Mark 7:1-8, 14-23, “ . . . and they noticed that some of the disciples were eating without washing their hands . . .”
Did you ever watch the TV show Malcolm in the Middle? The title for this comedy comes from one of four boys in this family. The focus of the attention is on this boy: his name is Malcolm, and he’s the next to the youngest. The rest of the family is alternately mischievous, silly, and sometimes downright stupid in the situations that they get into. But the funny thing about it is: they know it.
They know that they are a family that if they go to the mall or shopping somewhere, they know that they are the family that some other family, a family that has “it” all together (whatever “it” is), they know that this “together family” looks at them and lets out a quiet but carrying “tsk tsk tsk” in unison. They know that this other family is going to feel superior in comparison to Malcolm’s family. Malcolm’s family gets in trouble with the law. Malcolm’s family falls into the “rude, crude and socially unacceptable” category with ease. And that is why it was funny one week when Malcolm’s family went to church.
You know the stereotypes of “churchy” folks right? What is it that you normally think about? Is it nice clothes? Is it that pretty little dress for a woman, the dress that is modest but still attractive? Is it that suit and tie for a man? Do you think about those outfits that we force our children to wear for a couple of hours on Easter? Is it those cute little shorts for the boys or those frilly poofy dresses for the little girls? You might be able to picture this cute little family standing together . . . all smiles . . . all perfect in their perfect way . . . crazy perfect . . ., perfect in a way that none of our families ever really are.
But sometimes that’s what we feel when we come to church. We feel so far from perfect. But on that TV show, Malcolm’s father actually said to the very serious looking priest sitting in front of him, “Oh no, you don’t want us to join your church. We’re not exactly the church-type of family.” And I knew what he meant. And you probably know what he means too.
The disciples of Jesus didn’t exactly fit the “church-type” of folks either. And those disciples along with Jesus, especially Jesus, just used to steam these people called the Pharisees all of the time in the gospels. This time it is because the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate.
Now don’t get me wrong, I also believe in washing hands before eating. I will teach it to our daughter. I will remind other children to wash their hands as well. We know that washing hands gets rid of germs, helps stop the spread of disease, and is just the healthy thing to do. But in our scripture text that we read this morning, this handwashing was not just a matter of cleanliness or sanitation . . . this was a ritual cleansing that you were supposed to follow (at least according to these Pharisees) prior to eating your meal. It was something you were supposed to do because you were a Jew. This was one of many ways that the religious leaders of that day had established for the Jewish people to be “set apart”, to be different from the other people with whom they lived.
Some of these rituals that we hear about sound odd to us now: things like kosher laws that tell you you cannot eat ham or shellfish or mix your meats with milk products. That is not to say that handwashing sounds odd! But these rules and regulations were partly there to help other people see that the Jewish people were different, that the God that they served was different than the gods of the people of that land. So when the disciples didn’t wash their hands, the Pharisees got upset about it. It was as if they looked at the disciples as if they were not practicing their religion, as if they were not being Jewish anymore.
In some ways, it helps me to imagine the mindset of a Pharisee too. You may know someone sort of like this. These folks are the type who tended to do everything right. And even if they don’t do everything right, they know the way it should be done.
Do you know anyone like that? These folks make great inspectors or oversight or “quality control” people. These are the folks that come into your workplace and see exactly what’s wrong. These are the folks who might come into your home and say, “Aha! You need to cut that cord on those blinds! A child could choke on that!” And it is not that that inspector is wrong; they aren’t. It is that sometimes these folks spend so much time focusing on the details, that they forget the “why.” It is as if they forget that that parent is trying to do the best that they can, that their heart is good. Their intentions are to provide a safe and loving home for their child.
And it is not the disciples’ intention to disregard the ritual of cleansing. It is not the disciples’ intention to not follow God . . . but that’s not usually how a Pharisee would see it. The eyes of the Pharisee are generally eyes of judgment. And the heart of God is a heart that is full of love and grace for all people, whether they wash their hands or not.
But you can imagine or you may know how the disciples felt. They must have felt like they had done something wrong. They may have felt like they were unclean or dirty in the eyes of God. They may have felt like they didn’t belong in the synagogue because they had a harder time following these rules that these other folks seemed to have. And we tend to believe that sometimes . . . that whatever is happening with us, the sadness we feel, the weakness, the ways in which we feel inferior or less than everybody else, we believe that we are somehow less than others sometimes.
It may be because we don’t fit that mold: because we forgot to wash our hands, because we don’t dress like they do, because we may think differently than someone else, because our family doesn’t look like their family, because when people see us on the outside, we are sure that they are judging us and looking down on us. We can imagine how the disciples must have felt, because we may have felt that way too.
And Jesus says to the Pharisees, staring back at them with their eyes of judgment, “You Pharisees are acknowledging God with your lips. You are saying the right things and doing the right things, but you do not know the heart of God. You are so focused on what people see and think and judge. You are focused on the rules set up by human beings. You have missed the point of the law of God.”
Jesus is telling them that it is what is inside that counts.
It is not that you have to be perfect. None of us will ever be. But it is that inner way of following God, it is that inner spirit that is more important than washing your hands, or whatever other standards we as human beings can dream up to say who is in and who is out of God’s kingdom. Whatever those outer standards are, they tend to be created by us, not God.
There is an old Indian fable that is recounted by Anthony de Mello in one of his books. You see, there was a mouse. And this mouse was in constant distress because it was so afraid of the cat. And so a magician took pity on it and turned it into a cat. But then it became afraid of the dog. So the magician turned it into a dog. Then it began to fear the panther. So the magician turned it into a panther. And then, it was so full of fear of the hunter. At this point the magician gave up. He turned it into a mouse again saying, “Nothing I do for you is going to be of any help because you have the heart of a mouse.”
Jesus tells us that the heart is important. If the heart contains bitterness and envy or conflict or fear, there is the potential that you will act in that way. The mouse remained a mouse in its heart, holding onto the fear and smallness that had been its life up to that point. The changes that happened on the outside did not matter . . . the mouse was still a mouse.
But God wants to change our heart in those places where we need it. God wants us to know the gift of love that God gives to us all, despite whether we wash our hands or not, despite whether we look like church folks or not. And following that path of God begins inside, begins in your heart. And it is present there despite what the outside may look like, no matter how out of place you may feel sometimes. And you, every one of you, as a child of God have the ability to allow that knowledge of God’s love for you, of the peace that passes understanding, to just shine out from your heart, whether you look churchy enough or not.