The issue that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Mosaic Law defined certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy. The Pharisees believed that Moses received other commandments from God communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
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 could not afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for temple 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 had given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, hand-washing was required to ritually cleanse oneself, if only because of having accidentally touched an unclean person. Before and after every meal, a ritual hand-washing was required according to certain ceremonial practices. All cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed.
Here’s a problem. The Gospel according to Luke reports that “all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to [Jesus]; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.”i 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. Which was more defilement.
Jesus and his disciples virtually disregard these outward signs of being defiled. 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 – from the human heart – that defiles.ii The hand-washing should have been like a sacramental action: an outward sign, reflective of an inner change. But it was not, at least not often. It was a simply a legalistic action that teemed with a disdaining judgment of others.
Jesus is forever saying, “Do not judge.” Of course, life requires us to use our judgment, whether it’s to proceed with a risky surgical procedure, or whether it’s safe to cross the street. Whether it’s better to take a nap or take a run; whether we can trust a person do this or that. We must exercise judgment, good judgement, from the moment we rise until we go to bed. That’s not what Jesus is talking about. Two things. When he commends us not to judge, he’s talking about how we regard the essence of another human being. We – all of us – are children of God, with whom God desires to share eternity. Jesus is telling us not to condemn someone to hell, not to damn someone with the satisfaction that we are not like them.iii God is judge, and in God’s judgment everyone is made worthy of God’s love.
Secondly, to pray for a heart to look on others as we hope God to look upon us. Jesus says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged… for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”iv Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, writing in The Gulag Archipelago, says, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Lord, have mercy upon us all.
i Luke 4:40.
ii Mark 7:20-23.
iii Luke 18:10-14.
iv Luke 6:37-38.
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