“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law… saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean’, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders)… So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?’”
Mark 7:1-5 (NIV)
One autumn my son found a bramble bush at the edge of the school field. Sun-warmed blackberries straight off the bush seemed to him a good break-time snack. His classmates were appalled. How could those things be edible? They didn’t come from a shop and they weren’t even encased in plastic: that’s just a nasty thing to do, eating straight from a plant. Lying and cheating are far more socially acceptable than eating unwashed blackberries.
Any present discussion, of course, could run quite long: Does the tiny chance of being sick from a dirty blackberry outweigh the harm of progressively limiting life experience until computer games are the only thing worth doing? Are the other children going to suppose they can eat everything in, on, and under the hedge from now on? Should healthy children conform to the guidelines for those with immune deficiency in the name of fairness? The school had to decide one way or another just to settle the question: their answer was yes.
The Pharisees could have discussed such matters for ever. In their culture and religion, it seems there was simply no distinction between physical and spiritual hygiene. Cleanliness was not ‘next to godliness’; it was godliness. The God-given Law of Moses involved many rules and rituals, full of theological symbolism and obviously compatible with healthy living in a way that other ancient ritualisms were not. In their dedication to keeping God’s favour, the Pharisees extrapolated and extended every measurable line of law and tradition until—like anyone who is perfectly sure just what God wants us all to do—they left themselves wide open to spiritual failure.
If it was only some of Jesus’ disciples who didn’t do the hand-washing, and that doesn’t necessarily include Jesus himself, then it looks like he had never given them a directive on the subject and they were all doing whatever they chose. This would clearly have shocked the religious leaders: any well-thought-of rabbi should control every aspect of his disciples’ lives, keeping their yoke hard and their burden heavy (Matthew 11:29-30).
At the very least, you would suppose the incident might cue Jesus to give a ruling one way or another just to settle the question. All we see is a bit of a diatribe against religious hypocrisy—and still no directive on hand-washing. We are simply asked to understand that corporeal cleanliness cannot keep us spiritually pure, and that nothing which goes into the body pollutes us spiritually. Shouldn’t Jesus be dispensing advice on hygiene and healthy living? Apparently not.
As Christians we thank you for our freedom from complicated ritual and physical observance, not so that we may live carelessly but so that we may give the more attention to what you ask of our hearts and minds. In Jesus’ name.
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