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A boy with dirty hands

August 29, 2015

When I was a little boy I loved getting dirty. Well to be truthful I loved playing all sorts of outside games that made me filthy (I still do!). I loved racing along our road on my bike and throwing myself off onto the grass at the end, usually playing Kung Fu or Cowboys and Indians with my friends. I loved vanishing off into the woods for hours, or playing in the muddy stream, or digging around in the back garden. One way or another I must have been a nightmare for my Mam.

I would be out playing then the call would go out, ‘Tea’s ready’ and I dash home to eat – I was already ready for food! But there was something that my Mam always did that I never really appreciated at the time – she would always make me wash before eating: Face and hands had to be clean before sitting down. All my friends were the same – we had to wash before eating. 

When I read the story of Jesus with the Pharisees from Mark 7 it brought these memories flooding back.

Some Pharisees and several teachers of the Law of Moses from Jerusalem came and gathered around Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples ate without first washing their hands. The Pharisees and teachers asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples obey what our ancestors taught us to do? Why do they eat without washing their hands?” (Mark 7.1,2 & 5 (CEV))

When I read that again I thought, “they’ve got a point”. You don’t eat with dirty hands. Then when Jesus started to argue with them about it, I started to side with the Pharisees. At least my adult self did, the little boy still wants to eat with muddy hands! It seems perfectly reasonable to expect people to wash their hands before sitting down to eat, it’s healthy it’s good manners.

Then I stopped to really listen to what Jesus was saying (always a good idea). There was more to all this washing than just having clean hands. We don’t know whether or not the disciples had clean hands – that wasn’t what the Pharisees were complaining about. The Pharisees were complaining that the disciples hadn’t undergone the elaborate ritual washing that Jewish tradition said made them ritually clean. Tradition said that they shouldn’t eat without being ritually clean. Not going through this fancy ritual would have been bad enough for any Jew, but for the followers of a big shot rabbi it was unthinkable!

There was more to all this washing and there was far more to Jesus’ anger. All these rules where fine if you were rich enough to have the time and money to follow them. But they left the poor out in the cold. It left them feeling second class in God’s sight because they just couldn’t do all that the Pharisees did. What the Pharisees were really doing was taking Godliness out of the reach of the ordinary people and Jesus takes it right back!

Jesus leaves them in no doubt about what he thinks of them:

Jesus replied: You are nothing but show-offs! The prophet Isaiah was right when he wrote that God had said, “All of you praise me with your words, but you never really think about me. It is useless for you to worship me, when you teach rules made up by humans.” You disobey God’s commands in order to obey what humans have taught… Jesus called the crowd together again and said, “Pay attention and try to understand what I mean. The food that you put into your mouth doesn’t make you unclean and unfit to worship God.” … Out of your heart come evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, unfaithfulness in marriage, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride, and foolishness. All of these come from your heart, and they are what make you unfit to worship God. (Mark 7.6-8, 14, 15 & 21 – 23 (CEV))

So what about today? Well Jesus’ teaching is just as relevant. Only it is us religious people that are in danger of being the Pharisees. The message is simple, God’s kingdom is here so turn to Jesus, turn your life around, love God and the people around you. There’s nothing about what hymns we have to sing. There’s nothing about what prayers we have to say, or what words to say when we re-enact his Last Supper. Jesus didn’t give any rules about who can do what in church. So much of what we do as Christians is down to human rules. Often good rules but human rules none-the-less.

This message is far harder to live by than it seems. Just think, I may attract new people to Jesus but my precious church rules mean nothing to them. That might change but it might not. I need to act in love and care and share the Good News of Jesus, and leave the rest to Jesus and the power of the Spirit. I need to accept that the Church here could be thriving but the building may stay empty. I hope not but I’m not the boss. I’m not the head of this family, I’m just a son and I want to be a faithful son.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not thinking of ditching all human rules about religion. For one thing, we need structure for our life, it’s a human need so it wouldn’t take long for us to invent a whole load more to take their place. No, I’m not calling for human rules to be ditched, I’m simply trying to listen to Jesus; trying to understand what he would say today. I think Jesus’ message would be the same as it was then: remember they’re human rules not God’s rules, use them to help you be more like God, but never ever let them get in the way of someone coming close to God.

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