“Clean Hands or Clean Hearts?”
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.
I have five sons and they are all wonderful people, but of course I would say that, I might be a tiny bit biased. One of my sons is a confirmed germaphobe. His hands need to be squeaky clean before he will touch his food. And the five-second rule would make him cringe. I have even seen him inspect utensils and glassware that have just come from the dishwasher! His brothers on the other hand, often need to be reminded to wash before meals and might even follow the five-second rule. So Clive, the germaphobe, I call my Pharisee. Now don’t get me wrong, he is a great person and has a good heart. For as long as I can remember, I have not seen him put a morsel to his mouth with out first thanking God for his food. But he can sometimes be a little legalistic and judgmental, while his brothers tend to be more accepting. I have to admit that I often guilt him into being a little more compassionate.
Scholars debate whether ordinary first-century Jews maintained ritual purity[i], but the Pharisees we read about in the gospels certainly did. Throughout Mark’s gospel they criticized Jesus because of his blatant disregard for ritual purity. Jesus the Jew touched a leper (Mark 1:41), his disciples did not fast (Mark 2:18), he ignored Sabbath laws (Mark 2:23-28), he touched a woman with a discharge and handled a corpse (Mark 5:2-42), and today we read about his clash with the Pharisees over food purity. Mark explains that the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing. They observed the tradition of the elders. They also observed traditions such as washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[ii]
It would appear that Jesus had not taught his disciples to be diligent about hand washing rituals. He was more concerned about them having “clean hearts.” He did not care if their hands were dirty. He cared about whether they were living as those being cleansed and set free from the power of evil intentions (7:21).
It is important to note that the heart was not seen as the center of emotions in the biblical cultures. The belief was that a variety of different emotions were found in other organs of the body. Compassion, for example, was associated with the small intestine. Anger was associated with the gall bladder.[iii] These emotions did not determine the final character of a person. What mattered most, and so was thought to be located at the core, literally in the heart, were the values people held which demonstrated their actions and responses to others. It is from the heart that evil intentions and good intentions spring. Jesus sought to help his disciples with the purification of their hearts.
The Pharisees were not wrong for upholding their laws and traditions. The Pharisees understood as we do, that being called by God is a gift and in response to God’s grace, we desire to live in the ways that God would want us to live. The problem is, that in our quest to live faithfully, we are sometimes tempted to judge those who do not live the same way; the temptation is to set ourselves above others. And if that is the case, then we have lost the whole point of faithfulness. Jesus cautions us about allowing our piety to get in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law; which is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our piety can sometimes separate us from others, which in turn separates us from God. Jesus tells us that nothing we take in from the outside can defile us; it is what comes out of our hearts that can cause harm to others. Our doctrine and rituals shape our lives; yet, their proof is found in our care for others.
Theologian, Megan McKenna tells us: “In this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus serves as teacher, trying to explain what is important and why the laws existed in the first place. Rigid adherence to a law can ignore a crucial call for the conversion of heart and practice. Jesus was very clear: no law was to be used to exclude another person, and no laws were to override compassion, forgiveness, and a welcoming inclusion into the community.”[iv]
This past week, Republican Senator from Arizona, John McCain, died of brain cancer. Quickly, Facebook and Twitter feeds filled up with tributes to McCain, expressing admiration of his service to the country, his patriotism, and his courage. Most interesting in reading through the various accolades and homages was the consistency of the reverences and regards. Regardless of political loyalties or partisanship, the praise for McCain centered on the senator’s constancy in how his leadership, his decisions, his relationships revealed his true heart. There was an awareness of the correlation between the beliefs of his heart and his behavior in his career as a politician.
My friend and mentor, Episcopal priest Bud Holland, had this to say about Mr. McCain and I quote: “I join with you in recognizing the exemplary service of John McCain. His life was crafted around duty, honor, and country. Some of us have the privilege of choosing what we want to do in life. For John, it was public service and we are the beneficiaries of his work. In the midst of the acclaim I wonder what is spawning such an outpouring of accolades and story- telling about John. I suspect it is not only the qualities of his life but also the need for the society at large to re-define what leadership at its best might be. …. Of course, John did not live out that vision perfectly. None of us do. But as he reflected upon his life he constantly pointed to that vision. It is not a narcissistic vision or making some great while penalizing others. It is not self-focused but community focused.”[v]
And in our first lesson today, James tells us: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27) James did not mean that we should seek to live entirely apart from the world, I believe what he meant was not to let the way the world treats others, especially the poor, the widow, the orphans and the marginalized dictate the way we treat them. The world’s way keeps them stuck or casts them aside.
In a perfect world we would all have clean hands and clean hearts, but we are not living in a perfect world. New Testament scholar and theologian Marcus Borg, claims: “In the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion. … Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God.”[vi]
Although this passage is heavy on law, there is good news here too. The text shows us that Jesus sees clearly the ugliness of human hearts, yet he does not turn away. The heart is capable of both good and evil and even though he knows what lurks in our hearts, he loves us still. In the larger story of the Gospel, he shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people — tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, divorcees and addicts, scribes and Pharisees, and yes, you and me.
I wonder what it would be like if we were to check our hearts each time we wash our hands or use sanitizer? I wonder how our lives and the lives of those around us would change if according to Marcus Borg, we chose to live in a community shaped not by the character and politics of purity, but by the character and politics of compassion?
We are called to follow Jesus. And following Jesus will require us to constantly keep watch to determine just what side of our heart is showing its true colors. Following Jesus is not about separating ourselves from those considered less holy or unclean. Following Jesus means that like him, we get our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those who the world has cast aside. True faithfulness is not about clean hands, but a heart cleansed and a life shaped by the radical, self-giving love of God in Christ.
[i] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 441
[ii] Mark 7:3-4 (NRSV)
[iii] Mark S. Smith, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 117, No. 3 (Autumn 1998), pp. 427-436
[iv] Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross, p.97
[vi] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: the historical Jesus and the heart of contemporary faith, pp. 53-54