Hand Washing Religiously

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

How ironic it is that, in our gospel lesson today in these COVID times, there’s a controversy over washing hands! Now, some may think that the Pharisees had every right to enforce upon Christ’s disciples the law of washing hands, since that would kill germs. But germs were not known back two thousand years ago, and this “washing hands” edict wasn’t on the Pharisees agenda to keep people healthy – it was to enforce THEIR version of the religious law of Israel!

You see, the Pharisees were using their enforcement of religious law in the theocratic society of Israel in that day to, as we would say, “throw their weight around,” and to be seen by others as “holier than thou.” It seems from my research that what we see in the gospel lesson today is what the Pharisees liked to do every day to people – go around, kind of like some imams do in some Muslim-ruled countries today – and, in front of everyone, point fingers at people who they felt were not following Old Testament law as well as the Pharisees did – by THEIR interpretation of that law. As Jesus once said of them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them….Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside [you] are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the INSIDE of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

It’s from that point-of-view that Jesus resists the Pharisees’ criticisms of Him and His disciples and, in turn, puts them on notice in today’s gospel lesson. He shows the Pharisees, first, how their version of God’s law is manipulative – using as an example how the Pharisees in their greed keep the money they earn for themselves rather than giving to their elderly parents to support them – all by using the self-righteous excuse that “oh, my parents, I cannot give you the money you need to survive, because that money someday will go to the Temple (And aren’t I just the greatest person for giving so much money to the Temple!).”

Secondly – and this is our focus today – Jesus charged the Pharisees with being only superficially spiritual; He said that they focused only on presenting a shiny religious veneer to others rather than working on making their heart beat in tune with the heart of God – which is the true calling of all human beings – the true calling of all who were made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus first told the crowds, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Peter, on behalf of the disciples, asked for an explanation of that. Jesus replied, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intensions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander…these are what defile a person.”

Yet, as Jesus later told the Pharisees, they ignored these things and, instead, were all about their little, societal peccadillos. He told them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and [you] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: [things like] JUSTICE, AND MERCY AND FAITH.” Instead, Christ revealed, the Pharisees – like all human beings who have the temptation to lift themselves up over others, to prove themselves winners and all others losers in life – the Pharisees, Christ revealed, place “heavy burdens, hard to bear” spiritually, on others – “laying” the burden of unnecessary religious laws “on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds,” Jesus added, “to be seen by others; they make the phylacteries [on their robes] broad and the fringes [on their robes] long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats at the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in all the marketplaces and to have people call them rabbi.”

I’m going into this in some detail because I think what Jesus says here happens nowadays as well as back then. Though we do not, like back then, live in a theocracy, we DO have one important thing in common with this past: we live in a highly competitive, “win or lose” system; Jesus is pointing out that the Pharisees are selfishly using the system at hand to make themselves winners and everyone else losers. According to research done about that time period, we know that the Pharisees’ criticism of others – how they put others down – was unfair. The Pharisees had both the time and the training to follow these miniscule rules; the common working man and woman did not. It was not a level playing field. But through Jesus, God would level the playing field again.

How did Jesus do this? By both revealing how everyone is equally a sinner, and also how everyone is equally, through the cross and the resurrection, saved…and free now to make equal use of by the Holy Spirit in this life before they enter eternal life. For Jesus, there should be no winners and losers in all the most important things in life. The Pharisees, like all of us sinful humans in general, were seeking to create and sustain a system whereby they could receive high status without being seen as selfish. Jesus revealed their selfish motives.

The Apostle Paul, in our first lesson today, is a former Pharisee who realized that he had been caught up in this terrible system, and that only Christ could help him escape it in order to become a REAL and LOVING instrument in God’s hands – just as God had originally intended for Paul and all the rest of us! Paul, too, realized that the first battleground for REAL faith is in the heart. In a passage just before our lesson Paul told the Romans, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord AND…AND…believe in your HEART…you will be saved.” For, as Jesus knew, Paul points out next that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek [no winners and losers based on outward appearance]; the same Lord,” he wrote, “is Lord of all, and is generous to ALL who call on Him.”

Yet, as we see in the section of Paul’s letter to the Romans today, just as Jews used to look down on Gentiles – winners over losers – now Paul confronted the opposite but similar problem of Gentile Christians looking down on Jews – a new set of winners and losers. In a section of the Bible that, if the church in Germany had amplified and stood by the following verses in Germany at the time, the church might have defeated the Nazi’s persecution of Jews, Paul told the newly converted but still prideful Gentiles today in Romans, “Do not boast [over your salvation.] Remember that it is not you [Gentiles] that support the [Jewish] root, but the [Jewish root that] supports you [Gentile branches of the Christian plant]. You [Gentiles] will say, ‘[Jewish] branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in, but you [Gentiles] stand only through [the gift] of faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” He means, “stand in awe” of the grace of God shown to you. Be humble. Do not declare yourself a winner among losers. That’s true for all of us.

Later in our passage today Paul will show that all people are declared losers by God in order that God can lift all people up equally as winners through God’s grace and faith. Paul writes, “And so all Israel will [one day] be saved…God has imprisoned all in disobedience [which I take to mean revealed to all people their sinful disobedience] so that God may be merciful to all.”

You may take that as an “of course,” but reflect for a few moments, as we go deeper with this. Remember always that there’s the flesh within us, the sinful flesh (in mind and body) that largely rules us even as we fight it with the Gospel and fight it by serving in the Spirit…the flesh within each of us which makes us strive always for recognition…which makes us strive always to be “in the room where it happens” as the character of Burr sings in the hit musical “Hamilton”…that strives always to see life only through OUR eyes…for we are, in our sinfulness, always the star of our own show, every day.

One of our modern sayings is that something is a “win-win” situation. We often point out that something is a “win-win” situation because that’s an unusual circumstance. You see we’ve been taught to believe by society that most everything is a “win-lose” situation. The fancy way to say that is that most situations are “zero-sum” situations, where, if one person gets something, another person has lost that thing…where one person gets more, and therefore another person gets less…and so, the assumption is that we are all competing with each other for things, for status, for attention, for many things, because these rewards come from one person getting more of the pie pieces than someone else…and the assumption is also that the pie itself never gets bigger.

Going back to our gospel passage, we can see that Jesus objected to the Pharisees manipulating the law to get a bigger piece of the religious pie. When Paul, early in life, was a Pharisee, he and other Pharisees were alarmed at the growth of this new Christian faith, so Paul went out and arrested and got killed many of these Christians in order to eliminate them as competition for the religious pie. We win, you lose. Later, as he felt guilt about killing Christians, he realized just how wrong he was – wrong about what he as a Pharisee was doing, wrong about life in general, and especially how wrong he was about God, whom Paul later found to be a God who delights in creating something out of nothing – all the time! He wrote earlier to the Romans: “For this reason, [life] depends on faith, in order that [God’s] promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to ALL God’s descendants, not only to the adherents of the Law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham…[so we stand] in the presence of the God in whom Abraham believed, who gives life to the dead and who calls into existence the things that do not exist.” That’s always creating a bigger pie. Now THAT’S a VERY generous God! No WONDER Jesus saw those starving 5,000 men plus women and children and said, “Okay, sit down, and let’s eat supper!” making something from almost nothing, from those five loaves and two fish. Jesus knows that Life is NOT a “zero-sum” game; that life with God is NEVER about winners and losers.

The world and the devil try to make it about winning and losing. If we think that life is always a “zero-sum” game – that life is like a sports competition – than I ask you to think about any successful relationships you have been in where a deeper love has prevailed – where your relationship is more about unconditional love than “I scratch your back if you scratch mine” and vice versa. If we live GOD’S way, in a NON “zero sum game,” we will live out the kingdom of God – a kingdom Jesus once described as one in which God “pays” workers in His vineyard the same whether they worked eight hours in His vineyard or just got hired near the end and worked just one hour. In that parable of the kingdom those who worked and labored the whole long day got angry and said to the vineyard owner – the God-figure – “These who only worked one hour – you have made them EQUAL to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner replied, “Friends, I am doing you know wrong; did you not agree with Me for the usual daily wage?…Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to Me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Let us take this message of grace – of a different way to live, God’s generous way to live – a grace that saves us and can save all people – let us take this message to heart and, from our hearts, pour out a generous spirit of loving service for others – a generous spirit that we know – because it comes from God – will NEVER run out! May we know that we will never be a loser if we put others first, never a loser if we put our efforts into seeking to understand others instead of seeking to be understood by them, never a loser to assume our enemies can be our friends…helping God create what the world thinks of as nothing…into something…creating another part of God’s Kingdom…God’s kingdom where all win…God’s kingdom of unconditional love. Amen!

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