Whose hand would you choose? A Pharisee or a disciple of Jesus? Knowing what you know about their personal hygiene habits and knowing it is cold and flu season, whose hand would you choose?
I know you love Jesus, but I bet if you had to choose right now, you would choose a Pharisee.
The Pharisees were onto something with all their handwashing. Handwashing is highly effective for reducing the transmission of germs from one person to another. We have scientific proof for this now. Even given the lack of Purell and anti-bacterial soaps, shaking the hand of a Pharisee or scribe might have been relatively safe.
Jesus, though? His disciples? How about giving them a fist bump?
First bumps transmit less than one-tenth of the germs of a handshake. It might be safer to fist bump Jesus.
Now, obviously, Jesus does not have a problem with soap and water. We don’t have to toss out our hand sanitizer to follow Jesus. Children learn pretty early on when Jesus wants us to share, he does not mean “share your germs.”
But if Jesus and the Pharisees are not arguing about hygiene protocols, what are they arguing about?
We get an indication based on how the Pharisees and scribes confront Jesus. They asked Jesus: Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?”
The religious are not just questioning the particular practice of not washing hands before eating. They are challenging the disciples’ whole way of life.
This isn’t a debate about what is holy behavior. It is a debate about who is holy. Jesus sees this as a theological and practical argument about who gets the high fives and back slaps of inclusion and who gets a cold shoulder that shuts them out.
If you need help getting a feel for what it is like to live as people who are deemed unclean turn to Toni Morrison’s book, The bluest eyes. The Bluest Eyes focuses on the experiences of one black family, in Ohio, in the 1940s. They are trying to find work, build a home, and raise children. At each turn, they are handed second-rate things – a lower-paying job, a more grueling work scheduler, a smaller house with more significant repairs needed. A couch arrives with a slash in it. The message: this is all they deserve. Black is unclean, black is unholy, black is broken. Morrison reveals to us how this relentless message damages the people it is projected onto. The impact on the children especially is portrayed when one child goes to a town faith healer asking to be given the bluest eyes so she can look a little more white, a little cleaner. A little more acceptable.
Eight decades later, there are still LGBTQ people who hear they are unclean in some way, unholy. Like the girl in The Bluest Eyes, some have gone through painful – and ultimately unsuccessful – treatments to be made more acceptable.
Sadly, both these long-lived experiences of declaring people unclean and unholy have religious roots.
And this is why Jesus is concerned about handwashing. Jesus is confronting how a set of scriptures had been twisted and turned to be not about what but about who.
The rules about handwashing in scripture were laid out, especially for the priests. They were to wash their hands before coming into the temple and handling the gifts of God. Passing these practices down into daily life for ordinary people was initially meant to include all people in this act. Now all people would wash before handling the daily gifts of God – such as food and drink.
Then through time, and perhaps the evil intentions which Jesus speaks of – the practice morphed from a permissive inclusive direction but a mandated exclusionary practice.
Handwashing became a way – not to get rid of germs or even get ready for the gifts of worship or food.
Handwashing was about a way to distinguish who was clean and holy and who was unclean and unholy.
Jesus is ready to thump someone’s heads.
Don’t you get it? Jesus asks.
Holiness does not come from dividing life up into clean and unclean. It sure doesn’t come from dividing people into holy and unholy. In fact, Jesus presents himself as the one who shows the way to holiness because he tears down these false separations and distinctions.
The son of God, born of a woman, into a human family, as a human man, reveals the very holiness of being human.
Holiness comes from one who must eat and drink, sleep, and rest, who gets dirty and dry in the desert, who thirsts, who becomes sad and angry. Jesus, in his very life, is breaking down and stepping over and washing away all the distinctions between heaven and earth, to reveal the possibility of holiness in our hearts, and hands and lives.
“How can I be more holy?” Richard Rohr, in his book What the Mystics Know, writes “We don’t have to make ourselves holy. We already are, and we just don’t know … How do you find what is supposedly already there? …. By praying and meditating? By more silence and solitude? Yes, perhaps, but mostly by living—and living consciously … The street person feels cold and rejection and has to go to a deeper place for warmth. The hero pushes against his own self-interested edges and finds that they don’t matter. The alcoholic woman recognizes how she has hurt her family and breaks through to a compassion beyond herself…. We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”
Jesus wants us to live washed in holiness. Holiness is present with us all the time because God is with us and among us and has been one of us. God’s holiness is not something that can be taken away. It is present in each person we encounter – in the hero or the street person, the alcoholic. It is present in ourselves.
Show me your heart, Jesus says.
Let me see how your hands have treated others – not whether they are manicured and buffed. The things Jesus describes as unholy are not externals of personal hygiene, skin color or sexual orientation, class, or nation of origin. Jesus is concerned about attitudes of the heart that close us off from others. Attitudes which lead us to treat God’s holy people as objects to be used for power or pleasure for the benefit of ourselves. They are attitudes that allow us to say whatever we want, take whatever we want, behave however we want, ignoring – or not caring – the impact it has on others. Those dirty behaviors that treat others as unclean or less than holy comes from an evil attitude within.
No handwashing. No sanitizing wipes. No cleanser will get rid of that filth.
Yet, Jesus invites us to come to him. To touch him. To be fed by him. To eat with him.
Maybe this is precisely why Jesus is unfussy about handwashing. He wants to make it clear that all of us can come to him just as we are. – any of us – each one of us
Jesus doesn’t just give us a fist bump. He doesn’t just shake our hands. Jesus takes hold of us. Jesus takes hold of our heart and our whole life. With grace and mercy, he washes us clean. Not just our hands, but our hearts. Jesus reveals us as holy beings born of God’s love.