Washing hands


Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8 / James 1:17-18,21-22,27 / Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

As Jesus was going about His work of healing, a team of Pharisees and Scribes gang up to pose Him an accusatory question. The Pharisees were a movement of Jews that sought to restore God’s favour to Israel by a kind of strict observance of the Law and total separation from Gentile defilement. And Scribes were not just copyists but scholars of the Law, and these in the gospel, from Jerusalem, held special authority. They were all scandalised by how the disciples of Jesus ate their meals.

The phrase used in the gospel is literally “eat their breads”. There is probably an allusion here to the miracle of multiplication of loaves and thus the eating of bread in the wilderness without following the cleansing rituals the Pharisees advocated.

Let us be clear here. This is not about hygiene. This is about ritual purity. The Law of Moses had prescribed the ritual washing of hands and feet for priests when they were serving at the altar, before they offered sacrifice. The Pharisee’s oral tradition of the interpretation the Law had expanded this ritual, which was just for priests serving at the altar, to every Jew. And it made every meal a ritual of Jewish identity. Moreover, any contact with potentially unclean persons in the marketplace or wherever would necessitate a ritual washing. All items that were used in food preparation also had to be ritually washed.

Now, not all Jews kept this interpretation of the Law at the time of Jesus. But there was a general expectation, encouraged by the Pharisees, that everyone would, and those who did not were despised by the Pharisees as the “accursed” – ordinary folk who were ignorant of the Law.

Now Jesus’ response to them probably takes them aback. He does not try to make an exception for His disciples – why they don’t need to fulfil these laws. Instead what Jesus does is undermine the whole edifice of the Pharisaic legal system! He calls them ‘hypocrites’ – that is, literally, ‘stage actors’. His accusers are people, He says, whose outward conduct does not correspond with the state of their heart – they are acting as if they are righteous, but their hearts are different.

Our Lord quotes from the prophet Isaiah. The context of that quote is Isaiah speaking to the Israelites who had lost a close connection with God. They served God with an empty formalism devoid of authentic love. Their worship was mere lip service. They performed inherited rituals that were not rooted in an interior conversion of their hearts. They spoke words outwardly that did not correspond with their hearts. They promoted their own superficial religiosity as a substitute for true obedience to God’s will.

Now God’s response to them at the time of Isaiah was not so much a threat as a promise. What God says through His prophet is that God will intervene in the lives of His people again with acts so wondrous that they will be moved to acknowledge Him as the God of the covenant and honour Him with authentic worship. That was the prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus was referring to and what He was thus saying to them is, ‘Now is that prophecy being fulfilled!’ Jesus is warning them that they are completely off-mark in the practice of their religion and are opposing God’s will.

His punchline in this exchange is ‘You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition.’ Our Lord makes a scathing criticism of the Pharisees whole approach to religion. They have neglected what is truly of God in favour of their human agendas. They saw Gentiles as the threat and therefore used the Law to emphasise at every conceivable moment of the day how the Jews were different to them – using these ritual washings which were just intended for priests serving at the altar.

But of course, we can do a similar thing to the Pharisees. We too can have agendas that are an imposition of human ideas upon what God has commanded us to do. Human ideologies abound in our own time. For example, socialism, capitalism, or feminism. Of particular danger is the so-called gender ideology which directly opposes the Christian belief that God has given us a human nature, male and female, and that our souls and bodies are a unity. We must not be like the Pharisees and thus hypocrites, imposing human ideas that do not originate in God’s revealed Word – for then we begin to create our own religion as the Pharisees had done. We must strive after purity of heart which means a conversion of our hearts – a conversion in which God is given priority in our lives – a conversion by which eventually our desires are purified.

Obedience to the Law of Moses was meant to form the hearts of the Jews so that they could be an example to all the nations. The Law of Moses came to its climax and completion in Jesus Christ, and we, His disciples, are called to obey God and be examples to those around us. And that includes not following human ideologies and distorting our Faith in the process. What Christ wants of us is to be ‘doers of the Word’ not just ‘hearers’ of it. As St James tells us today in his epistle (letter), the Gospel was given to us that we might have a new birth by the Word of truth. The Word He has given us is a perfect gift and we should not add to it with human ideologies or practices. God has revealed to us through Christ everything we need to know in this life for our salvation and the salvation of all people. We do not need to add anything to it, for if we do then we become like the Pharisees Jesus opposed so strongly.

Let us strive after that which our Lord desired for all people – conversion of our hearts. Let us renounce our attachment to sinful affections and human ideologies, and instead let us rest in the Word of God and the Sacred Tradition which the Holy Spirit has guarded for us, that our hearts may be made pure and we may be effective witnesses of the Word of truth.
And let us ask ourselves honestly, “am I only paying lip-service in my worship?” and “to what extent am I just following human ideas in my daily life?”

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