Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
August 16, 2020
Proverbs 26:18-28 Colossians 3:1-17 Matthew 15:1-20
I would really be disappointed if you concluded from this gospel story that Jesus was a sloppy eater, and didn’t think washing hands was important. Particularly in our time when handwashing is imperative, do not conclude from this story that Jesus gives you permission to let down your guard. Let’s not trivialize this fuss over hand washing between Jesus and a group of Jewish leaders called the Pharisees.
Just as in our day some people have turned wearing masks into a polarizing issue, Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees gets escalated to some pretty purple rhetoric. Jesus calls Pharisees “hypocrites! blind guides to be shunned and avoided because they are fatal to spiritual health.” This kind of speech puts us on notice that his dispute about handwashing is not a spat about public hygiene or dinner table manners. This argument, whether or not to wash hands before putting food in your mouth, indicates a much deeper clash between Jesus and his message on the one hand, and the Pharisees with their expectations, on the other.
If we are ultimately going to criticize the Pharisees, at least we owe them the respect and honor of understanding where they are coming from. We need to acknowledge, first of all, that the Pharisees have the Law on their side. The Law the Pharisees have on their side refers to regulations that don’t appear in the Bible which the Pharisees claimed took their inspiration from the Bible. Because they had been inspired by the Bible, these extra-biblical laws got the same authority, the Pharisees argued, as a law in the Bible itself. Handwashing was one of those extra-biblical laws.
By the time of Jesus, this body of extra-biblical law had grown way beyond control. It had gotten so large that people actually forgot about the God of Israel and thought only about the Law of Israel. Obeying the Law became the all-important religious obligation. Each person’s worth was measured by how he or she obeyed the Law, meaning these extra-biblical rules.
Now let’s take up the specific case of the law of handwashing. Over and over in the Bible we hear God saying, “You shall be holy as I am holy.” And since with God there is life and outside of God there is death, to be unholy and therefore outside God is to die or to be destined to die. The holy God expects holy people. Holy people live.
So the burning question of the day is: so that I will live, how will I become holy and stay that way? What are the things that can make me unholy, impure, and how do I stay away from them? Or if I do become unholy, how do I wash that off and get holy again? It was in answer to these genuine questions that a great body of laws grew up outside the Bible which the Pharisees thought would help you stay holy.
Handwashing was one of the laws, you see, one of the procedures to get yourself holy before God when you sat down to eat. Eating was a sacred time. A time when God came to your table. In our extended family it is our tradition to say this blessing around our table. It begins like this: Come, Lord Jesus, and be our guest. You may have something like that, too.
You could not be impure when you ate with the holy God. If you were, God would stay away from your table. No telling what you had bumped into in the time before you ate that was unclean. No telling what impure person you had rubbed up against. It might have been a Gentile, a menstruating woman, someone who had recently had sexual intercourse, a leper, a tax-collector, someone who had touched a dead body or who had returned from the graveyard, someone who was a prostitute, someone who was sick, someone who was a shepherd, and on and on. Wash your hands to make yourself holy again before you sit down to eat with God.
The Pharisees were the folk who thought a lot about staying holy with God. Consequently, they became the purity police, applying their efforts to get everyone to stay pure. “So, Jesus,” they demanded, “why don’t you insist that your disciples wash their hands before they eat?”
What I want to know is this: What had Jesus told the disciples that prompted them to give up this hallowed custom of handwashing? Are we to conclude that Jesus had told his disciples that it was not necessary to be pure? Are we to conclude that the God whom Jesus calls Father is not holy?
Of course not. Jesus is serious about holiness, but it is so, so different from how the Pharisees see it. “You Pharisees,” he says, “all you can talk about is the Law and its complex regulations. All you can do is make up lists of things and persons that are to be avoided. For you, it is all show and no substance. In the process of staying pure, you have forgotten about the holy God. Let’s get back to God.” Our God created the world good. God did not make certain things in the world smut. But anything can become smut by the spin you put on it.
You can take anything and make it smut if you surround it with evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander. And the opposite is just as true. You can take anything that your culture has declared unclean, impure, unholy, and make it pure, clean and holy if you surround it with love, forgiveness, healing and restoration.
Jesus does care that his disciples stay safe when they eat. However, he does not want handwashing to have to carry the proof of whether you love God or not. Handwashing is something you do to stay healthy so that when your hand goes in your mouth you do not get sick, but the proof of whether you are holy before the holy God is what comes out of your mouth, not what you put into it. What Jesus is saying simply is this: Do not reduce something as momentous as holiness to something so banal, ordinary, and natural as washing your hands. That’s too easy, and it is selfish in the end.
Let’s be honest, the politicization of the virus is an example of what Jesus is warning us about: blowing up something natural into something metaphysical. This entire notion that following or not the three W’s of the pandemic shows whether you are a true believer in liberty or a bleating sheep is an example of taking something natural and blowing it up into something that labels you a deviant. That is a political tactic calculated to splinter the united front this country needs in order to stop the spread of the virus. Washing your hands, wearing a mask and watching your distance are three simple, natural actions you can take to stay healthy and keep others healthy. Following them is both the most selfish thing you can do and the most selfless act you can do for your country. We do not need to surround these common sense behaviors with a spin that makes doing them or not a sign of your deepest political convictions.
I can’t be finished with this sermon until I ask you to think with me again about what Jesus had told the disciples that prompted them to give up the ritual of handwashing. Are we to conclude that Jesus had told his disciples that it was not necessary to be pure? Are we to conclude that the God whom Jesus calls Father is not holy?
Of course not. Jesus is serious about holiness, but it is so, so different from how the Pharisees see it. Here is what you must grasp. Jesus sees himself as the Holy One of God.
Out of his grace, he calls a motley collection of followers to stay close to him as his disciples. His call draws us to his side and by sticking with him, we become—by fits and starts, sometimes kicking and screaming—holy people. His holiness rubs off on us as we brush up against him in prayer, in study, in acts of mercy, in acts of solidarity with those he loves. Jesus makes us holy from the inside out; we do not make ourselves holy from the outside in. The root and spring of holiness is found in the heart; we do not come by it through avoiding what the culture police have told us is impure, unwashed, sinister, and unholy.
The real threat to holy, healthy persons are the forces of vengefulness, vindictiveness, and hatred. The only power that is strong enough to overcome this threat is God’s forgiveness and love.
Forgiveness, love and healing are the marks of holy, healthy persons. The real ally to holy, healthy living is to be surrounded by people who brush up regularly against the holy Jesus which gives them the power to love, forgive and out-do evil—even if this brings suffering and death. You will find those kinds of people sticking close to Jesus. For he, the Holy One of God, is the source of the power to love, heal, restore, and overcome evil–even if that brought down upon him suffering and death.
No power of the purity police can overcome a dirty heart. Only the power of the holy Jesus can overcome a dirty heart and make a person into someone who heals.