“So the Pharisees and the scribes asked (Jesus), ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)
“Then (Jesus) called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in that can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’” (Mark 7:14-15)
Jesus is not advocating that we don’t need to wash our hands, do the dishes or tidy up the spaces we are responsible for keeping clean (sorry kids). Our old saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ still seems like a worthy idea to pursue in an age where we have a greater understanding of microbiology and human health than people likely did in the first century.
Yet ‘uncleanliness’ is the wall Jesus breaks down in this encounter with the religious establishment.
Jesus confronts the religious leaders’ understanding of purity laws (that have more to do with projecting their disgust of certain people than about washing your hands and dishes). When we are physically dirty – we can be washed, restored and made whole again. When our very humanity is deemed ‘unclean’ by others – we can be vilified for simply being who we are or by the burdens we carry. This is what the religious establishment was doing in Jesus’ time.
Those who likely needed help the most were deemed ‘unclean’ and were to be avoided and/or shamed. (There are good parallels to how the religious establishment operates today in our own time and context.)
Jesus insists that what makes us ‘unclean’ is not who we are, the circumstances we face, or if we don’t wash or hands or not (BTW – please, wash your hands). What makes us truly ‘unclean’ is the way in which we treat one another, act selfishly and blame one another for our problems.
Jesus’ opponents justify their position based on tradition. Sometimes our call to purity is more harmful than good; even within our initially well-intended conventions. I find it personally empowering to remember that customs and time honored practices started for good reasons, usually to solve a current crisis at the time by making a decision to act and trying something to address it. Traditions are often the success stories of fruitful actions. What becomes a problem is when we lose ‘why’ we do what we do (or why we did it in the first place) and make it our purpose to preserve things the way we do what we do simply because it is what we have inherited. We often think it is our duty not to change anything – and equate change as failure; even when the circumstances dictate new strategies and actions.
When faced with traditions that no longer function the way they may have in the past (but did they?); could we consider it possible that our current set of circumstances, assets and understanding would lead us to meet the challenge differently now?
What do we let get in the way?
Jesus spent time with the outcast, the poor, the sinners, the sick, the possessed, the untouchables and all the people deemed ‘unclean’ by the wider community. In Mark 7 that will include gentiles as well. By his actions and his call to follow him, Jesus is revealing to us – if you are going to be part of the restorative kingdom – it is going to require you to get your hands dirty!
How willing are you to get your hands dirty in the kingdom with Jesus?
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