to accept as an obvious health measure. The debate, however, is over observance of certain ritual behaviors that have their root in the interpretation of the laws of the Torah rather than in the observance of a specific law or health practice.
The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the “Old Testament” contain a number of laws governing various aspects of human life. Tradition says there are 613 laws in the Torah, and a portion of this law found in the book of Leviticus chapter fifteen detail laws concerning ritual washing after coming into contact with certain bodily fluids. From this section of laws, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time established rules for ritual washing in other contexts, and one of these was a ritual washing of the hands before and after the of consuming bread. Pure water was to be poured over the hands three times while reciting a prayer of blessing, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning the elevation of hands.” That any clean, dry substance, such as sand, could be used for this ritual washing provides evidence that this is something other than a hygiene issue and had more to do with ritual uncleanliness.
That this is a debate about the interpretation and application of the Jewish law is further illustrated by the parallel issue that Jesus raises about the honoring of one’s father and mother. We are all familiar with the commandment, what we commonly call the Fourth Commandment, that says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” The pharisees, however, allowed a person to identify a portion of his possessions as dedicated to God while still maintaining use of them, and then claiming not to have the funds to provide support for his parents when they were in need. Jesus attacks this lack of charity toward one’s parents, demonstrating how the pharisees could twist the law in order to act in uncharitable ways, a practice Jesus frequently attacks in multiple exchanges with the pharisees of his time.
When Jesus is alone with his disciples it becomes clear that they did not quite understand the controversy, just as we might miss it today if we think it is simply an argument about whether one had indeed washed his or hands before coming to the dinner table. They ask him to interpret the “parable” to them. I chuckle every time I read Mark 7:15 as I can imagine Jesus sitting there with his forehead in his hand, shaking his head at the dense minds of the disciples, saying, “It wasn’t a parable, guys. I was speaking quite plainly!” Jesus, however, appears far more patient than I would imagine, though I do detect a bit of frustration in his voice as he says, “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.” Jesus dismantles the ritual observance of laws that had the purpose of maintaining a ritual state of purity, but instead shifts the focus to how our actions can defile. Jesus provides a list, which is certainly not all inclusive, saying, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”
We have all probably heard the saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and I believe Jesus would probably agree, despite this controversy over hand-washing. Hygiene is important, but note how the saying is worded. Cleanliness is next to godliness, but cleanliness is not godliness. If we were to value the two, I think most of us would agree that it is the godliness that is more important. It is toward godliness that Jesus wants to move the pharisees, his disciples, and us. The evil things that can come out of us, the vices, are what defile us and move us away from godliness. How we treat each other demonstrates how stained or pure our souls are. It is here that we can turn to the advice given in the letter of James. James warns us, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hears, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Just as Jesus’ list of that which defiles is not comprehensive, I would argue that James’ list of what constitutes pure and undefiled religion is not either, but that it points toward how that religion is to be lived. Care for orphans and widows in their distress is one portion of how we care for those less fortunate and for each other. Pure and undefiled religion is relational. Just as God is three person united in one nature as the Holy Trinity, we, as the church, are many people united in love for each other. When our lives are marked by godliness in the way we treat each other, then we are living out a pure and undefiled religion.
How many times at our dinner tables have we arrived with scrubbed hands but then allowed the tabletop conversation to devolve into bitterness, complaining, fighting, or even bitterly cold silence? We may keep our kitchens spotless and have little risk of salmonella or E. coli infections from our food, but what infections of bitterness and anger run through our hearts and poison the meals we share, or even refuse to share, with others? In just a short time we will leave this space and gather in the church hall for our monthly potluck. While I would definitely endorse washing our hands before eating, I would also encourage each and every one of us to examine our hearts to see if we are able to eat in godliness with each other, and if not, to work toward healing whatever it is that stands in the way of our ability to do so, for only then can what we do in this space truly be pure and undefiled before God.