Mark 7: 1–15
When I first started out in ministry in the town where I served my first church, in order to get hospital privileges at the local hospital to visit members of my congregation, I had to attend an orientation session. As part of that orientation, before new pastors were even allowed to go onto the floors and see patients, we had to sit through a lecture on infection control.
That makes sense. Hospitals are full of germs. Employees and pastors can spread them. So before every patient you see, you’re supposed to wash your hands.
Of course, I washed my hands before I was a pastor. I thought I was pretty good at it. But in the hospital hand washing took on religious proportions. Here we were, grown adults, sitting through a lecture and demonstration of how to wash our hands. There were a lot of details about how to do it correctly, and how to follow up with the alcohol based hand sanitizer.
Most memorably, there was the advice about singing “Happy Birthday”. We learned that we were supposed to wash our hands for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”. Our instructor stood there, washing his hands, singing “Happy Birthday” so we would all understand just how long this actually takes. It was awkward.
That first winter as a pastor in Maine, my hands got dry and chapped from hospital soap and alcohol. But they were clean! And as you may have heard it said, “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Which is why today’s text sounds so strange. Because far from sitting his disciples down with soap and water and Purell and singing happy birthday, Jesus is doing something that no parent would ever do! Making excuses for his followers not to bother with basic hygene.
Some scholars have devoted their entire careers trying to figure out whether Jesus left a family behind to become a traveling preacher. There are heated debates about this at Biblical studies conferences. But, based on this story, my wife Brooke will tell you she’s pretty sure Jesus was a bachelor. He’s telling his disciples they can eat without washing their hands! Let’s all admit it, that’s gross.
Then, the Pharisees and scribes – the religious authorities – arrive. They can’t believe their eyes. They’ve been looking for excuses to criticize Jesus, and now his disciples are doing something that no good religious person would do – eating without washing their hands. Their faith and culture dictated that you wash your hands before eating. It wasn’t just bad hygiene. It had religious proportions! It was sacrilege.
The Old Testament, like the hospital, has very clear directions about how to wash your hands: pour water out from a cup or glass first twice over the right hand and then twice over the left hand – care being taken that the unwashed hands do not touch the water used for the washing. The hands are then dried with a towel before partaking of the meal. A benediction is recited over the washing of the hands: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.” Hey, it’s not “Happy Birthday”, but it served the same purpose – you can’t just rush through it. You have to take your time with the hand-washing. This is important. And so the religious elders press Jesus about how he can claim to speak for God when his disciples don’t even wash their hands.
But Jesus doesn’t call back to his friends, “Hey guys, didn’t we talk about the singing ‘Happy Birthday’ thing?” Instead he does something else. He turns back to the religious authorities and flips the custom on its rear end. Jesus starts by calling the religious leaders hypocrites.
What’s going on here? They’re talking about washing hands, and all of a sudden he’s telling them that they’re just giving lip service to God, saying the right things and going through the motions of their rituals, but when it comes to their hearts, that’s another story.
Then Jesus proclaims that we aren’t defiled, or made impure, by what we eat, or how we eat. Instead, we are made impure by what comes out of us.
Jesus was calling out religious hypocrisy. He was doing this 2,000 years ago, but it’s something I hear a lot of ordinary people on the street say about religious folks today!
To be a a righteous person 2,000 years ago, the commandments made it clear that you had to ritually wash your hands before every meal. You couldn’t possibly be a good person of faith if you didn’t do that. But Jesus proclaims a new teaching. When people of faith say that they’re fighting for purity, for tradition, for right faith and practice, Beware. When people of faith spend too much time majoring in the minors, we can become convinced that the appearance of being holy is what actually makes us holy.
Most of us in this room could identify someone in our lives who says all the right things about Jesus when it suits the occasion, but who acts very differently whey they think no one is looking. (I have mirrors in my house.)
A colleague tells a story of her college chaplain. Her college chaplain, let’s call him Chaplain Jones, often pointed out all the ways she was sacrilegious. Women shouldn’t be thinking of going into the ministry. Women shouldn’t dress the way she dressed. She shouldn’t be dating the guys she dated, shouldn’t have the friends she had. The list went on. He often lectured her on what was holy, and it was beginning to make her think, even though she knew better, that she could never make the holy cut.
Then one weekend she took a school trip to Atlanta. Walking around a corner in the city, she ran straight into Chaplain Jones, with his arm around a woman who was not Mrs. Jones. He said, “Hello Mr. Jones,“ she said. ”How’s Mrs. Jones?”
The chaplain begged her not to say anything and told her one day she would understand. But all she understood was that the righteous one who had been telling her she was not a good Christian wasn’t what he seemed.
I suspect all of us, to some degree, have been both that disillusioned college kid and that disgraced chaplain. Most of us struggle both with seeing hypocrisy in others, and seeing it in ourselves.
Some of my best friends are pastors, actually. We all believe that people would be shocked to know that the persona we present on the outside, and the truth about what we think and feel on the inside, don’t always match. We want to do what’s right, but it’s hard.
With Jesus, good news is often hard news! Jesus tells us that external acts, symbolic acts, don’t cut it anymore. Following him is more demanding than that. This morning we go through many of our tried and true rituals: sharing communion, praying the Lord’s prayer, standing, sitting, singing. But tomorrow, when we’re faced with temptations, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, maybe when we’re washing our hands before sitting down to dinner or singing Happy Birthday, will we remember about Jesus and the germs.
Some germs may be gross, but aren’t worth worrying too much about. Others, though, are deadly. Jesus, as it turns out, wants us to know the difference.