“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.”Mark 7:7:1-2
The criticism about Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Pharisees believed that in addition to the Ten Commandments, Moses had received other commandments from God which had been communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
The Mosaic Law did define certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy; however the Pharisees added even more reasons to the Law of Moses.
For example, if a person went to the marketplace or a public gathering and even accidentally touched an unclean person, they themselves would become unclean. Many, many people were labeled unclean – because of their birthright (being a Samaritan, for example); because of their vocation (being a shepherd or a tax collector, for example); because of their poverty (because they couldn’t afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for sacrifice to atone for their sins); because of their sickness (because they could not afford to see a doctor); or simply because of their humanity (for example, a woman who has given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Therefore, whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, ritual hand-washing was required to cleanse oneself. And before and after every meal, hand-washing was required, and according to certain ceremonial practices. Also, all cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed. The number of these traditions continued to accumulate even after the time of Christ, when they were codified in the Mishna and its commentaries. When there was conflict between the Scriptures and this tradition, the tradition was revered with higher authority.i
Here’s a problem. In the Gospel according to Mark, we read that “whenever [Jesus] went into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”ii
Jesus touched and was touched by many people, which, in the Pharisees’ eyes, was defiling. Jesus miraculously fed the multitudes; however there is no mention in the Gospels about any ritual washing – of people’s hands or of serving baskets – either before or after the meal.iii
Which was more defilement.
The actual act of hand-washing had to follow a rather precise formula. For example:
- The water for washing had to be kept in large stone jars.
- The hands had to be free of sand, gravel, or any other substance.
- The hands had to be washed with the fingertips pointing upwards, while water was poured over them.
- The fist of one hand was rubbed in the palm of the other. On and on it went.iv
Jesus and his followers were not doing this. They were therefore perceived as defiled and defiling. Jesus appeals to a higher authority than the Pharisees’ tradition around purity, which determined who was “in” and who was “out.” Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” (which is a Greek word meaning an actor on stage, or a pretenderv
) and Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.vi
They are hard-hearted; Jesus continually extols tenderhearted mercy.
Jesus and his disciples virtually disregard these outward signs of being defiled, including the ritual hand-washing. The issue, Jesus says, is not with the outward; it’s with the inward, i.e., what’s going on within the heart. He says, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.”vii
The hand-washing should have been like a sacramental action: an outward sign, reflective of an inner change. But it wasn’t, at least not often. It was a simply a legalistic, public performance.
The Pharisees saw in themselves not only purity but superiority. And that superiority showed itself in a particularly pernicious way when a Pharisee would self-righteously condemn someone. It’s what we, in colloquial English, call “washing your hands of someone.” This is Jesus’ point when he tells the parable about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like [him,] this tax-collector.” Jesus concludes his parable with a warning, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”viii
The picture of this Pharisee pointing at this man, the tax collector, who is close at hand, is where the Pharisees’ principle about hand-washing and purity comes present to us, here and now. The picture Jesus paints can just as easily happen in our own day. The temptation to wash our hands of other people will likely be a particular person or a particular kind of person whom we find inadequate, offensive, reprobate, disappointing, disgusting, and very different from whom we perceive ourselves to be. And we want nothing of them. And like with the Pharisee and the tax collector, this person, these persons, will most likely be someone in our life, someone we can point to: a spouse or partner or other relative; a friend or colleague or someone else in close proximity or under our roof.
Most of the time we are missing the mark in this kind of condemning judgment of them. It’s what psychologists would call “projection”; it’s what the12-Step program calls “taking someone else’s inventory”; it’s what Jesus calls hypocrisy, wanting to take a speck out of our neighbor’s eye when we have a log in our own eye.”ix
In the monastic tradition, no topic has received more attention down through the ages than the warnings about disparaging judgmentalism, especially to those who are near at hand. In the early monastic tradition in the Egyptian desert, a brother in Scete was found guilty by some monks, and they sent to Abba Moses, asking him to come, but he would not. Then they implored him saying, “Come: for the assembly of brethren awaits you.” Abba Moses rose up reluctantly and came. But taking with him a very old basket, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The monks went out to meet him, asking “Father, what is this?” And the old abba said to them, “My sins are running behind me and I do not see them, and I am come today to judge the sins of another man.” And they heard him, and said naught to the brother, but forgave him.x
There’s an invitation here in this Gospel message for the conversion of our critical judgment to a judgment of love. Concerning hand-washing: momentarily we will invited to pray a confession of our own sin, where our own soul is soiled. In this confession we acknowledge not only the evil we have done, but the evil done our behalf by other people. Someone who is “soiled” did not get that way alone. Other people (maybe we ourselves) have contributed to the stain or scar on their soul, whatever form it takes. And when we see this, our role is not to grab another rock to throw at them, but rather to find some kind of balm to heal them and help them be whole. That is an example of the conversion of our critical judgment to a judgment of love. Undoubtedly this will take on different forms depending on who we are, who they are, the nature of our relationship. But the invitation is about mercy, not purity, when we see another person’s soiled hands or soiled soul. It’s to judge as Jesus judged: a judgment of love.
A second invitation comes from Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and tax collector. Turn that story inside out. Rather than stand with the Pharisee and pray with gladness that we are not like such-and-such a person, to pray exactly the opposite. To pray with thanks that we are just like this other person, at least in some ways. We are just like this person whom we may find, at first glance, a reprobate. It’s to presume that the reason this other soul has caught our attention is because of some kind of affinity. We are like them, and we can be thankful that they have awakened a truth within us about ourselves and for our own conversion. They have come into our life as messengers. This is the conversion of our critical judgment into a judgment of love.
As Jesus says, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”xi
This is the conversion of judgment to live for and to love for. Jesus appealed to a different tradition than the Pharisees’ tradition around purity and hand-washing. What does the Lord require of us? Jesus would have known from the Prophecy of Micah: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”xii
i J. Dwight Pentecost in The Words and Works of Jesus Christ: A Study of the Life of Christ; pp. 240-241.
ii Mark 6:56.
iii Mark 8:1-6.
iv William Barclay in The Gospel of Mark.
v Greek: hypokrites “actor on the stage; pretender.”
vi Mark 6:6.
vii Mark 7:18-23.
viii Luke 18:14.
ix Jesus said (Matthew 7:1-5): “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” See also Luke 6:41-42.
xii Micah 6:6-8.
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