Wash your hands, please
Use your imagination for just a moment.
See two young girls sitting side by side, whispering so the parents don’t hear. The older sister speaks, “Listen! My Beloved, he’s coming! He’s like a young stag leaping over mountains and bounding over hills! Look! Over there by the wall, gazing through the lattice, he sees us! Listen!”
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me. The winter is over. The rains have gone. The flowers cover the fields. It’s time. Come away my love, my fair one. Come away.”
Whew! Solomon definitely had a way with words! He could lift love to the sublime in a moment. His daddy was no slouch either. Look at the Psalm for today, Psalm 45 where he says,
“My heart is stirring with a noble song.
Let me recite what I have fashioned for the king.
My tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer.
You, my king, are the fairest of men.
Grace flows from your lips because God has blessed you forever.”
David, Solomon and other Old Testament writers were incredibly eloquent and elegant!
they understood that language, that is, words were a gift from God, intended to express love, adoration and loyalty, and they did it so well.
Move forward to the New Testament where words are still important. They are still the language that God gave men like the Gospel writers to use for love and righteousness. Only things have gotten a little less elegant and more concise. Take James, for example. If I say his name, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? ”Faith without works is dead.”
Pow. Done. He’s got it.
He sums up faith and religion in five short words and packs it with tremendous power and clarity.
It was clear that he respected the impact of words. In our New Testament reading, he even gave us rules for effective communication. He said,
Number one, be quick to listen.
Ooh? So, it starts before we speak?
Number 2: Be slow to speak.
And number 3: Be particularly slow to speak when angry. Angry words contradict the righteousness that God intended for our words to work.
These are very important precepts to consider as we move through our gospel reading for today. Let’s look at the setting Mark has staged for us.
We see Jesus and his disciples, who by this time have pretty much reached celebrity status. And like today where celebrities always travel with an entourage, so did Jesus. We see him with his own entourage, the tightly-knit circle of 12 disciples and the women who traveled with them and took care of them. They were surrounded by a larger group of people, his followers, truly interested in what Jesus was saying and doing. In all likelihood, there was an even larger group of people whom we could call curiosity seekers. These would be the ones out for a Sunday afternoon excursion. When they heard that Jesus was nearby, they decided to check him out; maybe see a miracle or two. Maybe get some photographs and autographs.
And finally, where ever celebrities go, there are the critics. This time it was the Pharisees, standing to the side looking for something to critique. And it did not take long. There it was! Tired, hot, hungry disciples eating food brought to them, without first washing their hands.
We know to wash our hands before eating, right? But for the Jews, it was more than that. It was part of a ritual dictated by God to His people during their time in the wilderness. There are several hypotheses about the reasoning behind these laws. I go along with the Health and Hygiene explanation. These were God’s people, after all; and God had big plans for them. The best way to guarantee their longevity as a nation was to make sure they did not kill themselves off with food-related disease. His people didn’t know about germs, bacteria, or parasites, so God gave them rules for preparing, cooking, and eating food deemed safe and healthy. I hypothesize that God had a conversation with himself that went something like this, “I’ve invested a lot in these people and I need to keep them alive. So I’m going to give them rules. First! Wash your hands. Then wash your pots and pans. Wash your plates and cups. Prepare fruits and vegetables in one part of the kitchen; raw meat in another. And about pigs? I know bacon makes everything taste better, but stay away from pigs! They have a parasite and, if you don’t cook it just right, it could kill you. Play it safe and stay away from them entirely!”
So these were important rules, God-given and mandated. If the Pharisees were truly concerned for the disciples’ spiritual and physical well-being, they would have gone to Jesus and offered to get water for washing, but they did not. They were there to critique, and in a loud, clear voice did exactly that, “Jesus, why do you allow your disciples not to live by the traditions of the elders? They are eating with defiled hands.”
I imagine a tense moment of silence ensued, but only a quick one, because Jesus knew exactly their motivation. He knew it the second they said, “Jesus, why . . .?
It was the Dreaded Why Question! We know it, don’t we? We have all been the recipient of one at one time or another: a statement that masquerades as a question but is not a question at all. “ Why did you decide to wear those shoes with that outfit?” Is the asker really interested in knowing why? Of course not. He is criticizing my choice of shoes and has no interest in why I picked this particular pair.
So, the next time you are the recipient of a Dreaded Why Question, do not bother trying to answer the question, because no answer will satisfy the asker. Remember it is not a true question. Instead, do what Jesus did.
Change the subject.
Jesus did not venture to answer the “question.” He changed the subject and started talking about Isaiah. Try that some time. That should work. It did for Jesus! He spoke up, “Isaiah’s got your number and had it way back then. He predicted you would do this. You are hypocrites!” Jesus identified the hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ use of words, the language, the laws, the loving standards of care that God had given them, not to embrace Jesus and his disciples in love and unity, but to criticize, to demean, to create separation; and Jesus called them on it.
The next thing Jesus did was make sure that the crowds understood what it means to defile. To defile means to corrupt, to desecrate, and to destroy the purity and the holiness of God’s creation in us. Jesus made clear that nothing you put into your mouth is going to defile you, only what comes out from inside a person can defile. He then gave the crowd a list of behaviors arising from evil intentions in the heart that have the power to defile us and everyone and everything around us.
Let’s look at this list. I call it the . . .
Fornication Theft Murder Adultery Avarice Wickedness Deceit Licentiousness Envy Slander Pride Folly
Fascinated with lists, I wondered about Jesus’s list of twelve behaviors. Were there only twelve? I’d have thought there would be more, but then I didn’t spend any time considering what they might be. Maybe, Jesus just liked the number twelve and stopped there. After all, he could have had dozens of disciples and stopped at twelve. Then I tried to find a pattern in the order in which he listed them. Was he starting with the least and going to the worst evil? Or was it the other way around? He
certainly didn’t alphabetize them! At least that would have been a bit more orderly. Maybe if I alphabetized the list, I could find a pattern. So, I tried that. Nothing. That is when I called a halt to the fretting, and decided it would be more productive to look at the underlying, pre-evil patterns that exist in our heart long before they sour and rot into evil intentions and the destructive behaviors in the Jesus List.
You see, I doubt that we are created with evil intentions. It is as we grow that develop a perspective of the world and what we need to do to be safe and functional or pain-free within it. In response to this world of our creation, we create mindsets by which we identify the players, the problems, and how to respond emotionally, physiologically, and behaviorally. At any point, these suppositions may break down, but none the less it is what we create and live in. So I decided I’d make a list of patterns that, while not necessarily evil, they have the potential to become evil. I started off with two or three things, then got up to twenty or thirty. Finally I remembered that Jesus kept his list to twelve, and I will do the same. However, I will alphabetize them!
So here’s my list. I’m sure any of you could add more. I’m also sure that not a single one of us is free of having at least some element of one or more of these at any given time in our own heart.
Remember, none of these are innately evil; they only have the potential to become that way.
(from alcohol to chocolate to money to shoes)
Angry Victim Identity
(perhaps the deadliest of all patterns; think terrorism, 9-11-2001; in it less deadly identity, the Martyr)
(avoidance of a challenge, a new thing, a difficult conversation, people, worship)
(finding fault, blaming others for what happens in life)
(Any control freaks out there?)
(always a bad move; you never come out well) Criticality
(Think Pharisees. Do we really want to hang in that crowd?) Fear
(“a scared dog is an aggressive dog”)
(sours the present time; related to Resentments) Laziness
(toxic to relationships)
Looking at this list, we are faced with a dilemma. Not one of us, if we are honest, gets out of this one scot free. We are intimately familiar with one or more of these flaws. So what do we do?
Go back to our readings. The directions are there.
Number one, use the language God gave us for the purpose he intended. Use it to embrace others, fearlessly with love. When a heart with its flaws and evil intentions hears loving and respectful words, the dissonance will shake the foundations of pre-evil origins to their very core.
Number two, in all of your communications, be quick to listen and slow to speak. Be so slow, you may discover all you really need to say is, “Okay. I got it. I understand.” If speaking is necessary, be slow. Choose your words carefully, with respect, honesty and diplomacy. And if you are angry, be incredibly slow. Angry, aggressive, violent, hostile words destroy us from the inside out, and exert power to destroy relationships, communities, even countries.
And finally, look into your heart. Identify the mindsets that have the potential to create evil within us. Embrace the flaws with love and take them to God. That is how Jesus did it.
Recall the first Maundy Thursday in the upper room. With dread, Jesus anticipates the cross, the tortured road to Golgotha. What does he do? He gathers with friends and family and they share a meal. At the end of the evening, he takes it to God in the Garden. He confesses the fear and avoidance in his heart, “If there’s any way I can avoid this night, let me walk away. If not, I will do what I need to do, knowing it is your will.”
This is what we do every Sunday. It is why we go to church! We gather with friends and family in our Father’s house. We bring to God our heart filled with its fears, weaknesses, and flawed mindsets from which evil intentions grow. We get down on our knees and confess them, and receive God’s blessing and strength to do the right thing. And then we come to the table where we share a glorious and holy meal, a gift directly from Jesus, that we need to face the evils within and to transform them into love.
In a little while, we will walk out of this Garden. We, like Jesus will face whatever demands and difficulties lay before us, knowing it is God’s intention to be with us through whatever they may be.
I don’t know your plans for this afternoon, or this evening: Maybe a picnic and swimming at the lake, watching football with friends, catching up on the laundry.
But by this evening, you’re going to share a meal. The first thing you do is wash your hands. Yes, go wash your hands. We don’t want any uninvited guests, germs, bacteria, etc. joining us for dinner.
Second, say grace. Pray, perhaps something like this. “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest. Create in us a clean heart oh God and renew a right spirit within us so that when we open our lips, our mouth shall and can and will and must proclaim your love and your praise, Amen.
And let it be so. Amen