That Time Jesus Said Not to Wash Your Hands: Sermon for September 2, 2012

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,

7:2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.

7:3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;

7:4 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.)

7:5 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?”

7:6 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;

7:7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

7:8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:

7:15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,

7:22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

7:23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

When I was a hospital chaplain, before we 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 full of germs. Employees can spread them. And so every patient you see, you’re supposed to wash your hands.

I washed my hands a lot before I was a chaplain. I thought I was pretty good at it. But in the hospital hand washing took on almost religious proportions. And so here we were, grown adults sitting through physical demonstrations of how to wash our hands. There were a lot of details about how to do it correctly, and how to use alcohol based hand sanitizer.

And, most memorably, there was the advice about singing “Happy Birthday”. Apparently you’re supposed to wash your hands for as long as it takes for you to sing “Happy Birthday”. So our demonstrator stood there, washing his hands, singing “Happy Birthday” so we would all understand just how long this actually takes.

It was awkward for everyone.

Before long our hands would get 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 texts like today’s seem so strange to us. Because far from sitting them down with soap and water and singing happy birthday numerous times. Jesus is doing something that your mother would never do: he’s telling them not to wash their hands.

Which, let’s all admit it, is kind of gross.

Jesus’s disciples are eating a meal, and they haven’t washed their hands. And if cleanliness is next to godliness, you would think that maybe Jesus would have gotten onto them about that. Maybe, if nothing else, he would have passed around a bottle of Purell?

And the Pharisees and scribes, who were the religious authorities, come. And they see it and can’t believe it. They’ve been looking for ways to call Jesus out, and now his disciples are doing something that no good religious person would do. They’re eating without washing their hands.

The expectation in their faith and culture was that you would wash your hands ritually before eating. You would practice absolute cleanliness and you certainly would not just start eating without washing up. It wasn’t just bad hygiene. It was sacrilege. And so the religious elders press him about how he can claim to speak for God yet his disciples don’t even wash their hands.

Jesus doesn’t call back to his disciples, “Hey guys…didn’t we talk about the singing ‘Happy Birthday’ thing?” He doesn’t turn and get mad at them. Instead he does something else. He turns back to the religious authorities and flips the custom on its head.

Jesus starts by calling them hypocrites. He tells them that they honor God with their lips, but not with their hearts. Essentially, they give lip service to what they believe, saying the right things and doing the little rituals that others will see. But when it comes to their hearts, they are far from true.

He tells them that we are not defiled, or made impure, by what we eat, or how we eat. Instead, we are made impure by what comes out of us. We can do all the right things on the outside, but if what’s on our heart doesn’t match, then we are not truly focused on God.

Jesus was calling out religious hypocrisy. He was doing it 2,000 years ago, but he could just as easily been doing it today.

To be a good Jewish person 2,000 years ago, the voices speaking the loudest would tell you that you had to ritually wash your hands before every meal. They would tell you that there was no way you could possibly be a good person of faith if you didn’t do that. But on the other hand, those same voices could be condoning, or even participating in, things that God would never bless.

If you look at the voices speaking the loudest for Christianity today, they’ll tell you that they are fighting for purity. They are fighting for tradition. They are fighting for, as they see it, a return to God.

I have no doubt that some of them really believe that. But sometimes I wonder if they are like the pharisees who stressed having clean hands over a clean heart. I wonder if they are too caught up in judging others by the small customs and traditions of the faith that they can’t even see the good works and the good intentions that come from those same hearts?

That’s too bad because Jesus came to end all of that. Not hand washing, really. I hope he still believed that was a good thing. But the idea that the appearance of being holy was what made us holy.

There’s a quote that I’ve been seeing a lot that I think holds some truth to it. No one is really sure who said it first, but it says, “Going to church doesn’t make you any more a Christian than going to a garage makes you a car.”

There’s some truth there. Now, to be clear, I believe that church attendance matters. I believe that a basic function of being a Christian is participating in a Christian community of faith and formation. But if you are coming to church just because it’s what you believe you should do, it’s a lot like just washing your hands and neglecting your heart.

Because when you thinks about it, coming to church is actually pretty easy. Well, maybe not at 9am for some of you. But really, all you have to do is come in, sit down for an hour, and be present. You don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do anything really. The sermon might be a little boring some weeks, but really, it’s fairly painless.

And the thing is, you can walk out the backdoor at 10am and not think about God, or what God expects from you, for another week. You can act however you would like from Sunday to Sunday. And then you can come back the next Sunday and sit in a pew. But your heart knows. Even if others don’t.

Those of us who grew up in very religious areas can probably tell you about folks who filled the pews on Sunday, and said all the right things about Jesus when it suited them, but who acted in a very different way when no one was looking.

My college chaplain told a story once about a trip he took from Macon, Georgia to Atlanta when he was a high school student in the late 1940’s. His Sunday school teacher (we’ll call him Mr. Smith) in Macon was a man with whom he often butted heads. The teacher thought his student was sacrilegious, and lectured him on what was holy.

One weekend the student took a school trip to Atlanta. Walking around a corner in the city, he ran straight into Mr. Smith. With his arm around a woman who was not Mrs. Smith. He said, “Hello Mr. Smith…how’s Mrs. Smith?”

The teacher begged him not to say anything and told him one day he would understand. But all he understood was that the Sunday school teacher who had been telling him he was not a good Christian, who seemed so put together, wasn’t what he seemed. He hands were clean, but not his heart.

Now, I tell this story not to say that externally religious people are hypocrites. I don’t tell it to judge that Sunday school teacher. I tell it because all of us have been both that disillusioned high school kid and that disgraced Sunday school teacher. All of us have struggled both with seeing hypocrisy in others, and seeing it in ourselves.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t like me anymore?” I think everyone does, whether we admit it or not. We all believe that people would be shocked to know that the persona we present on the outside, and the truth about what we sometimes think and feel on the inside, don’t always match.

We are disillusioned when we see hypocrisy in others, but, unless we are sociopaths, we are terrified when we see us in ourselves. So much so, that sometimes we deceive ourselves.

I read about a study that was done recently. A group of religious folks who described themselves as generous was asked how much they gave to charity. One quarter said they gave a full 10% of their income. Then the researchers went a step further. They asked for their income figures and checked it against their giving. It turns out only 3% gave more than 5% of their income. Certainly not the 25% who said 10%.

I don’t think most of those folks would say they were deliberately lying. I think more likely they had convinced themselves that they were doing what they had said they were going to do. But maybe they missed a week here or there, or maybe they cut things back when times got tight. Or maybe something else happened. My guess is most of the respondents were surprised by the final numbers. But I think they knew they were exaggerating.

Which makes me wonder, why? They didn’t need to impress the researchers. And really, just giving anything at all is an incredible act of generosity. But for some reason, the appearance mattered. Why were they so afraid of not appearing as they really were?

I think the same is true of must of us. We worry about appearances. We keep our hands clean, but our hearts get clouded by the demands of the world. We want to do what we say we are going to do, but when the rubber hits the road, it’s hard.

The good news is that it is not our works, or our appearance, that saves us. It is God’s grace, and forgiveness. But the hard news is that if we really value that grace, if we are truly grateful for it, then hand washing is not alone. External acts, symbolic acts, don’t cut it anymore. Being a Christian demands more than that. It demands not just our hands, though God surely needs those too, but also our hearts.

This week as you go back out into the world, how will you live as a Christian? How will your heart match your action of coming to church this morning? Will it be a week empty  hand washing? Or will it be something more? This week, open your heart to God’s will for you. Open it to grace. And then show others what you believe, not by your clean hands, but by your loving heart.

If you mess up, don’t worry. Rest assured, we all will mess up this week. But next week these pews will be right here waiting for us, and we can try again. Always, we can try again.

And just a little postscript….let’s all keep washing our hands anyway, okay?


10 thoughts on “That Time Jesus Said Not to Wash Your Hands: Sermon for September 2, 2012

  1. “We all believe that people would be shocked to know that the persona we present on the outside, and the truth about what we sometimes think and feel on the inside, don’t always match.” Yes. That. Something we all need to hear on a regular basis.
    (Yay twitter for connections that wouldn’t otherwise exist.)

  2. Interesting, since Jesus apparently could turn water into wine to prevent social embarrassment to the hosts, but apparently he decided to pooh-pooh handwashing, the ONE practice from Pharisaic Judaism that later actually WAS proven as being a simple means of reducing the incidence of disease transmission, etc.

    What a missed opportunity to have a positive lasting effect on mankind, even possibly serving as a sign of having Divine insight (having been there when God created bacteria and viruses), but instead Jesus ended up on the wrong side of the germ theory of disease (as your hospital experience bears out).


      1. Hi Emily,

        Thanks for your response.

        Yes, I read it, although in all honesty, I didn’t find your argument very compelling: it implies Jesus was willing to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” simply to make a point about religious purity and to dismiss so-called “inferior” man-made laws out of hand, since he didn’t believe they came from God.

        In this case, though, the Pharisees were absolutely right: their hand-washing practices and other hygienic practices actually gave the impression of having some Divine inspiration, foreshadowing what science later verified 1,500 years later as the ‘germ theory of disease’ emerged.

        So in this case (and many others), Jesus clearly was on the wrong side of what science later confirmed when he said this, in Matthew 15:20:

        “These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.

        The problem was that Jesus took the extra step of making a POSITIVE claim that eating with unwashed hands was NOT defiling, when that’s not confirmed by clinical studies: the Jews’ oral tradition required washing hands after touching their nasal lining, hair, privates, defecation/urination, and before eating a meal: ALL have been validated as safe and effective hygienic practices that reduce the transmission of pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

        Jesus was flat-out demonstrably incorrect, which even you must acknowledge: as the modern saying goes, “frequent hand-washing is the single-most important means of disease prevention”. It’s cheap, easy-to-do, and EFFECTIVE. It WORKS.

        Now, you COULD claim that the Pharisees weren’t washing their hands effectively to suit today’s standards, or using dirty water, not washing long enough, etc but that only begs the question: isn’t that yet another missed opportunity to TEACH humans the proper way to do hand-washing (and “Jesus Loves Me” works just as well as “Happy Birthday”), or teaching them how to create cheap and effective water filters out of commonly-available natural materials? Wouldn’t THAT leave a lasting record and tangible circumstantial evidence that served as proof of Jesus having Divine insight? Imagine how THAT would point to the glory of his Father, after his words were verified by modern medicine, instead of looking like someone who believed what other ancient men did, since they didn’t know better.

        As you may know, Jesus was more likely a stone-cutter than a carpenter: why didn’t Jesus use materials readily available in his day to provide CLEAN and SAFE water? (see information on biofilters on the link, below)

        Why not turn water into distilled wine not to avoid hosts’ social embarrassment at a wedding reception (or as a party trick), but to produces barrels of Purell? Better yet, why not teach men how to distill wine to obtain ethyl alcohol themselves, the active ingredient in Purell? It wasn’t THAT difficult: people make stills in prison, using parts available not just in 30 CE, but available 1,000 yrs before Jesus lived.

        Fortunately, some compassionate humans aren’t sitting around on their dirty hands, waiting for Jesus to provide an answer to fix easily-addressable problems in the here-and-now, eg these folks are preventing deaths by preventing spread of infectious diseases in Africa much more effectively than Jesus did by poo-poohing basic hygienic practices (on the basis of some theological quibble between the Pharisee and Sadducee sects).

        The organization above accepts donations, BTW.


        1. The title of the sermon was tongue-in-cheek. I think Jesus wasn’t actually saying “don’t wash your hands”. He was talking about religious rituals and how they meant nothing if right thought and action were not behind them. And many Christian groups have done much to provide clean water and sanitation to places around the world, and they still do so.

  3. I appreciated this. I absolutely agree with the discussion of outward rituals versus inward actions, and with the agreement to keep washing hands. I want to think the Pharisees were not bad because they came from the wrong faith, but represented something that can be found in any religious tradition. That seems to be close to what you are saying too.

  4. Emily wrote: “I think Jesus wasn’t actually saying ‘don’t wash your hands’. He was talking about religious rituals.”

    How convenient.

    Every time Jesus (God, by extension, or by the same, depending on one’s viewpoint–Jesus therefore is all-knowing as well) is WRONG about something we know today via science, it was clearly just a metaphor. Every time Jesus was (accidentally, probably) correct about something, it’s used as evidence of some divine source of knowledge.

    Anyone else noticing this pattern among Christian apologists?

    Of all the topics about which to be metaphorical, and not literal, as Emily argues, one would have hoped that Jesus would have told people to wash their hands but for the REAL reason: to stop the spread of germs (of course, Jesus didn’t know about germs, because no one did, and Jesus, if he was real, was just a man like every other man.)

  5. I was brought up in a Jewish home – both my mother and stepfather are Jewish. My father is not. One observation my father made as a gentile married to a Jewess is that Jewish homes are very clean. This is one of the things he respected about out culture. So what was Jeaus getting at here given that cleanliness is one of the blessings that God has granted to the Jewish community. My guess is that there was something extremely disordered in the Pharisaic understanding beyond what we might imagine by contextualizing this in our modern culture. What I mean is that the hypocrisy at issue was shockingly strident, aggressive and abusive. In this context the spiritual devastation it wrought on the ordinary person might have been so egregious that for Jesus to switch gears and speak of germ theory would have been monumentally absurd. His heart burned for the restoration of hearts to God especially those who had been battered by religious hypocracy. He knew the compassion he inspires in hearts would later give birth to hospitals that developed germ theory but this was not the time or place. The argument also ignores the relationship between Jesus’ hum ran and divine natures which he did mix but that is too complicated for a post. Anyway good discussion.

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