Scriptures: Mark 7:1-23, James 1:17-27 Song of Sol 2:8-13
What do you see when you look at your hands? Hands tell stories; there are scars, which tell of wounds received and healed; there are raised veins which tell of aging, and dark spots which tell of days spent out in the sun; there are calluses which tell of handiwork’s repetition, while the lack thereof might tell of restful living or careful attentiveness to beauty. This morning’s scripture from Mark is all about the stories hands tell.
Now, it’s important to understand right off that the Pharisees’ scrutiny of Jesus and his disciples is not exactly a health-department inspection. Modern hygiene theories come a bit further along in history. When the Pharisees and scribes notice the disciples eating with “defiled hands,” they are seeing something other than epidemic-spreading germs. Hand-washing in this situation is not so much about cleanliness as it is about holiness.
“Be holy as I am holy,” God told the Israel time and again, choosing them from of all the peoples of the earth to be delivered from slavery, invited into the covenant, and given the gift of the Torah, commandments to instruct them in ways of living which hallow—make holy—all of life, and witness to the presence of the holy God in their midst. Jesus, the disciples, the Pharisees, and the scribes, are all Jews, children of Israel, heirs to a religious tradition deeply concerned about holiness.
From one angle of this tradition, holiness was understood as being “set apart” for a special purpose from common things. The law provided for practices both to maintain and to regain ritual purity, an orderly separation in relation to things or people outside the bounds of holiness. The Pharisees were a group of Jews, reformers in a time of unruly religious diversity, who put special emphasis upon the traditions of ritual purity. Their intentions were good: they took seriously the identity of the children of Israel as those set apart to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” and they wanted to make priestly holiness accessible to all. Priests washed their hands to purify them before eating the holy meat of sacrifices, so the Pharisees argued that priestly hand-washing should be practiced by everyone.[i]
Of course, when the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” it’s probable they are not just referring to one incident of eating, but to the whole, scandalous history of what Jesus has been doing to defile his hands. For Jesus’ hands have been reaching out beyond traditional religious boundaries to touch all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Prior to this moment, Mark has narrated the gospel of how Jesus has touched and healed a leper, a hemorrhaging woman, and a girl assumed to be dead, not to mention two Gentiles. All of these contacts were understood to convey defilement.
But Jesus is unapologetic. He does not deny their critique, but quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus points instead to a holiness which is more than skin-deep. “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Our hands may look clean, but Jesus asks, what do our hearts look like? “For it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.” And laying out a devastating list, he concludes, “all these evil things come from within, and they are what defiles a person.”
Now, I must admit that I relate more to the Pharisees than to Jesus in this story. I know they aren’t really talking about hygiene, but with school back in session and flu-season on the way, when I hear the words “defiled hands,” I can’t help but imagine ugly armies of microscopic critters jumping from wee little hand to hand. And I know what happens when those hands reach the mouth. If the littlest one gets sick, whatever it is moves through the rest of us, and whatever orderly rhythms might normally exist in our world are out of control for at least a month. It’s certainly in our interest to wash everyone’s hands as often as possible, before, after, and during eating if necessary!
But the truth is, I also relate to the Pharisees on a deeper level than that. It’s not just a hygiene thing. I want my hands to look good and appear to be holding it all together with ease. If washing them often will aid in that pursuit, than get me some soap! “Hands” in our context represent the things we can control, work we carry out and demonstrate our mastery to the world. We fear things getting out of hand.
But if I look at myself honestly, I know that washing my hands will not have much affect. They will tell their story in time, regardless, the story of my daily doings, and something of the care with which I connect with life. And, like it or not, they already expose deeper truths of my heart.
The truth is, I’m a bit embarrassed to show my hands, with their dry skin, dirt-under-the-nails, and torn up cuticles. All those hang-nails reveal the fear and worry within, as I attempt to use my hands to manage a household of small children, as I struggle to reach out beyond the convenient confines of my daily life to make contact with often inconvenient people who still need God’s love. My hands long for “a place for everything, and everything in place,” but the problems of our complex, messy world constantly elude both the grasp and my skills.
Do I relate to the Pharisees? Yes! And so this is one of these times when I have a hard time hearing “the good news” Jesus speaks. “Nothing outside a person can defile going in, but the things that come out are what defile.” It’s a declaration to a crowd which includes not just the Pharisees, whose ability to maintain a semblance of purity comes as a privilege of knowing the law and belonging to a community in which it is possible to follow it. I imagine the crowd includes all sorts of others, folks with humble hands, carrying burdens they cannot just put down. People who do not have the privilege of avoiding contact with poverty, violence, addiction, or sickness. In their ears, Jesus’ words are clearly “good news.”
But for any of us who have a little more control over what our hands must touch on a daily basis, for any of us who have felt the least bit proud of ourselves in maintaining a measure of harmonious order for ourselves or our own by the work of our own hands, Jesus’ good news today is not a comfort but a wake-up call, a warning: do not delude yourselves: keeping your hands clean will not give you a clean heart. Look inside at your deeper motivations, my friends.
James would add that it is not what your hands look like that matters anyway—it is what they are doing. “Be hearers and doers of the Word,” he tells us. Hands and heart cannot be separated. Let us consider how the work our hands reveals the truth of our hearts. Let us consider how our hands avoid or connect with others, the ways they build up or tear down, embrace or do violence, hoard or share freely. Hearing Jesus’ words, do they ball up in a fist, or do they open to receive undeserved grace?
Because, my friends, any purity or holiness in us, any beauty we show forth,is first and foremost just that—undeserved grace. “Be hearers and doers of the Word,” James says, but he before that he tells us, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
Any good we do comes ultimately not from the labor of our own hands but by the gift of our generous God, who alone is holy. Our hands become pure only as they become the hands of Jesus Christ, who reaches out to us and through us touching all the dirty, broken people and things with that undeserved grace.
And as we accept the mercy and salvation of Jesus’ touch—not just once, but again and again, at least every Sunday that we confess together our individual and collective sins before God—as we accept that mercy, our hearts and our hands are transformed. We become those who truly can hallow all of life, not through rituals of perfect prayer or decent and orderly behavior, but as, with transformed hearts, we begin to see and touch God’s gracious presence in everyone, everywhere using our hands to do what Mother Teresa called “small things with great love,” possible only because we have opened, yet again,our frightened heart and our hands to receive that same love ourselves.
What do you see when you look at your hands? What story do your hands tell?
All glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Douglas R. A. Hare, Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4, 21.