Sunday, 16 February 2020

Now Wash Your Hands Please

Bloomsbury 16th February 2020

Mark 7.1-23

I’ve recently started reading Bill Bryson’s latest book,

            The Body: A Guide for Occupants,

            and I highly recommend it.

In his chapter on ‘skin’ he talks about the importance of washing your hands,

            and I thought some short quotes from the book

                        might be an interesting place to start our engagement this morning

            with Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees

                        on the significance, or not, of washing your hands.

Bill Bryson writes:

To make one’s hands safely clean after a medical examination

            requires thorough washing with soap and water for at least a full minute

                        – a standard that is, in practical terms, all but unattainable

                        for anyone dealing with lots of patients.

It is a big part of the reason why every year

            some two million Americans pick up a serious infection in the hospital

            (and 90,000 of them die of it).

‘The greatest difficulty,’ Atul Gawande has written,

            ‘is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing

            that consistently halts the spread of infections:

                        wash our hands.’

(Bryson, Bill. The Body, p. 24).

A little bit later in the book he tells the story

            of an unfortunate woman known as Typhoid Mary,

who was a symptomless carrier of Typhoid

            working as a cook in a number of wealthy houses

            in New York City in the early twentieth century.


She was personally responsible for at least fifty-three cases of typhoid

            and three confirmed deaths, but possibly many more.

The particular tragedy of it

            is that she could have spared her unfortunate victims

            if she had just washed her hands before handling food.

(Bryson, Bill. The Body, p. 327).

Bill Bryson also tells the story of the discovery

            of how to eliminate the horrifically fatal disease known as ‘Childbed Fever’

                        which swept through Europe in waves

                        from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries,

            often killing 90% of the young mothers it infected.

He says,

In 1847, a medical instructor in Vienna …

            realized that if doctors washed their hands

                        before conducting intimate examinations

            the disease all but vanished.

‘God knows the number of women

            whom I have consigned prematurely to the grave,’

he wrote despairingly when he realized it was all a matter of hygiene.

Unfortunately, no one at all listened to him…

            [and Childbed Fever] continued to be a problem

            for far longer than it need have.

Into the 1930s it was responsible for four out of every ten

            maternal hospital deaths in Europe and America.

(Bryson, Bill. The Body, p. 296)

Even today, the main defence against MRSA infection in hospitals,

            which results in an estimated 700,000 deaths every year worldwide,

            is an insistence on careful hand hygiene.

All of which leads me to conclude

            that the Pharisees may have had a point.

After all, here at Bloomsbury we insist

            that those who volunteer in our church kitchen

                        are trained in Food Safety and Hygiene,

            and a key part of that is washing your hands!

And if I were to say that I was going to serve communion later

            but hadn’t bothered washing my hands

            after I went to the toilet before the service,

I bet some of you at least would discover

            some hitherto unconfessed inner sin

that required you to abstain

            from partaking in the bread and wine this week.

And don’t worry, by the way:

            I certainly did wash my hands!

But on the face of it, the Pharisees’ insistence

            on washing anything they bought from the market before they ate it,

and of washing their cups, pots and bronze kettles,

            as well as their hands,

            seems a perfectly sensible thing to do!

And it’s the same with many of the other food and cleanliness regulations

            that existed within ancient Jewish culture.

They may not have had an understanding of bacteria,

            but people had learned by trial and error

                        that, for example, undercooked shellfish could make you ill,

            and that not washing things spread disease.

So, why did Jesus allow his disciples

            to eat with defiled hands?

Why did Jesus choose to pick a fight

            on the issue of whether it’s a good idea to wash your hands

            before eating dinner?

And what on earth are we to make of this

            in the light of modern advice on food hygiene?

In order to understand what’s going on here

            with the disciples and the handwashing, or lack of it,

I think we can draw a helpful parallel

            with the methodology of Citizens UK.

Let me explain.

Most of you will know that Bloomsbury is a member of London Citizens

            - the community organising network

                        that draws together churches, mosques, synagogues,

                        schools, universities, and other community groups,

            to work together for greater justice in our city.

Some of you are coming to the Copperbox on the 21st April

            to join with 6,000 others from London Citizens

                        to put pressure on the candidates for the London Mayoral Election,

                                    on issues such as climate change, welcoming refugees,

                                    housing and homelessness, and the like.

            And by the way, if you want to come

                        but haven’t yet got your name down yet for a ticket

                        - please speak to me, or Helen, or Jess after the service.

However, this kind of big-show-of-strength,

            getting thousands of people together to demonstrate our collective power,

is the kind of thing we only do once every few years.

Most of the time, the work of London Citizens

            to bring about changes in culture and society

                        is done on a much smaller scale,

            using carefully thought-through and targeted symbolic actions.

An example of this we’ve all heard of

            is Martin Luther King and Rosa Parkes;

            both trained in exactly this kind of community organising strategy.

Rosa Parkes didn’t just wake up one morning

            and decide to sit in the wrong seat on a bus:

                        it was a carefully thought-through tactic,

                        to generate a response from the authorities

                                    and advance the civil rights struggle.

Sometimes you need a big show of strength,

            but sometimes you just need to sit in a different seat.

And Jesus allowing his disciples

            to ignore the ritual about handwashing

was exactly this:

            a carefully targeted and highly symbolic action,

            designed to provoke a response from the powerful Pharisees.

The thing is, that whilst the first century rituals about handwashing

            may have originated in perfectly sensible observations about disease control,

                        and whilst they certainly make good sense to us

                        from a contemporary hygiene perspective,

in the hands of the legalistic Pharisees

            they had become a tool to denote and control

            who was acceptable to God, and who wasn’t.

And this is because the language of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’

            had become transplanted

            from the physical world to the spiritual world.

So, whilst it might be perfectly acceptable

            to point out to someone that their hands are dirty

            and that they ought to wash them before eating dinner;

telling them that they are unclean in their soul

            and are therefore not welcome to the banquet of God’s kingdom

            is something else altogether.

In the thought-world of the Pharisees,

            the language of uncleanness had been taken to another level,

            and so they talked

                        not just of the cleanliness of a person’s hands,

                        but of the purity of a person’s soul.

And the thing is, I get it! And I’m sure you do too…

            It’s a natural use of language, isn’t it,

                        for us to say that we feel ‘dirty,’

            when what we mean is that we are experiencing shame,

                        perhaps as a result of our own sinful actions,

                        or because of wrong things others have done to us.

And more positively, there is something spiritually uplifting

            about washing, feeling clean, and spending time in water.

As many of you know, I go swimming quite a lot,

            and the sensation of being immersed in water,

                        and taking exercise whilst doing so,

            is something that I find brings me closer to God.

So, this pattern of using a metaphor drawn from our physical existence

            to speak of something we experience spiritually,

            is something we can all relate to.

But where it started to go wrong for the Pharisees,

            was that they fused the physical metaphor,

                        with the spiritual reality.

            they confused physical uncleanness

                        with spiritual defilement

So, rather than regarding washing before eating

            as a useful and sensible social function,

            passed down through tribal memory and learned behaviour,

it became in their minds

            a kind of status-symbol of spiritual suitability,

            an outward show of inner cleanliness.

And, as fundamentalist religious leaders

            have discovered time and again down the years,

            often to the great delight of the tabloid editors,

if the marker of your spirituality is an outward show of ritual purity,

            the danger is that it gets easier and easier to fake it,

keeping up the show on the outside

            whilst allowing the spiritual core to degenerate

            into hypocrisy and duplicity.

More than one religious leader has fallen from grace

            whist keeping up appearances.

So Jesus allowed his disciples to rattle the Pharisees’ cage,

            by skipping their washing before a meal,

and it certainly worked!

If he was aiming for a response,

            he got one.

But the way the Pharisees responded Jesus is interesting,

            because they didn’t go,

                        ‘Ew - their hands are dirty, that’s gross!

                        Go and wash them!’

Rather, they said,

            ‘Why do your disciples not live

                        according to the tradition of the elders,

            but eat with defiled hands?’

And here we get our first key insight

            into what is going on in the Pharisees’ minds.

For them, this isn’t about cleanliness being next to godliness,

            rather, this is about the tradition of the elders.

There were two kinds of Law, or Torah, at the time of Jesus.

            There was the written law:

                        the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and so on;

            and there was the oral law:

                        the traditions of the elders.

The written law doesn’t say much about the importance of ritual washing;

            it just suggests that if someone has an unusually coloured discharge

            they should wash themselves and their clothes, (Lev. 15.11-14; cf. Ps 26.6).

But the traditions of the elders are full of it,

            listing all kinds of regulations, which take the physical action of washing,

            and make it a spiritual marker of purity.

So what Jesus allowed his disciples to do,

            which so scandalised the Pharisees,

was to act in a way that challenged the authority of the oral law.

And the clever thing here,

            is that the disciples aren’t breaking the written law at all,

only the traditions of the elders

            that sustained the Pharisees in their never-ending quest

            to erect liturgical markers around the faith-boundary of their identity.

And here I find myself wondering,

            what symbolic actions we.

                        who are the disciples of Jesus in our time,

            might be called to that will similarly challenge the hypocrisy

                        of those with a vested interest in keeping some in, and some out…?

I found an interesting observation in one of the commentaries I read

            as I was preparing for this morning.


It says,

If a society feels under threat,

            it will reinforce its purity codes

as a way of insisting to itself,

            that it is really what it should be.’[1]

And I wonder what our purity codes are?

            Language? Ethnicity? Nationalism?

            Militarism? Neoliberalism?


As an extreme example of something far more insidious,

            did you see the story of the ‘Happy BREXIT Day’ notices

            pinned up on every floor of a tower block in Norwich,

The signs say:

            "We finally have our great country back...

            we do not tolerate people speaking

            other languages than English in the flats."[2]

Thankfully, this hateful act was swiftly followed

            by people putting up love hearts

            with messages of solidarity, love, and welcome.[3]

But of course the use of language

            as a boundary marker of identity, has a long history:

                        where something as positive and natural

                        as the words we learned from our parents,

            are taken and used to create a culture of fear and suspicion.

You only have to read about the English suppression of the Welsh language

            for a clear example of this in action in the history of the United Kingdom.

And this is one of the reasons I’m so excited that Bloomsbury is playing a part

            in the welcoming of the two Syrian refugee sisters to the West End.

Community Sponsorship of refugees

            is a creative way of challenging the cultural boundaries

            that keep people apart, isolated, and suppressed.

Any narrative of nationalism

            that is sustained by purity markers of language or controlled behaviour,

is, it seems to me, exactly the kind of thing

            that Jesus’ disciples should be subverting.

And whilst the Coronavirus is reminding us, at great and tragic cost,

            that there is an entirely appropriate reason

            to be concerned about washing one’s hands regularly,

the incidences of racist abuse perpetrated against Chinese and other Asian people

            in London over the last couple of weeks[4]

is a further example of how easily a proper concern about cleanliness,

            can spill over into abusive acts of spiritual or ideological purity.

The philosophical belief that underlies all of this

            is the teaching of Plato,

            the Greek philosopher who lived about 400 years before Jesus.

Plato said that world was divided into two realms,

            the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

And he believed that the physical realm that we all live in,

            is merely a poor shadow of the true perfection that can be found

            in the spiritual world beyond this one.

This philosophy came to be known as dualism,

            and it spread through the ancient world

            as the Greek empire expanded under Alexander the Great.

It’s influence can clearly be seen in the Pharisees’ teaching

            that the physical world of ritual washing and other observances

            was a reflection of the spiritual state of a person’s soul.

So Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees’ ideology of exclusion

            based on their fusion of physical and spiritual cleanliness,

was actually also a challenge against the underlying philosophical mind-set

            that gave power to their teaching.

In the simple act of allowing his disciples to not wash their hands,

            Jesus was taking on not just the Pharisees,

            but the entire edifice of Greek Philosophy!

Up until this point in the gospel,

            Jesus has been casting unclean spirits out of people.

But in the symbolic action of resisting the ritual of handwashing,

            he makes clear his wider agenda

            of casting spirits of uncleanness out of the world.

The new world, the new kingdom, that Jesus is proclaiming,

            and which he invites his disciples to live into being,

is not going to be somewhere

            where people feel shame for who they are,

nor is it to be a place

            where people’s souls are rendered unclean or dirty,

                        either because of things they have done,

                        or for things which have been done to them.

The new world of the kingdom of heaven

            is not a world of ideological quarantine,

                        spiritual decontamination chambers,

                                    or ritualised holding cells.

It is not a world where the whispered traditions of the elders

            get to codify laws that exclude or isolate the vulnerable or the different.

And so Jesus bites back at the Pharisees

            with his slightly strange tirade about ‘Corban’ law.

That’s ‘Corban’, not ‘Corbyn’!

Because the Pharisees, for all their outward displays of purity,

            were using their ritual observance

            as an excuse to escape from their moral obligation.

And Jesus’ point was that purity of motive

            always trumps purity of action.

It’s not that what we do doesn’t matter, of course,

            our actions are very, very important.

But right action stems from right motive,

            and the Pharisees had been getting this round the wrong way.

If the focus is on outward purity,

            the heart can rot away leaving a hollow shell.

But if the heart is right before God,

            the actions that come from it will be a blessing and not a curse.

So in a minute we’re going to come to the Communion Table,

            and share in the bread and wine

that are for us the symbol and sign

            of the new kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming.

And as we come to the Table,

            I want us to notice a few things.

Firstly, all are welcome.

            In our tradition we do not fence the table,

            but rather we invite everyone to share in the food.

Secondly, I don’t really care if you’ve washed your hands.

            Partly, it’s because the bread is already cut, and we use little cups,

                        so the risk of passing on your cold are quite low,

            but the deeper point is that there is no ritual we need to observe

                        in order to be spiritually clean before God.

Thirdly, we are forgiven,

            whatever we’ve done, or whatever has been done to us,

            whatever shame we carry, however dirty we feel,

            we are forgiven, and welcomed by God.

And finally, we are called to a new basis for our discipleship,

            where the focus is not

                        on doing the right things for their own sake,

            but rather on responding faithfully

                        to the renewal of our hearts

                        by the love of God.