The gospel for today might leave some of us thinking that the Pharisees and scribes are acting a bit silly, making such a fuss. All that happened was a few of Jesus' disciples neglecting to wash their hands before they eat. But as with all religious ritual, it helps to know some of the meaning behind the act.
The Pharisaic tradition of washing one's hands before eating was a long one. Since the Book of Exodus when the Law was given to the Israelites, it was required that the high priest, before he even entered the temple, ritually washed both his hands and his feet. Over the years since that time, it had become the norm for all followers of the Pharisaic tradition, not just the priests, to wash their hands before eating, as a way of identifying with the high priest, and, more importantly, as a way of sanctifying the particular act of eating.
They were actually following a sort of "priesthood of all believers" motif, doing the same thing as the priest, and so expressing their ability and necessity to be in the presence of the holy. Special prayers and ritual acts of cleaning surrounded other common acts of life as well.
What is important to see here is that the followers of the Pharisaic tradition, by performing these external rites and acts, hoped to sanctify the common things of life, hoped to make holy the rather common act of eating. They wanted to add a religious dimension to everything they did.
For the Pharisees, then, these were not just empty acts, without meaning.
The devout Pharisees were perfectly sincere in their ritual washings. They were making the common holy. In fact, in our day and time, we try to do a version of the same thing when we pray before eating a meal. We pray that God will bless the food and we give thanks for his having given it to us. We believe prayer should undergird everything we do in life and so we pray before civic events as well. Many of us pray before sports events, football games and tennis matches, believing that everything we do is somehow within the realm of God's mercy and guidance. The most common and ordinary things we do can be set apart as events made holy by God.
Understanding their tradition, we might find it harder to fault the Pharisees for wondering why some of Jesus' disciples did not wash their hands before eating a meal. It would be like wondering today why a group that calls itself religious does not say grace before eating.
But Jesus does fault the Pharisees. He notices that there has developed a tremendous gap between the Pharisees' external religious practice and their internal belief. The Pharisees have concentrated so much on these external measures of religious practice that the internal marks of faith are forgotten, or worse yet, deliberately avoided. There are plenty of outward signs of religion that might look holy and well-meaning, but the inward marks of faith are what are important. We see the outward signs but the inward signs are more meaningful.
Saint Paul makes the same point in the Letter to the Ephesians. He says, "We are not contending against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." In other words, in our fiercest struggles as Christians, we are not fighting against things seen but things unseen. We struggle against powers and principalities.
Some of these principalities are overwhelming, but they are never so big that we cannot name them, or never so big that we cannot see their physical effect upon the world. The powers and principalities we fight against are hunger and starvation, racism, torture and terrorism, rampant militarism in almost every country of the world. The principalities are evident closer to home: hunger and homelessness in our own country, prejudice in our own neighborhoods.
And, then, some of those powers and principalities are closer even than that. The most tortuous struggles we face are sometimes the powers and principalities that reside in ourselves. When we face our own arrogance, our own greed, our own prejudice or violence, we are facing the unseen powers of evil that Saint Paul is speaking of.
Those are also the powers that Jesus speaks when he says that what comes out of a person is what defiles that person. Jesus says, "From within, out of the heart of people, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness." (That's pretty wicked stuff to be all inside us at once.)
But beyond all these, there is another power, another principality, that may be more fierce and more devastating than any of the rest. It is the power of fear.
Though the tradition of washing hands had begun for the Pharisees in all sincerity, by Jesus' time a certain fear had set in. Their system of ritual and legal performance had grown so rigid that it had taken control of them. Everything they did hinged on the concern that maybe they would be breaking a law, and if one part of the tradition were to be broken, than maybe the whole tradition would die out, and if the tradition died out, then maybe the whole faith would die out.
Fear does that to people. It turns minor concerns into obsessions. That same fear deludes us. We are afraid that if something in our system fails, then we will fail. If something is our system of belief is proven shaky, if something in our system of society changes, if something in our system of relationships or life suddenly is broken, then fear causes us to think that we are failed, we are broken, we have died. Fear distorts reality so that the important concerns of our life are missed. In short, fear distorts the truth.
Fear also tricked the Pharisees into thinking that if they did the proper external acts, then they would be made inwardly clean. If they washed their hands before every meal, then nothing unclean would ever enter them. The same fear often drives us into an obsession with what goes into our lives. We try to censor everything that goes into our lives. We shelter ourselves, we try not to threaten ourselves. We try not to get dirty. We try always to preserve the status quo.
But maybe our deepest fear is that our status quo is not so good anyway. Our deepest fear is that there really is uncleanness in us and we are afraid to face it. There is everything Jesus mentioned, from evil thoughts to adultery to slander to foolishness and more. There is deception, manipulation. Our deepest fear may be that we really are guilty and despite whatever we do to be made clean--wash our hands before eating or pray before going to bed at night--despite anything we do, our fear is that there is no way to be made clean, no way to be made whole. That is the fear that prompts us to present false images of ourselves. That's the fear that drives us to do all we can on the outside to clean ourselves up when the inside is just as guilty. This is the fear that drove the Pharisees to such a degree that Jesus finally called them "whitewashed tombs," clean on the outside but dead on the inside.
It is to those deepest fears that Jesus speaks. Fear can be a paralyzing power and principality, but there is a way out. It is the way of freedom because it is freedom that is the opposite of fear. It was the freedom of Jesus that troubled the Pharisees so. They found him to be blatantly disregarding the tradition of the elders. He ate with outcasts, with unclean people. He plucked grain on the Sabbath. He ate without washing his hands, but it was also the freedom of Jesus that drew people to him. He was free not to be scared of society or of his enemies but to speak truth to them in love. It was the freedom of Jesus that enabled him to accept those who were different: the outcasts, the unclean. It is freedom that allows us to look at ourselves honestly and to see that, yes, indeed, there is uncleanness in us. There is all manner of sin. There is plenty to be ashamed of. But it is freedom, too, free will, which enables us to accept the mercy of Jesus Christ. It is freedom, finally, which enables all of us to love.
When our hearts are made free in Christ, then we find that all life is sanctified. Common things can be made holy. Ordinary things can be made clean, not by saying the right prayers over them or by washing our hands in the proper way but by seeing those common events and ordinary people in a new way. That new way is through the eyes of Jesus Christ. Jesus freely accepted the outcast, the lonely, the unclean, the guilty. He accepted the common things and broken things of this world, which is why he accepts us.
He was not afraid of what went into him. He was not afraid to get dirty, to brush against and touch the unclean things of this world. That's what made him holy.
It is not, then, what goes into us that defiles us. And it is not what goes into us that makes us holy either. It is what comes out of us. Do fear and obsession with ourselves come out of us or does freedom and genuine love for others come out?
Let us strive not to escape defilement and uncleanness but to touch the unclean and broken in ourselves and others with the freedom and love of Jesus Christ. Then we shall be holy indeed. Amen.
Please join me in prayer.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul. Through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.