To Wash Or Not To Wash!

Author: Pastor Don McFarlane
February 28, 2019

As I walked through the corridors of a hospital yesterday, I couldn’t help noticing what appeared to be an inordinate number of hand sanitizer units. What did we do before the advent of hand sanitizers! In Jesus’ days, there was also a big interest in hand sanitization, as evident in Matthew 15:2: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 

We have all been taught that it is un-hygienic not to wash our hands before eating. So, the question of the Pharisees seemed reasonable enough, but Jesus replied with a long list of how the Pharisees were breaking, not just the tradition of the elders, but the laws of God. I bet the Pharisees regretted asking Jesus about handwashing! 

Of course, the washing of hands which the Pharisees asked about was not what we know as hand-washing. It was not washing one's hands in a bowl or under a faucet in order to make them clean. It was to pour about an egg-shell of water into the hands and hold them up, allowing the water to run down and fall off at the elbow. It was more about ceremony than it was about sanitation.

In addressing the question of the Pharisees, Jesus makes some statements that appear to challenge those who embrace the view that certain dietary practices are essential to their Christian identity: “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matt. 15:11). He further elaborates:  “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matt. 15: 17-20).

Jesus is not doing away with the dietary laws stated elsewhere in scripture; He is speaking about the ceremonial washing of the hands and it is in that context we should understand the passage. However, we should not lose sight of the broader picture that He paints. Like the Pharisees of old, we too could allow certain traditions to develop in our church and in our lives that become so important to us that they displace what lies at the core of our relationship with God. I grew up with many of those traditions, which at the time I understood to be the very basis of my religion. For example, there were so many do’s and don’ts surrounding the Sabbath that they robbed the Sabbath and me of the joy that God intended and the lessons He wanted to teach us through the Sabbath. Today, instead of being a time of restrictions and somberness, the Sabbath is for me a time of celebration, reflection, service  and joy.

At the most basic level of what we are about as Chistians is not what we eat or drink;  it is what is the state of our heart? If what comes from my heart is vindictiveness, selfishness, pride and hatred, the nature of my diet is of no real value or importance as a Christian. On the other hand, if concern for others, compassion, forgiveness, praise, thankfulness and prayer pour from my heart, it is evident that there is a divine echo in my life which is a response to the One who is seeking to restore His image in me.   

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