Scrub the armpits and shave the legs, exfoliate the elbows and clip the toenails, gloss the lips and perfume the wrists, iron the dress and straighten the tie, lace the loafers and hike the stockings… It is the ritual of cleanliness to be our Sunday best.
Down from Jerusalem, the Pharisees, perhaps the first church group to ordain primping and preening, show up in Galilee with soap and sponge in hand. And that’s where our story of conflict with Jesus begins.
What’s the disagreement about?
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “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.” 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. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Legalism, and the Pharisee’s anger at not being able to earn their way to God.
Much easier to wash hands than hearts.
If tradition trumps scripture.
The Pharisees were observant of rule and regulation and kosher in the kitchen, militant about Sabbath keeping and resolute about tithing a tenth, perfectly pure in their holy hygiene. Believing that cleanliness is a reflection of your relationship with God, that to be a churchgoer requires your Sunday best.
And yet, “It is easy to get just enough religion,” says J. Ellsworth Kalas, “to protect us from God.”
And so Jesus retorts with his life. He touches bleeding women and dines with harlots, he wanders into graveyards and handles deceased bodies, and welcomes everyone and everything that’s ritually impure. A carpenter Christ with sawdust in his beard, a gardener God with soil under his fingernails, a shepherd Savior with wool in his eyes.
A defiled Jesus come to be with a defiled people.
In the 1800s, foreign traders sailed into the Hawaii, bringing goods but also disease. The native people became infected with leprosy and the government responded with a sanctioned quarantine on the far side of an empty island. 8000 people were segregated into settlement colonies, left alone to die. Because it would be a death sentence, no offered to help. Until Father Damien, a local priest, volunteered to cross over the steep mountain range and serve among sick. For 16 years, he pastored the people, established schools, planted farms and dug graves. Before dying of leprosy, Damien said, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
What’s the disagreement about?
Despite all the Sunday morning primping and preening, Christianity has never been a spirituality for the sanitized but rather a disparate blend of contaminated disciples. So when you come to the Table, don’t worry about washing your hands.