“Don’t Wash Your Hands!” And Other Things My Kids Are Delighted Jesus Said
A homily for Proper 17, Year B. These are the scriptures appointed for the day. When asked why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating, Jesus replies to his accusers, quoting Isaiah, “Don’t you see how you have abandoned the commandment of God to hold on to a human tradition?”
One way to hear what Jesus says this morning is that it’s not what you do that matters. As long as your heart is clean, you don’t need to wash your hands. To make this interpretation of Jesus’ words the basis of your regular hygienic practice at public restrooms and highway rest stops across the country would be really, really gross. Candidly, you might lose friends. You would almost certainly contract myriad of otherwise completely avoidable diseases. This is not what Jesus has in mind.
Jesus is talking about what makes people unclean in the ritual sense and, even beyond that, in the “worthy to stand before God” sense. The traditions of Jesus’ day had a long list ready of things that would make you unclean for admittance in the worship of God’s people. Some uncleanliness could be remedied. Some couldn’t. This is why the story, for example, of the good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel is so powerful and poignant: the religious leaders literally step over the body of a traveler left for dead, in part because to have touched him would have made them unclean and unable to perform their duties in worship. Interestingly, interaction with a Samaritan was also on the list of things that would make a person unclean. And yet is is from the Samaritan traveler that the broken body on the road finds reception, love, and healing.
You and I live in an age that, to put it mildly, does not like to be commanded, and so it is easy, perhaps, to hear the whole struggle over commandments and cleanliness as the maybe necessary, but embarrassingly rudimentary, progress of an archaic, ancient time. How sad, we think, that once upon a time people believed those kinds of things. How unfortunate, we think, that people ever allowed themselves to be commanded. A bit like watching somebody else rescued from a trap we know better than to step in. But that is also to miss the point that Jesus is making. The point is that Jesus is drawing a line of distinction between the commandments and the tradition, clearly delineating them as separate realities, alleging conflation and abuses by religious authorities, and, finally, Jesus is remembering for the whole people of Israel that these commandments had been given by God in order to shape the people as a people, to keep them ordered, connected, aware of the ways they belonged to God and, belonging to God, to keep them mindful of the ways they therefore belonged to each other. The point is that invoking the commandments that connect the people of God to God and each other in order to divide the people into the haves and have nots is maybe the worst abuse of the commandments, to Jesus’ mind, imaginable. All while pointing to themselves as exemplars of holiness. Like the churchgoers in Corinth, showing up to the feast, gorging themselves, not noticing that some at the table have nothing to eat, the Pharisees who take offense that the disciples don’t wash their hands cannot see how what they believe to be their saving grace is actually their sin, because it turns out there’s not much grace at all in ritual purity that requires distance from the dirty ones. The point is the calling out of an emerging market, even a religious market, for being well regarded by others, a piety production line that skips over the hassle and mess of actually belonging to one another. So, for example, in the verses that immediately follow this passage, Jesus observes that adult children are using the law in ways that allow them to shirk their responsibilities to their aging parents.
Twenty-first century western culture may no longer stress cleanliness in the same sorts of ways as ancient Judaism (though, to be sure, our society possesses its own modern variations on the theme), but we do very much share the plight of people who would like to do life without belonging to others, without living life in such a way that others can make claims on us. Conversations about how to care – and who should care – for aging parents or children with exceptionalities or those without homes are still difficult conversations to have. What’s worse, like the ones Jesus calls hypocrites this morning, we sometimes use religion to protect ourselves from, and turn a blind eye to, the claims other people might make on our lives, our money, our time.
Now, to be clear, to use religion in this way – in such a way as to protect oneself from the claims of other people, to make it look as if love of God and love of neighbor play for opposite teams or, maybe better, to somehow communicate that the two are different sports entirely – you have to twist it some. Almost to the point of breaking. But it can be done. And there are plenty of examples from which to learn this dreadful art, plenty of examples from history in which Christians have exchanged belonging to each other as one Body for the appearance of individual goodness, over against or sometimes simply indifferent to the unclean, even the unclean we are subsequently happy to help. In describing what he calls “the insufficiency of goodness,” Rowan Williams puts it this way:
So much work and (even) ministry…had been predicated on the assumption that it was about good people doing good for other people. Goodness is the problem. We do things in order to be good, or perhaps to seem to be good. We do things knowing who we are to those we define as different from us. And the result very often with the best and most generous will in the world is that people’s sense of isolation, powerlessness, and rejection is intensified rather than healed.
Nevermind the problem of evil, the religious leaders in Mark’s gospel confront us with the problem of goodness, of reputation and self-regard, and it is a problem, a dynamic, with which people in our time are more than familiar, even if, in a particularly challenging moment, that the problem is goodness sometimes escapes us. Of course we want to be good. It’s what good people do! Goodness, though, can be a way by which we assure ourselves that we are doing this thing called life in a way that matters. But playing for goodness, so understood, underwrites the lie, the fiction, that our lives are games to win.
Do you remember that time in the gospels when Jesus and his disciples are watching people put their money in the box outside the temple? Rich folks dropping bank. A widow with a coin. And some preacher one time shared that story as the basis for understanding God’s preference for percentile giving. It might have been stewardship season. But that only makes sense if our lives are games to win, if holiness comes in points to accrue and hold over others. Record high scores. But did you ever notice in that story that Jesus never calls the widow the winner? He simply makes the observation of what transpires and lets the irony that the money box outside the temple had been instituted to support the widow and orphan hang in the air like a stench with the potential to wake people up.
It’s like the smugness I sometimes feel when I take my extra clothes to Good Will, proud of my generosity, when I’ve forgotten the words of saints like Basil who say that, when I find myself with coats to give it’s only because I have stolen the extra coat in my closet from the one who has none that I have some to give. Because life is not a game to win. Because belonging, for the faithful, comes first.
But it’s tricky, right? Tricky because it’s as easy to become self-righteous about belonging as it is to be self-righteous about anything else. It’s very, very easy to find oneself perpetually wondering out loud why the other guy didn’t wash his or her hands or do the right thing. But the belonging doesn’t come from the washing of hands, yours, mine, or others. It comes from the love of the One who, on the night before he died, washed the feet of his friends, and whose love for us, as well as his love for the ones we despise, remains the truest thing about us all. This belonging names the truth about God’s love. This One feeds us here at this table; this One who is the food we are fed. And so we who are many are one body, we belong to each other, for we all partake of the one bread.