As the saying goes, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” It turns out that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was the first person recorded as saying that, in a sermon back in 1778, but the idea goes all the way back to ancient times. Cleanliness is next to godliness. That’s not necessarily my favorite saying, but then maybe Baptists are not quite as fastidious as Methodists. But while it may be overstating it a bit, I doubt any of us would actually come out against cleanliness. I mean, cleanliness is a good thing, right?
But then we read our scripture for today. We continue working our way through the gospel of Mark, and in today’s reading, a controversy arises between some Pharisees and scribes – religious leaders – and Jesus. They noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands before eating. For some reason, this is very upsetting to them. In fact, they say that the disciples’ hands were “defiled.”
To say that something is defiled sounds like a pretty harsh judgment. I was looking for art for the bulletin cover and I came across a word cloud of this passage in a heart shape. All of the words appearing in the text arranged in a red heart, which seemed to fit the theme very well. I was going to use it and then realized that by far, the most prominent words was “Defile.” You really don’t want the word “defile” just screaming at you at the cover of the bulletin.
What was the big deal? If anybody goes to our Men’s Breakfast on Tuesday morning at Perkins, walks in the door and just sits down at the table where we always sit, without first stopping to wash their hands, they do not expect to have someone at the table make a scene because their hands are “defiled.” (And as a side note, if unwashed hands are defiled, would washing them make them “filed”?
It is clear that the concern here is not about cleanliness in the way that we generally think of cleanliness. This is about religious practice, not personal hygiene.
The Pharisaic tradition of washing one’s hands before eating went way back. Since the Law had been given to the Israelites, it was required that the high priest, before he even entered the temple, ritually washed both his hands and his feet. Over the years it had become the norm for all followers of the Pharisaic tradition, not just the priests, to wash their hands before eating, as a way of sanctifying the act of eating.
Special prayers and ritual acts of cleaning surrounded other common acts of life as well. By performing these ritual acts, the Pharisees hoped to sanctify the common things of life. They wanted to add a religious dimension to everything they did. So for them, in this case it wasn’t a matter of cleanliness being next to godliness; cleanliness actually was godliness.
What they were about here was making the common holy. Honoring God in all that we do. This is not a bad impulse. In our day, we can do a version of the same thing when we pray before a meal. We give thanks for the food and pray for God’s blessings as a way of remembering and celebrating God’s providence and God’s presence with us. A common act like eating can be made holy.
Knowing this tradition, knowing their concern, the Pharisees’ question is a little more understandable. They were sincere in their desire to keep the law as well as the traditions that had developed surrounding the law as a way of honoring God. But Jesus does not go easy on them. They were so focused on such external practices that they had forgotten the point of it all. They hands may have been clean, but their hearts were far from it.
There are plenty of outward signs of faith that may appear holy and be good and helpful, but these external actions are not what matter the most. It’s what’s on the inside that really matters.
Jesus takes issue with the Pharisees and scribes, and then he goes a step further by saying to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” He accuses them of rejecting God’s commandments. Jesus is playing hardball.
And then he gives an example: there was a tradition called Corban. Something that was dedicated to the temple was in a sense earmarked as Corban. It could not be used for other purposes. Corban was a vow attached to particular goods. Apparently, there were those who claimed they could not help their parents in need because the means to assist aging parents had already been declared as Corban.
“Sorry mom and dad, I would love to help you with rent, but I have already declared that savings account as Corban. It has to go to the temple.” There was a later Rabbinic decision that a person could be released from a vow of Corban in order to help one’s parents, so this was evidently a real issue. Jesus saw it as putting a human tradition above God’s law, which said, “Honor your father and mother.” That was far more important than the tradition of Corban.
It is not that Jesus rejected the law. And it is not that he took lightly the traditions that had developed around the law. But Jesus lived in freedom. That’s what the law was supposed to be in the first place: a way for God’s people who had lived in slavery in Egypt to live as a free people. Freedom meant putting the needs of people above tradition. Jesus put faithfulness to God above faithfulness to ritual practice.
Jesus was not afraid to get dirty. He touched and healed the leper. He touched the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. He hung out with the marginalized and outcast. He had conversation and spent time with foreigners. These were all people considered unclean. Ritually speaking, one would be defiled by touching these people. But that did not stop Jesus.
He spoke to the crowd and said, “It is not what goes into a person that defiles, but the things that come out.” Mark wrote his gospel for a Gentile audience that did not follow Jewish dietary rules, and Mark notes here that Jesus declared all foods clean. And then Jesus talked about the things that really defile a person – evil intentions and actions that come from the heart – from fornication to wickedness to deceit to pride to slander to murder.
As in Jesus’ time, it is the externals of religion that get noticed. People can see you in church every Sunday, and you post Bible verses on social media. But Christian discipleship is something deeper. It is a matter of the heart. It is about who you are and what you value deep inside.
You can take care of unclean hands pretty easily. You can buy hand sanitizer. But the heart is another matter. They don’t make heart sanitizer.
As a seminary student, I spent a year at Virginia Tech doing a campus ministry internship. While I was there the campus ministers group had Will Campbell come to campus to speak.
Campbell was an amazing and absolutely unique person. He grew up as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and wound up going to seminary at Yale Divinity School, which is definitely not the school of choice for Southern Baptists in Mississippi. He came back to the South but had a hard time finding and keeping a job as a Baptist minister who supported integration in the 1950’s. He was chaplain at Ole Miss for a short time but resigned amid death threats.
Brother Will, as he liked to be called, became a prominent white supporter of the civil rights movement before having this epiphany that bigots needed Jesus too, and he befriended and ministered to folks in the Ku Klux Klan even while he worked for racial reconciliation. So, he had enemies just about everywhere. He was a powerful writer and called himself a “Bootleg Baptist preacher.”
At any rate, we had Will come speak on campus and I had the chance to have dinner with Will Campbell along with a few other people. He lived near Nashville and he was telling us about being on a radio program in Nashville a couple weeks before.
It seemed that the singer Charlie Daniels had been on the same program in the previous segment. Campbell was interviewed for a bit and then they opened the phone lines. A woman called in to say how terrible it was that Charlie Daniels had used such obscene language on the air, and what did the minister have to say about that?
Well, Campbell said it was hard to comment without knowing what Mr. Daniels had said. He asked the woman if she could tell him so that he could offer an opinion about it. Of course, the woman said that she couldn’t repeat that kind of language. And so Will Campbell told the woman, “Tell you what: I will say the most obscene words that I know, and you can tell me if Mr. Daniels used these words.” Well, the caller about went into convulsions, but these are the words that Will Campbell said:
HungerDid Mr. Daniels use any of those words? The woman said, “Well, no.” And Will Campbell said, “Well, those are the most obscene words I can think of, so if Mr. Daniels didn’t use any of those words, then I guess I’m not too worried.”
Now of course, 50% of this was just Will Campbell being ornery, but he made a powerful point. It is possible to be more concerned about someone failing to follow social niceties than we are the terrible and truly obscene things that go on in our community and in our world. We can put a great focus on the externals while missing what matters the most.
Now, there is a temptation to read this scripture and come away thinking that it is about how terrible tradition can be. That is not the point, and in fact let me say a word on behalf of tradition. There are wonderful and meaningful traditions that we follow. I mean, we are here because it is Sunday morning, and our tradition is to worship on Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Our tradition is that every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.
As Baptists, we have a strong tradition of speaking out for religious liberty and for the separation of church and state. This stems from our history as a persecuted minority, and we by tradition have wanted to extend that same freedom to others, especially remembering minority religions. That is a wonderful tradition.
This congregation has a long tradition of being thoughtful and open-minded, of being open to new ideas. We have taken stands that are not always popular. I think these are good things and I am proud of our tradition.
And then there are more ritualized traditions: we generally have communion on the first Sunday of the month, and at the end of that service we join hands and form a circle around the sanctuary as a sign of our oneness in Christ and our identity as a family of faith. We usually include the Lord’s Prayer as a part of worship, connecting us with others around the world who pray this prayer. We usually take time to pass the peace and greet one another in worship, believing that there is both a vertical dimension to worship as we approach God, but there is also a horizontal dimension as we approach God together, as a community.
There is nothing especially sacred about these sorts of traditions, and we can be attached to traditions just as people were in Jesus’ day. These traditions can be powerful and important, but they are not the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
Tradition can give us a place to stand, but when we are just going through the motions of tradition, with no thought or passion or real engagement, what we have is traditionalism. Blindly following a tradition just for the sake of the tradition can leave us with something less than a real and living faith.
The Pharisees and Scribes objected to those who did not follow ritual practice. But the thing is, the disciples were alive and open to what God was doing in their midst. Those who questioned them performed the proper rituals, but their hearts were closed. The Pharisees and Scribes were majoring in cleanliness, if you will, while the disciples were more interested in Godliness.
Jesus lived in freedom. And when our hearts are made free in Christ, then we can find the Holy in all of life – not by washing our hands the right way or saying the right prayers, but by seeing common events and ordinary people in a new light - through the eyes of Christ.
Jesus freely accepted the outcast, the lonely, the unclean. He accepted the common things and broken things of this world - which means that he accepts you and me.
Our calling is not to try and keep from getting dirty. And it is not to try and keep up appearances. In freedom, we are called to love hurting people and care for a broken world, following the One who reaches out in love even to people like us. Amen.