We know the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness. It turns out that John Wesley, Methodist Church founder, was the first person recorded saying that in a sermon back in 1778. The idea however goes way back to ancient times. You can see that in our scripture reading.
Over time, it had become the norm for Jews to wash their hands before eating. So, for them, in this case it wasn’t a matter of cleanliness being next to godliness; cleanliness was godliness. What they were about here was making the common holy. Honoring God in all that they did. Not a bad impulse. We may pray before a meal, so a common act like eating can become more than that.
But then we read today’s passage. Some of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands before eating. The disciples’ hands were “defiled, according to religious leaders.” It is clear the concern here is not about cleanliness as we generally think of cleanliness. This is about religious practice, not personal hygiene.
Knowing this tradition, knowing their concern, the Pharisees’ question is a little more understandable. They were sincere in their desire to keep the law as well as the traditions that had developed surrounding the law as a way of honoring God. But Jesus doesn’t go easy on them. Hand cleaning is fine if this practice doesn’t replace other religious impulses, such as concern for others. What did you expect since Jesus wasn’t afraid to be not “clean.” He touched and healed a leper. He got close to a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. He got too close to a dead man. From their view, since cleanliness is next to or the same as godliness, Jesus wasn’t that close to being godly. But this wasn’t Jesus’ view.
Will Campbell was a unique person. He grew up in Mississippi. He came back to the South after he became a pastor, but had a hard time finding and keeping a job as a Baptist minister who supported integration in the 1950’s. Chaplain at Ole Miss for a short time, he resigned amid death threats. Brother Will, as he liked to be called, became a prominent white supporter of the civil rights movement before having this epiphany that bigots needed Jesus too, and he befriended and ministered to folks in the Ku Klux Klan even while he worked for racial reconciliation. So, he had enemies just about everywhere.
One day he was on a radio program in Nashville. It seemed that the singer and fiddler Charlie Daniels had been on the same program in the previous segment. Campbell was interviewed for a bit and then they opened
the phone lines. A woman called in to say how terrible it was that Charlie Daniels had used such obscene language on the air, and what did the minister have to say about that? Well, Campbell said it was hard to comment without knowing what Mr. Daniels had said. He asked the woman if she could tell him so that he could offer an opinion about it. Of course, the woman said that she couldn’t repeat that kind of language. So, Campbell told the woman, “Tell you what: I will say the most obscene words that I know, and you can tell me if Mr. Daniels used these words.” Well, the caller about went into convulsions, but these are the words that Campbell said: “Hunger, bigotry, racism, war, greed, abuse, hatred, exploitation. Did Mr. Daniels use any of those words?” The woman said, “Well, no.” Campbell said, “Well, those are the most obscene words I can think of, so if Mr. Daniels didn’t use any of those words, then I guess I’m not too worried.”
Now of course, 50% of this was just Will Campbell being ornery, but he made a point. It’s possible to be more concerned about someone failing to follow social niceties than other things that go on and wash our hands of them. Watch what you wash your hands of. Sometimes, we’re seeing things upside down or backward. What’s important isn’t what we’re paying attention to. What’s unimportant is taking up a lot of our focus and energy.
You can take care of unclean hands easily. But what we think, say, and do or what we don’t when we could and should, that’s another thing. Washing away dirt is nothing compared to getting rid of greed, lust, hatred, anger, fear. There’s no vaccine to be researched, trialed, distributed and given for what ails humans so often and so destructively in mind, spirit, heart, and soul.
Jesus knew this and he was tired of pretender religion, of pretending that making sure his disciples had washed their hands was his job or anyone’s job who spoke for God and wanted to help people figure out what the Lord thought was important. It’s like making sure the little bathroom window is closed shut to stop rain from coming in while the front and back door and all the windows in the rest of the house are wide open. Who cares about that little window when you’ve got other larger more impactful issues you’re facing.
Someone might say, “Well, it’s not like the rabbis were wrong since that’s what they thought was important. Why didn’t he just say both things, both clean hands and clean hearts should be looked after.” Of course, but Christ also knew those leaders. He knew where they put their emphasis. What they really watched over—where their words were more than just words and they put teeth behind them—was the clean hands thing. Jesus also
knows people aren’t so good at doing too many things at one time. Tough to focus on this and also that. We tend to see one thing and not the other, to call one thing wrong and miss something else that’s worse, to see where someone is right and not be able to see where she or he is also wrong.
I know from trying to learn how to swing a golf club and make the ball go straight and far how difficult it is to keep more than one thing in mind when you’re trying. I’ve also tried to help Marit and my kids learn to swing. Sometimes in my exuberance I forget that telling them to focus on two things to do at one time is max. Tell them to focus on three things and it all falls apart.
Some things are more important than others.
Jesus made sure he made his point. “It is not what goes into a person that defiles, but the things that come out.” Also, so you know, Mark wrote his gospel for a Gentile audience that did not follow Jewish dietary rules, and Mark notes here that Jesus declared all foods clean. And then Jesus talked about the things that really defile a person – evil intentions and actions that come from the heart – from fornication to wickedness to deceit to pride to slander to murder.
As in Jesus’ time, it is the externals of religion that get noticed. People can see you in church every Sunday, and you post Bible verses on social media. But Christian discipleship is something deeper. It is a matter of the heart. It is about who you are and what you value. What we think, say, and do.
Now, there is a temptation to read this scripture and come away thinking that it is about how terrible tradition can be. Jesus says following tradition isn’t good, it seems. But that’s not the point, and in fact let me say a word on behalf of tradition, especially since we are in some ways a traditional church. There are wonderful and meaningful traditions that we follow. We are here because it is Sunday morning, and our tradition is to worship on Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Our tradition is that every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. We celebrate the holy days every year, such as Christmas and Lent and Palm Sunday and Easter of course. Some churches skip some of those. We sing the older great hymns, and of course newer ones, that will one day become part of traditional Christian music.
This congregation has a long tradition of being thoughtful and open-minded, of being open to new ideas, seeing things in a way that might be different from the past. But this is in itself might be considered a tradition. We have taken stands that are not always popular, and in fact have
lost people over them. These are good things. There are more ritualized traditions: we generally have Communion on the first Sunday of the month.
There is nothing especially sacred about these sorts of traditions, and we can be attached to traditions just as people were in Jesus’ day. But being grounded is important. The heart of what it means to follow Jesus can be seen in traditions, but it can also require more than what we have done in the past.
Doing what’s best and right and good is the only tradition that comes from God ultimately. It’s why Christ lived with such freedom, such conviction, such strength and purpose. To be rooted while still being able to soar, to hold onto what others started and declared long ago as good and yet be able to proclaim a new thing in this day, this is the power of the Christian church and of Christians.
We believe to follow Christ is to choose what and who he would have chosen. It’s to believe in his life, death, and resurrection. To see God’s life in him, his teachings and what he wanted. It’s not the easiest path, but it’s the one that keeps us as close to God as we can come.
Can the church say Amen?