Dear Sisters and Brothers,
In a sermon in 1778, John Wesley said, “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Although the same idea had ben said in other words, Wesley’s words became a very popular saying in English-speaking countries. Cleanliness was equated with righteousness or piety (devotion, holiness). It is a positive idea, but it has been used to suggest that the grime and squalor of poverty reveal that poor people are morally deficient. That bigotry was not part of Wesley’s intention.
No one knows who said it first, but there is another saying common in parenting and housekeeping books, “cleanliness is next to impossible.” This is accurate in that cleanliness always takes effort. We are never really done with washing dishes, washing clothes, bathing, or sweeping.
In a very odd way, today’s lesson seems to begin with Jesus speaking against the idea of washing hands before eating. We would prefer that Jesus would tell us to wash our hands thoroughly before meals, but his concern here is about the laws of men being confused with the laws of God.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
So, some of the disciples are observed eating without washing their hands. The Pharisees are being as critical as ever. They saw themselves as enforcers of moral law, but Jesus is irritated that they make no distinction between their traditions and the books of the Old Testament.
He replied, “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 merely human rules.’[Isaiah 29:13]
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Jesus is pointing out that the Pharisees have become people so caught up in long lists of rules, they have lost sight of the spirit of love in God’s law. The law was not given to oppress people, but to free them. The law leads us to things like honesty, faithfulness, care of parents, and reverence. The law leads us away from violence, theft, corruption, and other things that easily ruin lives for ourselves and others. But the Pharisees have become legalistic: The law has become a question of obedience, and they have placed themselves in the role of moral overseers. But even as they claim this role of leadership, they break other laws and fall victim to sins like self-righteousness, excessive pride, gluttony, and greed. To make matters much worse, they have weighed people down with a long list of man-made laws that are without any spirit of love.
In America, we have a tradition that is a little bit like the Pharisees. When something goes wrong, we do not say “how can we do better?” we say, “there ought to be a law.” There is a total of about 50,000 federal laws in the United States, with about 15,000 laws applying to regular individuals. [Nobody seems quite sure of the numbers.] Most of the laws are about manufacture, construction, and corporate endeavors. The Old Testament is said to contain just over 600 laws. The problem with too many laws is that we lose sight of that spirit of love that God intended.
Rather than complicating laws, Jesus repeatedly brings everything back to two great commandments that describe the spirit of love that God intended. We will get to those commandments when we reach chapter twelve of Mark.
Returning to the question of cleanliness, Jesus points out an extremely obvious fact that the Pharisees have appeared to ignore.
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
We have to admit right now that Jesus is not always who we expect him to be. With centuries of somber art and descriptions, we attempt to turn Jesus into a very refined person who would never laugh at a joke or lose his temper. We have to deal with the fact that his current illustration is very earthy. To put it mildly, you can put the illustration in terms of a baby. What you feed a baby is not offensive, but what shows up in the diaper is offensive. Yes, Jesus goes there. The Bible never talks about Jesus or the disciples ever needing a bathroom break, but they had the same kind of bodies we have.
But Jesus isn’t trying to shock his audience. The audience might have seen some humor in this, but Jesus is making a comparison between excrement and sinful deeds.
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
A person cannot be blamed for what is done to them, but they are responsible for the things that they do to themselves and others. If I was raised in a violent household, it would not be my fault. If I was raised in a life of luxury that came from an immoral or criminal business, I am not to blame for it. But any evil that I nurture and grow within myself is my fault. I need to repent of what I have done, not what has been done to me. If we are victimized by others, we are not defiled by them. But our actions are judged by what we do to others.
We all know that it is hard for a person to love others if they came from a background without love. We know that people learn how to behave by imitating what they see in others. But if there is any responsibility in the world, it is for the things we make and do.
The Pharisees did not see that they were receiving the love of God and turning it into a confusing mass of rules. They did not see that their traditions were hiding the love of God from people. They did not see that the law should be anything other than the fear of punishment and the wielding of power.
So, please, wash your hands, but do it out of love for yourself and others. “Doing the right thing” doesn’t require laws and rules. The problem about the Pharisees was not that they were Jewish, but that they were the worst of moral critics (who did not see their own lack of morals).
We are always in danger of becoming legalistic critics, but just like the task of cleaning, we are never done. We need to cling to God’s love. We need to pay attention to what evils we are nurturing inside ourselves. We need to take responsibility for our morality and lead by example and encouragement rather than by criticizing others. We need to check ourselves now and then to see if we are becoming Pharisees or bad Puritans.
Tradition is good if it leads us to God’s word. God’s word is good because it leads us to God and his infinite love.
Questions to ponder. Have you ever felt guilty for being a victim? Are you aware of the sins that grow like weeds in the garden of your soul? Have you accepted the fact that God loves you (and always will)?