How are you doing at hand washing? I am noticing I am not being as diligent. I am when preparing for worship and Holy Communion. But everyday, I am slipping sometimes. We have learned the transmission of the Coronavirus is more air borne, but careful handwashing and sanitizing is still recommended, and it has likely saved many of us from other illnesses and will continue to as we enter flu and cold seasons again this fall. So how is your handwashing? And if isn’t good then you are defiled and condemned.
That may seem a little strong, but as we heard this is the debate the religious authorities and Jesus are having over the disciples not washing their hands - for religious ritual reasons, yes, but practical ones as well. And Jesus wastes no time escalating the debate, calling them hypocrites, and quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me; teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Wow. That’s to the point!
Debie Thomas, a theologian who writes an online weekly essay on the Sunday readings at “Journey With Jesus” and who I have quoted before, writes the following after a trip to Greece and seeing the many famous religious sites of those lands: (I am quoting her extensively this Sunday, finding her words helpful and I hope for you as well)
In the name of the divine, we have created some of the most breathtaking art, architecture, literature, liturgy, ritual, and rite imaginable. We've healed, housed, fed, loved, and served each other. Also in the name of the divine, we have impoverished, tortured, colonized, enslaved, and decimated each other. We’ve murdered each other’s children, forced “nonbelievers” to choose between conversion and death, and burned each other’s houses of worship to the ground.
In short, our relentless desire to seek, serve, appease, or placate the sacred has never been a benign thing. Religion has always had the power to elevate or ruin us. To make us compassionate and creative, or stingy and small-minded. To grant us peace, or stir us to war. If our past teaches us anything, it is that we dare not treat our pursuit of God casually; the stakes are too high. What we profess and practice when it comes to religion really, really matters.
This was evident this week in Multifaith at UVic with an online discussion about suicide awareness week on campus. Each of us as Spiritual Care Providers was asked if we could offer words from our religious tradition in response to those struggling with suicidal thoughts or who have experienced suicide by those close to them. There was an outpouring of words and thoughts, all of which, though recognizing the condemnation that may have been part of tradition’s past and even present, now expressed the compassion and love of the Creator, of God or the Gods, or universe, that all wanted to share from their religious or spiritual tradition or practise to comfort those who are suffering. This really, really matters.
About the context for today’s reading, Thomas writes …the first century Jewish people among whom Jesus ministers is an oppressed minority, living in an occupied land. How are they to keep their faith against the backdrop of colonization? In the midst of religious and cultural diversity, how should they maintain their identity? Their integrity? Their heritage?
The Pharisees’ solution to the problem is to contain and codify the sacred. …They can create and maintain a purity culture - a culture that clearly delineates who is “in” and who is “out,” who is clean and who is unclean, who deserves God’s favour and who doesn’t. They can practice the ancient rituals of their elders down to the last letter, as if tradition itself is the gateway to holiness. They can refuse… (to eat) with the "unwashed" - the tax collectors, sex workers, and other morally compromised sinners. They can set themselves apart as God’s righteous and holy people. This is religion as fence-building. Religion as separation. Religion as institution for institution's sake. And Jesus - never one to mince words - calls it what it is.
…It’s important to note that Jesus doesn't condemn ritual hand washing in this story. Jesus doesn't argue that all religious traditions are evil. What Jesus indicts is the legalism, self-righteousness, and exclusivism that keeps the Pharisees from freely loving God and loving their neighbours. What Jesus calls out is their elevation of rite over mercy, heritage over hospitality, ritual over compassion. What Jesus grieves is the Pharisees’ compulsive need to police the boundaries of their religion, based on their own narrow definitions of purity and piety.
Again, it’s easy for us to look down on the Pharisees, as if we in our enlightened modernity would never make their mistakes. But honestly, are we any different? …Don’t we cling to spiritual traditions and practices that long ago ceased to be life-giving…. Don’t we set up religious litmus tests for each other, and decide who’s in and who’s out based on conditions that have nothing to do with Jesus’s open-hearted love and hospitality? Don’t we fixate on the forms of piety we can put on display for others to applaud, instead of cultivating the secret and hidden life of God deep within our souls? Don’t we allow our cherished rituals to ossify, not noticing that our hearts, too, are becoming rigid and fixed, complacent and cold? …Don’t we sometimes forget that true religion is inclusive and welcoming, open-handed and open-hearted? Don't we forget the basic truth that authentic religion is love of God and love of neighbour?
It doesn’t matter what specific forms our legalism takes. …The guises vary, but in the end, legalism in any guise deadens us towards God and towards our neighbours. It freezes us in time, making us irrelevant to the generations that come after us. It makes us stingy and small-minded, cowardly and anxious. It strips away our joy and robs us of peace. It causes us, in Jesus’s chilling words, to “honour God with our lips” but to “worship God in vain.”
So what can we do? How can we discern whether our way of doing religion is life-giving or not? Jesus gives his listeners this advice: notice what comes out of you. Notice what fruit your adherence to tradition bears. Does your version of holiness lead to hospitality? To inclusion? To freedom? Does it cause your heart to open wide with compassion? Does it lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table? Does it make you brave, creative, and joyful? Does it prepare your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new? Does it facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution? Or does it make you small, stingy, and bored? Fearful, suspicious, withholding, and judgmental?
Like everything else Jesus offers, his confrontation with the Pharisees is an invitation. It’s an invitation to consider what is really sacred… in our spiritual lives. It’s an invitation to go deeper - past lip service, past tradition, past purity, past piety. It’s an invitation to practice what this week’s (reading from James) calls “pure religion.” A religion of love for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the outcast, and the enemy. A religion of trust in a surprising, innovating, and ever-creating God. The God of heritage and history, yes. But also the God of an ever-living, ever-changing now. (journeywithJesus.net – “True Religion”)
So, as others said, it is about more than handwashing, and it or any other human tradition as a source for our or others being defiled and condemned. As Jesus said, it is about what is in our hearts and what comes out of us in our daily actions in love and service of God and neighbour in the Spirit of Jesus, or in our failing to do so in so many ways.
We began worship with Confession and Forgiveness. It is a uniquely Lutheran tradition of Christian liturgy to begin this way. We don’t do so every Sunday as though it is a requirement to make us worthy to worship. But to do so is to be reminded, to return again and again with water and words in confession and forgiveness to a gracious God, who through the cross and resurrection of Christ, opens the way for all and for us to live the loving commands of God in our hearts rather than the evil intentions of the human heart that also come out of us.
Confession and forgiveness is the practise of truth and reconciliation with God and all others and all creation. We confess great and tragic brokenness within us and this world, and how evident it is past and present, in a ten commandment-like list in the Gospel reading to which we can add so much more individually and collectively in the daily stories and images of sadness and grief, suffering and oppression, violence and evil, ever present in us and this world. But God who is gracious forgives our sin and leads all humanity into abundant and eternal life. This is our hope and our salvation in Christ Jesus. Let it be so for the sake of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the outcast, and in all our relations. Amen.