Wash your hands

Please. It’s flu season. Wash your hands frequently. After you touch something unclean, before you eat. When you get home from work, back from the store, wash off those germs. And all those glasses and hand towels — wash them too.

For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.  Mark 7:3-4 (NRSVCE)

The rules handed down by the elders of Israel seem brilliant. Before germs were discovered, before people understood how sickness spread, religious guidelines for washing up could be life-saving. No wonder science became our new god, giving logic to religious customs. Now we can scrub up with understanding.

Some of Jesus’ disciples weren’t washing their hands before they ate. At least not in the proper ritually cleansing way.

Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. (CDC)

Lack of handwashing was understood as a religious issue, not a public health problem. Influenza epidemics did not concern the Pharisees. Rules had overtaken spiritual life. Culture and religion intertwine; devotion morphs into customs whose importance surpass worship. Not that the handwashing was bad, but that it became more important than the cleanliness of hearts.

What cultural customs do we mistake for devotion? What religious practices began as inspired spiritual disciplines and have become empty rules?

Jesus didn’t abolish handwashing. Or advocate for bacon. Or take a black marker to certain Torah guidelines and leave the rest intact. Jesus fulfills the Law in part by hearkening back to the spirit of instruction. Cleanliness, holiness… they are not achievable.

“It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.” Mark 7:21-23 (CEB)

We are all contaminated, and no amount of handwashing or rule-following is going to save us. Not from the flu. Not from death. Righteousness is a gift that we seek with our hearts.

The problem wasn’t that the Pharisees were washing their hands, but that they were on the lookout to accuse those who weren’t. We, the Pharisees of our time, are also too often on the lookout for those who don’t meet our righteous rules. Even when handwashing is the best practice — for individual and community health — we are not the enforcers.

May we attend to our own hands, and our own hearts, offering them to the Lord for cleansing.

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