Scripture Readings: Song of Solomon 2:8–13 | Psalm 45:1–10 | James 1:17–27 | Mark 7:1–23
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:8)
How clean are your hands?
In the early days of this pandemic, almost a year and a half ago, before we knew much about COVID-19, or how best to stop it, one age-old practice quickly grabbed hold of our attention again: we all began to work much harder at keeping our hands clean. Hand-sanitizing stations began popping up everywhere, along with posters highlighting the best ways to wash our dirty digits. Handshakes and high-fives disappeared, replaced by waves and elbow bumps. Almost overnight, we changed our habits… the way we handle our hand hygiene, stepping up our precautions in an effort to be safe. Hopefully, this change has helped to keep us all healthier… and maybe a bit more aware of how our simple actions can effect (or infect) those all around us.
Our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark has a lot to say to us about being truly clean. Not only on the outside, but inside as well.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that some Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, the Holy City, came to confront Jesus about His disciples’ uncleanliness… that is, the disciples were not ritually purifying their hands before they ate… a tradition the Pharisees and Scribes cared a whole lot about… not because they were worried about microscopic germs, or hygiene… but because they were really really concerned with holiness. With trying to keep themselves spiritually clean to stay close to the Living God. For them, this was an essential practice for staying in God’s good books… and if Jesus’ followers weren’t following this important tradition, they suggested He must not care about holiness either. Their comment was an attempt to undermine Jesus’ character and reputation. But how was washing your hands before you eat to help make you holy?
There is no commandment in the Scriptures about washing your hands before you eat, at least not for regular people… only the Priests serving in the Temple were required to ritually wash their hands. But as we know, this was a tradition, a practice handed down from the past, which tried to honour God’s holiness by going above and beyond God’s commands. In order to avoid crossing the line… to avoid any chance of breaking God’s Law, Israel’s elders got into the practice of placing “a fence around the Law”, so to speak. Establishing their own rules intended to make it ‘easier’ to obey, developing a clear way of life over the centuries. In this case, elders concerned with raising the ‘holiness’ standards of God’s people took ritual cleansings commanded for priestly service and applied it to everyone. After all, what harm could come from everyone building these habits of ritual holiness? Shouldn’t everyone try to put their devotion to God into practice? And so, the Scribes and Pharisees, supported by this human tradition, try to put Jesus in His place by discrediting His disciples.
Now we can see why Jesus gets so upset by their question which was designed to malign His followers, and undermine His mission. Jesus responds by calling out their well-hidden hypocrisy:
“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.” (Mark 7:6-8)
Jesus points out that they were using their own traditions in ways that actually undermined their alleged commitment to living in God’s holy ways. They were using their ritual practices as a tool to build up their own religious reputation, and to tear down those who differed from them. The problem was not that they wanted to promote and pursue holiness… or that they developed some practices to help them live this out. The problem was that their traditions had become a barrier… an obstacle… looking great on the outside, but obscuring both God’s character, and holy work in the world. They were so focused on their own definitions of what God wants from His people that they had become blind to the ways they were breaking the heart of God’s commandments… twisting His holy words to support their own selfish ways.
By contrast, Jesus Christ reveals the true heartbeat of the Holy Trinity, and He calls us to follow Him into His holy way of life: one wholly in line with the Living God’s character and purposes… not just on the surface, but completely to the core… through and through. Rather than focus on their symbolic practices, Christ cares most deeply about whether or not God’s people are reflecting God’s own holy life. Whether or not they love the LORD their God, and faithfully walk in His ways… and whether or not they share God’s holy love for their neighbours. Christ knows these Pharisees and Scribes care much about having clean hands. And Christ shows us He cares much more about having clean hearts.
Does our way of doing things, our understanding of what is right and good uphold or undermine the holy work of the Living God in our midst? In other words… even if our hands seem clean, are our hearts clean? Spiritually speaking, are we focused on the superficial, but ignoring the essential? Are we blind to our own infections, while diagnosing others?
As a sort-of silly example, let’s think about this kind of problem in the context of COVID-19: What if our only response to COVID-19 was to clean our hands? Think of all the sanitizing, hand washing, and resisting of hand-shakes that we have adjusted to. Would simply cleansing our hands prevent the virus from spreading? No. The much bigger issue of breathing in the virus would persist. Though hand-washing is certainly helpful, it’s only one part of the answer. We need a much deeper answer to overcome this disease.
As a much-less silly example, let’s change the focus a bit: What happens in our minds and hearts when others don’t follow our COVID rules? When people don’t respond to the ongoing pandemic the way we think they should? Cases are rising again in New Brunswick, along with many people’s anxiety levels. There is understandable fear, frustration, and anger being stoked… often directed at those who refuse to take the danger seriously… undermining the safety of our whole community.
As Christians, we’re called to love our neighbours… to set aside our own desires in order to work for the good of everyone, especially the most vulnerable… in St. James’ context, that meant caring “for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). In other words, we’re to stand up for all those with no one else to care for them. With this calling, of course we’ll get upset when vulnerable lives are put at risk. Of course we’ll be pulled by all sorts of emotions and impulses. But despite the physical threat of COVID-19 we’re having to face, there is also the spiritual threats of bitterness, condemnation, and anger that can easily eat away at our hearts… causing all sorts of damage. I saw a newspaper headline this week where someone gave voice to this spirit of spite, saying things like this: “I have no empathy left for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die. I honestly don’t care if they die from COVID. Not even a little bit.” These words may not have escaped our lips, but do they echo some of our attitudes? Does this in any way reflect the holy way of God that Christ calls us into? Are we free to completely condemn our neighbours, even if only in our hearts?
As Christ unpacks His teaching to His followers in Mark 7:21-23, He makes clear that what goes on in our hearts has serious implications: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” This is what makes us ‘unclean.’ And from Matthew’s Gospel, especially in Chapter 5 (the Sermon on the Mount), Christ clearly connects uncontrolled anger, and hate to something as serious as murder. Incompatible, with the holy love of God.
But Christ also reveals God’s holy heart, even in the face of hate: Hanging on the cross, Jesus pleaded for His Father to forgive those who had Him crucified… including the Pharisees and Scribes that He had challenged in our reading today. He did not ignore their hypocrisy, just as He does not ignore ours. He did not go along with their selfish schemes, just as He does not support ours. But far from give up on them or us, Jesus gave His life up for us all… for while we were still sinners, while we were at our absolute worst… Christ died for us (See Romans 5:8), and rose again to save us. This is the heartbeat of God. This is the depths of His holy love. Jesus, shedding His precious blood, to cleanse and rescue His enemies.
In the absence of hope, so many today are turning to anger and hate. But in the light of the Gospel, the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, how are we to respond when we are tempted to give in to anger?
Let’s hear again the words of St. James’: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20). Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. We must not give free reign to the forces in us that undermine the holy love of God that Jesus poured out for us all… which is at work in us even now through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to love our neighbours, even if they are acting like enemies!
This is just one example of how we humans are tempted to turn from God’s holy ways… all while trying to convince ourselves and others that we’re in the right. But in Christ who die and rose again to cleanse our hearts, and our whole lives, God’s Spirit is empowering us to share His saving love with our world.
In closing, let us pray this slightly modified Collect for Purity, placing our faith in Christ to cleanse us through and through:
to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hidden.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you, and our neighbours,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
 See Exodus 30:18–21 & Exodus 40:30–32.
 From the Toronto Star, Thursday August 26, 2021.
 Matthew 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And again, in Matthew 5:43-45, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”