All Saints’, Dorval
August 29, 2021
The lavabo, c. 2021.
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.
I’m pretty sure that neither the writer of Mark nor the compilers of the lectionary anticipated this passage being read in the context of a global pandemic in which hand-washing was a key element of preventing transmission of a deadly disease. I suspect these words have sounded a little odd to its hearers for the last century and a half or so, ever since science conclusively established that washing one’s hands does, in fact, have a practical effect, and is not just a symbolic purification ritual.
This passage is (and, actually, always has been) much more complicated than simply “Jesus is right and the Pharisees are wrong”. I don’t know that I’ll be able to tell you exactly what to think about it, and I don’t know that I would want to. But we can dig into it on multiple layers and try to unravel a bit of what’s going on.
First of all, simply setting up a straightforward opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees is an oversimplification; the consensus of much of modern scholarship is that Jesus was a Pharisee, or at least had been a student of that tradition at one time. Insofar as he criticizes it (which he clearly does!) he is doing so from the inside, from a position of intimate familiarity with all of its arguments and assertions, and using an agreed-upon set of rhetorical tools.
We later Christians, who are not only not Pharisees but not even Jewish, must be very careful about thereby demonizing people who were a significant part of forming Jesus’ thought and outlook, even if he ultimately departed from the tradition and loudly called it to account.
It’s interesting to observe that the word used for “defiled” (when the disciples “eat with defiled hands”) in the original Greek of this passage is koine, which simply means “common”, not “dirty” or “unclean”. In the Jewish tradition being described here, the sacred is set apart from daily life, but daily life is not necessarily denigrated thereby – there are simply rituals that must be observed to keep the two separate.
Jesus, however, kind of makes a point of being found precisely in the koine, the common, the everyday: in simple stories about bread and seeds and sheep, in people’s unruly bodies and minds in need of healing, in the tax collectors and prostitutes and others who are regarded with suspicion for not being able to achieve the state of ritual holiness. God’s presence is not restricted to the realm of the sacred. But our automatic assumption on hearing the English word “defiled”, that it must involve being dirty or culpable, is inaccurate (and I wish the translation were more accurate!).
There seems to be a bit of a fascination with the lives of highly observant Jews in the media and entertainment lately. I can think of five shows – two more or less documentaries, three fictional – on Netflix alone in the past couple of years, that depict the lives of the ultra-Orthodox with varying degrees of sympathy. Three of the five focus on people who have left the community, and depict the customs and commandments that govern Orthodox life as intolerably strict and something to be escaped from.
As someone who grew up in a neighbourhood that at the time was overwhelmingly Orthodox Jewish, these onscreen depictions of those communities as suffocatingly authoritarian, abusive, and misogynist strike me as biased. I’m not disputing that many people have experienced them that way and have needed to get out. But that experience is not universal, and I suspect it depends a lot on the individual personalities and dynamics of the families and leaders involved, whether the rituals and structures are life-giving, or soul-destroying.
As I said about dancing in another sermon a couple of weeks before my vacation, the question is not whether it (dancing, hand-washing, whatever) is good or bad, but what is it for? How is it being used, and why? And is it bearing good fruit or bad?
Way back in the pre-pandemic times, you may remember a little thing called Law 21, which prevents people in this province from holding certain government jobs while also wearing visible religious symbols. Before it was passed, I joined a number of my colleagues in a downtown park to protest the bill, and I figured that if the government was trying to restrict the wearing of religious trappings, I would wear as many as I could – so I went in full choir dress, including tippet and hood. Lots of Jews wearing skullcaps and prayer shawls, and Muslims in hijab and other distinctive dress, had had the same idea.
Under the circumstances, that was the right thing to do. We were doing it for the sake of justice. If any of us had instead worn that garb in order to abuse our authority or defraud someone, then it would have been the wrong thing to do.
It’s not about whether your devotional life is highly structured or loose and open – it’s about the motivation behind it. As Jesus says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Even when it comes to the hand sanitizing and other precautions that we’ve all gotten used to with regard to COVID, it matters why we do what we do. We should be doing things because they work, not because they make us look extra-careful, or because we’ve gotten in the habit, or because we’re putting our fears in all the wrong places.
Yesterday, I took Peter to the LaSalle arena to verify his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which he had received in Massachusetts, so that he could get his vaccine passport. Between patients, a member of the security team was carefully wiping down the seat and back of each of the plastic chairs that people were sitting in as they waited in line. Everyone in the room was fully clothed and nobody was sneezing on the furniture. We have known for well over a year that you don’t get COVID from sitting in a chair. I have no idea whether this person was following a pointless directive from management or letting her personal nervousness get the best of her. I suspect the former, but either way, the energy she was expending could have been far better devoted elsewhere.
Literally as I was writing that paragraph of this sermon, a colleague posted on Twitter about the irony of being “a priest who preaches about ritual handwashing then mutters words over a lavabo bowl a few minutes later.” It’s so, so easy for the useful habit of one day to become the meaningless ritual of another.
We reopen for worship in person, including communion, two weeks from today. As I was talking over the details with the worship committee and Margaret Beattie, she asked about the lavabo – the little silver bowl and pitcher with which we priests typically rinse our fingertips with a token amount of water. I replied that we won’t be using it until further notice. It’s useless for actually cleaning the hands, and it’s one more opportunity for the server and me to be in close quarters. Instead, I will thoroughly clean my hands with a substance that comes in a plastic pump bottle and actually kills germs, thus returning to this centuries-old ritual the practical purpose in which it is rooted.
So: why are we doing what we are doing? Where are our hearts? Are we listening to God? Are we genuinely caring for each other, or trying to make ourselves look good? What kind of fruit are our thoughts, words and actions bearing?
Rules and structures can be soul-killing or life-giving. So can the lack of them. Let us choose always what pleases God, bears good fruit, and brings life.