And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
St. Mark 7:5-8
Have you noticed how common it is to see more and more people using hand purifying liquids? You see these anti-bacterial cleaners used by nursing home attendants, hospital nurses, grocery store employees, teachers and many others. Even a decade ago this wasn’t as typical as it is now. The idea is to keep germs from spreading from one place to another, from one person to another.
The Old Testament Jews had laws for washing and hygiene given to them by God through Moses and they were rather specific. As the decades and centuries went on, more rules and guides for ritual cleanliness were made, and who knows? Many of them were very likely good and germ-inhibiting — even though the existence of germs was not known then as we know it now.
But Jesus pointed out a problem in these ritual cleansings in St. Mark 7. He didn’t condemn the act of ceremonial washing in and of itself, but he did declare that spotless hands didn’t guarantee a spotless heart, that is to say, a clean conscience. Nothing but the forgiveness of sins in Christ can ever get that for a person. We must be washed in the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus.
Think of it: In this day when you see Purell dispensers nearly everywhere, when we recognize junk food from wholesome and healthy food, and when self-help seminars designed to center us are abundant, it is still possible to be guilty and filled with shame before God. Why is that? God demands holiness, perfection.
And we cannot produce that even from the time of conception. We are then held responsible for this imperfection, this sin, and the stain that results upon our hearts cannot be removed with soap or Purell or vegetarianism or being a champion “Do-Gooder” or even a pilgrimage to Tibet.
Listen to the words of St. John the Apostle: “...The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:7b-9. There is only one way to a clear conscience and that is through Him who lived and died and gave Himself for us that we might be reconciled to the One who made us.
Jesus seems to have railed on the people in St. Mark 7 because of “hypocrisy.” And our Lord was saying that convincing yourself of inward righteousness on the basis of outward “squeegee” cleanness is acting, pretending, before the eyes of God, whom we cannot ever fool. So don’t even think about it.
Oh, keep on washing your hands before you eat, and don’t even think about double-dipping those Doritos, but know that only in Christ is there cleansing for your heart, your soul, your life.
The Rev. Bernie Schey is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Copperas Cove.