To Wash, or Not to Wash?

Mark 7:1-23

Jesus is trying to explain how things really work when it comes to God.  I mean, why not?  He is fully human and fully God so he should know.  This is also the kind of thing that puts him on a collision course with the religious authorities of his time.  They do NOT like being told their concept of God is a bit flawed.

As a Jewish rabbi, or teacher, Jesus knew full well all of the 613 rules that made up what we call “The Law”.   Those were the laws that described what was ‘clean’ and what was ‘unclean’.  The laws that made it so strange that Jesus was in close proximity to 2000 unclean animals, the swine, a couple of weeks back.  The laws covered all kinds of things related to daily life, what you could eat, what you could wear and all manner of how to live.  In this morning’s reading the particular law being discussed pertains to hand washing before eating a meal.

It would be easy to say this particular law is in place because people live longer when they wash their hands before eating.  While that was certainly true then as it is today, the issue is not good hygiene and a long and healthy life.  For observant Jews the Law is what shapes their life and following the rules is a spiritual discipline that is extraordinarily meaningful.  Not to mention, if everyone follows the Law then life is pretty good.  The trouble people run into is turning a good thing into a tradition that must be followed for its own sake.  The issue Jesus is bringing out is the religious authority’s commitment to honoring traditions rather than having a commitment to honor God.

The choice of using the handwashing before eating law is an interesting one.  He could have picked any law he wanted, like the law about not wearing different fabrics but that wouldn’t have as much impact on people.  It was an actual rule in Leviticus 19:19 that you weren’t supposed to wear clothing woven from different fabrics.  Maybe that was a fashion faux pas then but in modern days it wouldn’t have much of an impact.  If you don’t believe me call to mind the leisure suits from the 1970s.  If you don’t know what that is, go right ahead and use your favorite search engine to look it up 1970s leisure suit.  We won’t mind and you need the visual to carry my point.  You can listen while you look.

Other than the fashion horror of leisure suits in the late 20th century, we’re not likely to react too strongly to mixing fabrics.  But hand washing, now that gets our attention.  Or rather the lack of handwashing gets our attention.  And I think it probably did the readers in Mark’s day also.  Mark is pretty clever with the stories he uses to make his points.

It comes down to this statement, 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?” 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 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  This is the danger of holding on to a tradition, particularly a holding onto a tradition in the name of God.  That tradition becomes its own God and that is problematic in a whole lot of ways.

To begin with, it violates the first commandment.  No other gods before God.  It is always a good question to ask ourselves; what other gods do I have in my life that get in the way of the one TRUE God?  Is their anything I insist on, is there any tradition that I require, particularly in my faith life, that is in danger of becoming too much of a god in its own right?  Because if we have requirements in our faith life we may be in danger of worshiping that requirement rather than worshiping God.

That’s the point Jesus is making today.  Jesus isn’t suggesting giving up all traditions any more than he is saying we shouldn’t wash our hands.  To assert either position would miss the point entirely.  Plus, just wash your hands.  It isn’t difficult and it’s a really good idea.  Jesus is simply saying to keep God first and to make certain our traditions enhance our connection to God.

Another thing we can’t do is hide behind The Law to avoid doing what God says.  I know that sounds a bit twisted but that’s only because it is.  Remember that word ‘corban’ in the reading?  It’s kind of a strange word but it refers to the practice of designating part of your resources to God.  Kind of like a trust fund in today’s world.  Nothing wrong with the practice in and of itself and in fact, my wife Lora and I have included Spirit of Hope and Camp Carol Joy Holling in our estate planning.  You’ve done your estate planning, haven’t you?  Everyone should have a will and if you have kids, you need to do some planning.  Coming back to our reading today, the trouble is what people were doing was using it to avoid their responsibilities.  In this case they were designating part of their stuff as corban to get out of taking care of their parents.  And that violates the fourth commandment, honor your father and mother.

It all boils down to the religious authorities being hung up on the letter of the law and missing out on the spirit of the law.  They had a tendency to love God’s law and missing out on God’s love. Their commitment to a rigid adherence of following the rules blinded them to the reason we have the rules.  That reason is that God wants what is best for us so that we can have good lives. Kind of like God giving his son Jesus to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  A redeemed life is a good life, all things being equal.

What it comes down to, and ask one of our confirmation students and they can tell you, our good works are a response to all that God has done for us.  Our good works don’t get us in good with God, instead they display our gratitude for what God has done, is doing, and continues doing for us. That’s something to be grateful for.

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