by James Nieman
1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
What a lousy way to begin! This brand new year brims with real challenges and fresh opportunities. There’s so much now to do. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to be part of God’s ways at LSTC as we turn toward our next fifty years. So what word from scripture do we hear to inspire us in mission and guide our next steps? That’s right: a suffocating story of stale piety that explains why so many people want nothing to do with religious folks like us! It’s a vexing scene of faith at its worst, shrunk down to compliance, caricature, and condemnation, a vigorous fight over the most vapid of issues. And since these verses still have the ring of truth, we still feel their sting of indictment.
But before we can wiggle out of that one, matters only get worse. The problem is not just what this reading says but how it’s been used. Combined with many other holy texts, this one has an infamous history of reinforcing a cartoon view of the covenant people, our nearest religious cousins. As a result, Christians have regularly and repeatedly heard the “good news” that the distinguishing feature of Judaism is hollow insincerity. Thank God we’re not like them! Annihilation in the name of true righteousness is then but a half-step away. And there’s Jesus right in the middle of this sickening muddle, apparently justifying the reduction of his own people to a petty scale we gladly embrace.
So if we’re honest about it, this is a pretty ugly text for the start of a promising year. But if we’re going to be really honest about it, let’s go all the way. Let’s move beyond a gut reaction and honestly enter the world where this exchange happened. In particular, let’s get to know the provocateurs that set it all in motion, those Pharisees and scribes who sauntered over from Jerusalem. Let’s even have a little sympathy for them because, in contrast to nearly every sermon that’s ever mentioned them, and perhaps to the muted horror of our Bible faculty (let alone Jesus), I think they get a bad rap. Pharisees—a populist Jewish lay movement of reform-minded innovators committed to bringing holy devotion into every household. And scribes—a scholarly guild dedicated to preserving scripture and promoting its use. Multiply vibrant faith in daily life by actually reading the Bible, and you’ve got the idea. These are folks you rarely meet but would love to know. You’d want them on the church council.
What’s more, when they came to Jesus with their hand washing concerns, the Pharisees and scribes were not being borderline OCD fussbudgets. Let’s honestly remember the setting. Back then, Israel had long since been invaded and occupied, a conquered colony on the fringe of the empire. Pressures to conform to Roman control threatened to corrode being a faithful Jew. Under such oppressive conditions, you do whatever it takes to preserve religious identity and fidelity. You adopt little signs of resistance, practices to show your true allegiance. Those signs seem rather small to us now, but when you’re stripped of power, even something slim can be a wedge, leverage to assert who you are and what you believe. Even a small deed like hand washing carries a message: God’s ways are true, not the regime’s.
So when the Pharisees and scribes asked why Jesus disciples’ did not so wash, the issue was more than ritual obedience or even political loyalty. It was the question of what leads to lasting life: divine promise or human expediency. And when Jesus replied to that challenge, first to those leaders, then the crowds, and finally his own disciples, he never disputed its premise. Instead, as so often in Mark’s gospel, he amplified it, sharpened it, made it even more troubling for the Pharisees and scribes, the crowds and disciples, and for us who overhear through them. Yes, so much depends on whether we trust God or empire, covenant or convenience. But what do we trust when love for the tradition of the elders replaces love for the elders we’ve actually been given? What do we trust when our passion for purity dims any passion for the impure who meet us at every turn? You can’t just wash your hands of such matters.
All of this worry about purity and defilement can seem rather quaint and remote, the arcane concerns of a bygone era. At least, that’s what I thought until about a month ago. I was setting up my apartment here and needed a few of the mundane supplies for daily purity: dish soap, laundry detergent, bathroom cleanser. So I drove to a big box store I knew would have all these under one roof, loaded them in my cart, and headed to the checkout—where my debit card was promptly declined…three times, in full view of the many folks now waiting behind me. I knew I had money in the account. What was up? Betraying not one hint of emotion, the clerk looked me in the eye and flatly declared, “It’s not us. It’s your bank.”
My bank? Why would they care? Oh, but did I mention that this happened at the Target on East 86th and Cottage Grove, about thirty blocks south of here? This wasn’t about whether I bought Tide or Downy. No, my bank was just looking out for my best interests. It seems that someone like me isn’t supposed to be spending good money in a neighborhood like that. I guess I might become defiled. So they thought ahead, automatically blocking account access so my dollars would remain unsullied and my credit rating pure. Who cares if that amounts to computerized redlining that creates economic apartheid, turning a South Side neighborhood into a colony on the fringe of the empire where wealth is extracted but rarely reinvested? And please don’t hear this as my self-righteous indignation. After all, I chose this bank, so I am completely implicated in its purity policies that benefit people like me.
Purity and defilement are not a throwback to ancient days. They appear in all the crafty choices we make about whom we’ll embrace or avoid, choices about what’s good for us or threatens our survival. For the best of religious reasons, the Pharisees and scribes also made such choices: faithful living instead of defilement, acts of purity to resist all that debases and degrades. Jesus took this choice seriously, but then raised it to a new level, with a dangerous twist. Maybe trust in God leads right into defilement. Maybe faithful living calls for associating with the unclean. Maybe that’s why the very next place Jesus went after this story was over the border, with unmerited healing for an unworthy foreigner and her diseased daughter. Maybe that’s why the very next chapter finds him again among the unwashed in the desert, concerned not with proper foods or vessels but an abundant feast where each is satisfied and all have a place. Maybe that’s why, by the end of that very chapter, Jesus gestured where his faithful defilement would lead: to rejection for the sake of the impure, whose plight became his own.
Out of love for God, we want to remain undefiled, keep our distance from all that might be unclean. But Jesus died as one of the impure, the sign of a different love—a holy love poured out for the soiled and humiliated of our world, including us. That’s a sign to open us, free us, impel us toward a more daring trust in God—when we eat here, when we wash there, when we leave this place to associate with neighbors yet unknown. God’s love embraces us precisely in our impurity and defilement. And maybe that makes this the perfect word for us to hear today, something to ponder not just during the challenges of the coming year, but even over the course of our next half century.