Handwashing: More than a Surface Clean

Much has been made lately about the importance of good hygiene practices, particularly handwashing. I would like to go on the record as pro-handwashing. In fact, I am so totally in favor of handwashing, that every time one of my younger children leaves the bathroom, I loudly proclaim my stance on the issue: “Don’t forget to flush and wash!” (And yet they often do.)

However, I take note when my stances don’t align with what Jesus is teaching, which seems to be the case in a peculiar handwashing story I found in Mark 7. I won’t ask you to stand for the reading as we often do in church, but please do pay attention as you read.

Mark 7:1-9 – “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 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. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

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?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”

The Handwashing Tradition

Typically, the nitpicky way of the Pharisees bothers me, but in this case I am totally with them at the beginning and support the “Didn’t their parents teach them to wash their hands?” question. Not only do I appreciate the practice of handwashing before meals, but other off-the-wall practices, “such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles” seem like fine traditions to scold the disciples to observe.

So Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees on this point initially confused me, until I learned a little bit more about the Jewish tradition of ceremonial washing. Way back in the day, during the construction of the tabernacle, God instructed Moses to include a bronze basin for the priests to wash their hands whenever they entered the Tent of Meeting or approached the altar “so that they would not die” (Exodus 30:17-21.) This seems like a command you take seriously – one of those literal life-or-death commands. The Jews included this basin as well when they built the temple. When the temple was destroyed however, rabbis feared losing this handwashing tradition and so created countless handwashing laws – “rules taught by men” – to preserve it. With no temple, and therefore no altar to approach, they moved the sanctity of the temple sacrifice to the dining room table in Jewish homes. In the case of the disciples, because they had just been to the marketplace, and potentially had come into contact with Gentiles or other Jews who did not observe the ceremonial law, they should have washed before approaching the “altar” for a meal.

More than a Surface-Clean

The Pharisees weren’t concerned about hygiene; Jesus is not calling them germophobes. The Pharisees wondered why the disciples weren’t following ceremonial rules to be “clean.” And as always, Jesus was looking at something deeper than a surface-clean.

Jesus was and is and always will be about the hearts of His people.  No, actually more than that, Jesus is about His peoples’ hearts’ relationship to Him. Jesus knew where the Pharisees stood: “Their hearts are far from me.” He laments that rather than teaching others to draw close to Him, “their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Following rules taught by men does not lead to freedom; knowing Jesus does. We are not cleansed from sin by following man’s rules (or frankly, even by trying to follow God’s rules); we are made clean by Jesus’ death on the cross and by receiving the gift of salvation He offers us.

Letting Go and Holding On

As far as His disciples’ hands, Jesus was much more concerned with what those hands were letting go of and what they were holding on to. Were they learning to cling to His teachings and His promise for freedom, or were they clutching traditions – ways of thinking, cultural norms, daily habits – that bound them to what they were doing for themselves rather than what they were receiving from Him?

What am I clutching in my own life that limits the freedom Christ offers? What ways of thinking and rules taught by men are so ingrained in me that I don’t even recognize how they pull my heart away from the commands of God? Lord, show us, and may our hearts ever and always be drawn to You.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

(Psalm 51:10)

Elise Knobloch
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